Guest Column

Has the Student Work Ethic Lost Its Way?


There is a lot of talk lately about 21st-century skills. The ability to communicate, work with figures, take advantage of technology, analyze data and work as a member of a team are key components of those skills.

But let’s not overlook the important prerequisite to all of these things: work ethic.

I think it is safe to say that 13 years of school is a reasonable opportunity to start building a lifetime work ethic. Students learn what commitment to themselves is, how hard work leads to accomplishments, and that merit has both personal and external rewards. A reputation for hard work and dedication travels. It is also true that word gets around about those who are known for substandard work. We all want to know who we can count on, who gets things done and done well. Businesses and higher education institutions are looking for them. They are the people who will succeed at whatever they do.

Work ethic is rooted in good attendance. Just showing up and putting in an honest effort is a basic part of the concept. Yet, arriving at school late and leaving early, or not attending at all, seem to be gaining ground as typical student behavior. Kids tend to view any excuse to miss school as acceptable. Many return to school with notes from their parents asking that the absences or late starts not be held against them.

This permissive attitude has become so common that when parents and students are confronted about it by educators, they respond with disbelief and even anger.
A record of good attendance is no longer a universally shared value.

Interestingly, a tough attendance policy with consequences does not seem to be a deterrent for students who are inclined to have poor attendance. On the contrary, when they reach the point of losing credit for a class, the students and their parents arrive at a meeting with the attendance committee to argue strenuously how unfair it is for them to lose credit. Then they seek to reclaim their right to a class despite all of the forewarnings, opportunities and appeals to make up missed classes.
I am confounded by the student who keeps close track of absences right up to the point of losing credit and makes up the time only to resume the countdown of absences to the brink of credit loss.

Blind Impact
Indifference about attendance is not limited to low-performing students. Some better-than-average students who choose electives to acquire more credits toward graduation later withdraw from those courses. They quit because the work is either not what they expected, is too difficult or cuts into their leisure time. Neither they nor their parents realize the consequence of not fully committing to hard work ultimately leads to the elimination of course offerings available to students, particularly those who are college bound. Schools cannot continue to offer a course to a classroom of mostly empty seats.

The constant use of cell phones, perhaps symbolic of life made virtual by all technology, seems to compound the problem. It has a powerful pull on so many. From my office window, I see students leaving school early or arriving late texting and calling with practically every step they take. The need to stay connected at every moment trumps all other behavior.

There seems to be little grasp of the fact that commitment matters. Recently a local restaurant owner who hires students mentioned that when student employees are given a raise in pay, they often choose almost immediately to work fewer hours. Rather than bumping their earnings by continuing their original work schedule at the higher rate, they now can take home the same pay for fewer hours.

I have known too many bright students performing below their capacity who graduate with a ho-hum record of achievement. They stun me with their belief that a change in attitude will follow once they have finished high school. They insist they will succeed in college or the workplace because more is expected of them there. Their work ethic will kick in because it must. To them, it is that simple.

An Easier Life?
Shaping a good work ethic requires setting aside immediate gratification and accepting the idea that the means to an end is not always by a person’s own choosing. Gateway situations, such as high school, are building blocks for the future. Making the most of those situations is part of developing a strong work ethic, a consideration that escapes many of today’s students.

Two decades ago, any person involved in public policy — especially public education — couldn’t get through a discussion without hearing a now out-of-fashion mantra: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” The question then and now is how can we be sure the villagers (teachers, parents, community members and other role models) share the same values and beliefs? As a society, do we place enough emphasis on the connection between hard work, self-respect and achievement? Is working hard even valued?

Or is it simply that life is easier? Can it be that what we used to know as a good work ethic is evolving into something else owing to the influence of technology?

Patrick Gabriel Jr. is superintendent of Germantown Central School District in Germantown, N.Y. E-mail: