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LOW-EFFORT SYNDROME?


by Faith Breen
(Professor, Business Management))

I have always appreciated the insights provided by William Raspberry, a writer at The Washington Post. Mr. Raspberry recently wrote an article entitled, "A Gap That Won't Go Away on Its Own." I was particularly intrigued by the following section:

John Ogbu, who died in August, focused on a problem that in many ways is more puzzling: the consistent underachievement of black children in affluent suburbs.

His specific focus was Shaker Heights, Ohio, where black parents asked him to find out why their middle-class children were lagging behind their white counterparts.

Shaker's black children, he found out right away, outstrip black children everywhere else in the stateóand in much of the nation. Indeed, many of their families moved to Shaker Heights specifically for its schools. They wanted their children to have an excellent education. But the gap between them and their white schoolmates is significantóand dismaying. White kids predominate in advanced placement and honors courses. Black children, who gravitate to the easier "general education" and "college prep" courses, nonetheless racked up 80 percent of the Ds and Fs.

Like the Thernstroms, Ogbu and his researchers ran through the usual suspects: low teacher expectations, prejudiced personnel, the distractions of race. Like the Thernstroms, he thought many of them had some effect on achievement.

But he found something else that must have surprised him. The black students were quite open in telling the researchers that, in general, their white classmates studied more, worked harder and cared more about getting good grades.

ĎIn spite of the fact that the students knew and asserted that one had to work hard to succeed in Shaker schools, black students did not generally work hard. In fact, most appeared to be characterized by the low-effort syndrome. . . . [They] were not highly engaged in their schoolwork and homework.í And their parents and communities, wittingly or not, support them in this nonengagement. (Emphasis added)

Since I am teaching an upper-level course on managing diversity in the workforce and had just completed a discussion on the relationship between education/income/career opportunities, and since our county is very affluent, I was interested in learning about how my students would respond to the concept of "low-effort syndrome." This was not a scientific study; I posted the article onto my Blackboard site and had my students respond in the Discussion Board. I estimate that 92% of these students are African-American. Out of 24 students, 17, or 71%, responded. Of the 17 students, 5, or 39%, were male, and 12, or 71%, female. I found that their comments fell into four broad categories (see the following table):

Category Number of Respondents *
1.  Parental/family involvement 11
2.  Black culture & attitudes 5
3.  Teacher & other social institutions 3
4.  Lack of personal responsibility 2
*  Some students made multiple comments.

The need for increased parental involvement was by far the most significant response. For example, students wrote (Editorís note: the following bulleted lists are direct quotes):

  • I think the gap is not going away because of the parentsĖit has to start at home
  • I think the reason the "gap" wonít go away is largely due to the low-effort syndrome. A lot of parents donít push or encourage their children to succeed in school. Sure they say they want their child to do well, but they donít follow up behind them and make sure they are doing their homework, completing assignments and studying for tests
  • I think the Gap is not going away because of the variety of different upbringing that our children are experiencing. There are a lot of children who are being raised by a single parent or even by other family members, such as Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles. Some children are even raising themselves. Therefore, many children are lacking the motivation that they would otherwise have to complete their education
  •  

With regard to the second category, Black culture and attitudes, students shared:

  • I think that the Gap Wonít Go Away because a lot of kids donít care anymore. A lot of them just lost interest in school, and can care less about what their grade point average is, or their final grade in English. They donít think itís that big of a deal. Kids are dropping out of high school at a very fast pace because they feel that they can get by without it. They worry more about now, instead of 5-10 years from now.
  • I believe that the gap won't away for a few reasons. The first being that black children are now seeing alternate means of making money ( and alot of it) that does not necessarily have anything to do with their education. It has to do with their "skills". For example sports, rapping/singing and trade skillsÖA young black child, especially males are now seeing an age where he can potentially go directly to the NBA without college. They are now seeing that persistance and talent can get them into the "superstardom" category via means like "Making the band". They can also see manual labor as a means of making money such as construction.
  • lot of black parents push their children towards sports and fail to push them toward good grades. I am not saying that this is the case for all black parents, but for a lot of them.
  • Parents need to push their kids that school is important that they need the teachings to beter themselves in life. The reason they are materialistic is because when they turn on the TV all they see is black people with all the riches and ladies they have. So as kids you see that you want that to

 The third category regarding teachers and social institutions was less prominent; however, since we are in the process of becoming a "learning-centered institution," it may be worthwhile to reflect upon these insights:

  • I think there is no one reason the gap wont go away, it is a combination of a lot of things. I think parents donít press school as an issue so much anymore as the parents in the olden days. I also think that the way many of our public school systems are either the teachers donít care any more cause they are so underpaid or the fact that the kids are getting to out of control. If the teachers dont care then the students certainly wont care.
  • Back in the olden days, the majority known to be Native Americans had it all. They invested in their children's education, while the black man had to face "Survival of the fittest". Things have never been easy for blacks. We are considered minority and "inferior" to caucatians. It has always been the belief that blacks are no good and they cann't get anywhere in life. As a result, we have grown to adapt to this. Until we see our selves as superior beings and capable of making success, the gap won't go away. Now is the time to brush of the impacts of history and move on and not play the fool and then that gap that seems impossible of vanishing, would be closed up.
  • Parents feel that sending their kids to school is enough and the teacher is suppose to do the rest. This is not so we as parents have to enforce and stay on top of what our kids are doing in school.

The previous three categories reflected an external locus of control in which the external factors of parents, educators, and society determined student achievement. The fourth category reflects a willingness to accept personal responsibility and acknowledges the need for an internal locus of control:

  • I believe for the gap to go away, the kids need to really buckle down and work hard, and to stop blaming things on socity and race. Where the kids in the article admit that the reason that they aren't getting good grades is their own fault is the first step. Now they need to study hard, and their parents need to push them, but not too hard or their parents will make them hate school.
  • We need to do whatever it takes to put us on an even level, ie, studing harder, studing longing, seeking more or better education, whatever it takes to make the gap disappear.
  • I feel though that despite what the kids may think others feel about them they have to come to realize that they can not care about what other say and do their best. That's the bottom line.

I am honored that my students would share their insights with their classmates and me. I feel they have both communicated and raised some very disturbing issues. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that none of my students seem to dismiss or question the existence of a "low-effort syndrome."

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 1

Fall 2003