Education, Success Simply a Matter of Hard Work

During a recent conversation with public policy makers about the advantages of year-round education (not necessarily year-round schools), my thinking went almost immediately to traditional Asian rice farming, athletics and the process of teaching intelligence. All are connected.

Intelligence is the product of innate capacity and lots of high quality, hard work. University researchers have long triangulated on the educability of intelligence and will be happy to tell you about it if you can wake them up at the party. Essentially, the harder you work, the smarter you get. Most successful people have chosen to outwork those who are not.

In athletic endeavors, we have no trouble accepting the concept that the hardest workers with the best coaching are the predominant and perennial winners. At one of my schools, for example, swimmers used the pool on a 24/7 basis. This also carries over into careful dieting and weight training matched specifically to individual athletes and their sports. The most successful athletes are those who choose to outwork others.

So what does this have to do with year-round learning? As it turns out, everything.

Academic achievement is a function of quality time on task, not just seat time, and most students simply don’t get enough of it. The highest performing students in our schools are those whose quality learning time is extended beyond their peers’ by parents and/or others in their environments. Each year, they jump farther ahead of those in their age cohort because their learning is tied not to the 180-day school cycle, but is driven by and through their home environments on a nonstop basis. This is similar to athletes whose parents provide training and opportunities for skill development that extend well beyond recreation or the school-provided coaching. We often refer to these youngsters, at some point, as champions.

What is ironic to me is that lesser achieving peers and many adults fail to notice the weeks, months and years of committed and often lonely preparation that produced the visible-tip-of-the-iceberg winning performance. They missed the locker room banner about losers having excuses and winners having programs.

The above-mentioned researchers can also dig up piles of data showing that growth in student achievement during the actual school year is fairly consistent among socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups. The intergroup divergence, though, begins early and grows with age as the top echelon of achieving students and athletes climb the performance curve on a nonstop basis compared to their less aggressive peers. The latter pursue achievement on a part-time and often less serious basis.

There is also a very real regression effect brought on by long periods of off-task time, especially summer recesses. This is why federal law requires an extended school year for some students with disabilities. At least the first month of the school year for many students is spent in relearning and reconnecting to the prior year’s instructional stream. This is a little like paying for the same real estate twice.

So where does the rice farmer come in to this and what does he have to do with education?

Traditional Asian rice farming requires arduous, careful and very skilled work on the part of the farmer in order to achieve a high yield. This work is carried out meticulously from dawn to dusk on virtually every day of the year. Unlike traditional European farming that gave us our current school calendar, there is no down time between planting and harvesting. The work never stops.

Cultural values and expectations carried over into the American system of education usually result in families having not only higher expectation for their students, but the enforcement of longer periods of high quality effort and achievement, both during and outside the school year. They not only respect and revere education and educators, but assure the achievement of their progeny by enforcing a strong work ethic.

Even beyond this, there is a clear expectation to take on “high yield” fields of study and career pathways, eg., science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition to dominating the ranks of our highest achieving students, large numbers of university faculty and researchers in the STEM areas are made up of individuals of Asian descent. This is true, too, of others whose cultural values stress hard work and limited leisure as a template for success. Not innately more intelligent, they simply choose to do the work necessary to succeed at high levels.

Socio-economic situations are also a marker for success. Parents who have worked well beyond the norm to achieve success expect the same from their offspring and usually provide the environment and means for achievement opportunities beyond what is offered in the school calendar. When it comes to hard work, they get it, too.

The movement toward year-round learning (not necessarily year-round school) offers not only the opportunity to mitigate the limitations of the agrarian calendar, but with it many of our outmoded notions of learning that go with it.

As my sons frequently remind me, every day is an opportunity to get better. What’s our choice going to be?

Dr. Terry Wallace is a member of the graduate faculty at Muskingum University, a signatory of the Boston-based Time to Succeed Coalition and a Senior Fellow at Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.