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Sociologist Ties Poor Student Performance to Lack of Self-Discipline

By Alina Tugend — September 19, 1984 5 min read

Washington--The problems that many American students have learning such basic skills as reading and writing result mainly from “insufficient self-discipline ... [and] inadequate ability to mobilize self and to commit,” said a leading sociologist in a report released at a press conference here last week.

In “Self-Discipline, Schools, and the Business Community,” Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century, expressed the belief that “large parts of the present generation of Americans are psychically underdeveloped ... [and] have insufficient ability to control impulse, mobilize ego, and to be able to sustain the work ethic.”

Mr. Etzioni’s study was conducted for the National Chamber Founda-tion, an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States that has as its primary role the development of studies and analyses on “policy issues vital to the economy and the business community.”

Discipline’s ‘Pivotal Role’

The study’s main focus was on “the pivotal role of self-discipline” in education, according to the report.

“In their preoccupation with the cognitive,” Mr. Etzioni writes, “most parents and educators have ignored the importance to schooling of psychic development. It ought to be the first criterion we use in assessing schools: their contribution to the development of character or personality, to the formation of habits of thought and behavior that enable the student not only to acquire cognitive skills but also to act constructively in any situation.”

To support his hypothesis that the lack of intellectual self-discipline is the primary reason for educational failure, Mr. Etzioni relied on the data analysis of the sociologist James S. Coleman in the controversial 1980 study “High School Achievement--Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared.”

Coleman’s Conclusions

Based on his study of data from the federal government’s “High School and Beyond” study of 58,728 students in 1,016 private and public schools, Mr. Coleman concluded that students in both Catholic and other private schools achieve at a higher level than students of similar backgrounds in public schools.

According to Mr. Etzioni, the controversy surrounding the Coleman study “has tended to obscure the more important finding: that effective schools, whatever their ownership, had a structure that enables them, first, to maintain discipline, and, second, to uphold academicel5lstandards.” The single most important difference between more effective and less effective schools, writes Mr. Etzioni, is the disciplinary structure.

The Coleman data also showed, according to Mr. Etzioni, that “in schools with higher levels of achievement, discipline was not merely imposed, but by and large was accepted as legitimate--that is, the majority of the students perceived discipline not as a set of arbitrary dictates, but as worthy of their commitment.”

In seeking to interpret the meaning of the Coleman report’s findings for the “long-run improvement in school performance,” Mr. Etzioni analyzed four factors and their interrelationship: homework requirements, the effectiveness of discipline, the fairness of discipline, and the level of teacher interest--the fi-nal three as perceived by students.

Four Interrelated Factors

“Sociologically, these four factors represent varying dimensions of school discipline,” Mr. Etzioni writes. “If the disciplinary climate is seen as fair, students have, in social-psychological parlance, ‘internalized’ authority by recognizing it as legitimate.”

Mr. Etzioni then examined the degree to which these factors existed in five different types of schools included in the Coleman study: public, Catholic, other private, and high-performance public and private (those schools with the highest proportion of their graduating seniors listed as National Merit Scholarship semifinalists).

The data showed, according to Mr. Etzioni’s report, that high-performance private schools consistently ranked higher than all other schools in student scores on standarized achievement tests, followed by high-performance public schools, other private schools, Catholic schools, and other public schools.

High-Performance Schools

The survey then found that high- performance private schools outranked all other schools when mea-sured against the report’s four criteria, while public schools, except the high-performance ones, consistently measured the lowest. There were variations within the other three categories of schools--private, high- performance public, and Catholic.

Mr. Etzioni noted that although high-performance public schools were second only to high-performance private schools in achievement-test scores, they usually scored the same as or lower than all other private and Catholic schools when measured against the survey’s four dimensions of school discipline.

He suggested that the high test scores may be attributed to more comprehensive and rigorous course offerings and course requirements in high-performance public schools compared with other schools. However, Mr. Etzioni noted, Catholic and other private schools that offer weaker academic programs manage to compensate by employing discipline and teacher interest to boost student achievement.

But high-performance private schools outscore all other schools on achievement tests because they offer both academic rigor and a disciplinary climate that is seen by students to be “effective, involving, and legitimate,” he said.

Idea of Self-Discipline

Mr. Etzioni said the purpose of the National Chamber Foundation study was simply to “inject the idea of self-discipline into the education debate.”

“Educating must precede teaching,” according to the report. “It is not enough to offer the basic skills without the psychological underpinnings. If a young person does not develop the capacity to apply himself to a task, then all other things will not work.”

“Self-discipline must be taught in the cafeteria, in the parking lots, on field trips,” he writes. “It must be taught at as young an age as possible, and at every occasion possible.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as Sociologist Ties Poor Student Performance to Lack of Self-Discipline