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Thursday, October 02, 2008

On Luck and Effort

Driving into work this morning, I found myself ridiculously annoyed at a radio commercial marketing a packet on study skills. The ad said, "Do you wish you were one of those lucky parents whose child gets good grades?" Sitting in traffic, I mulled this over, and came to the conclusion that my good grades (and my sister's, and my brother's) had nothing to do with mom and dad's "luck." It had to do with - - brace yourself - - good old fashioned hard work. (Okay, and the threat of an ass-whupping if we didn't make the grade.)


Now, naturally, some children are better at school than others. I was one of the lucky ones - I'm simply a good test taker. My sister was not so lucky - she had to work her ass off for her good grades. My brother fell somewhere in between. But it was still not a matter of my parents being "lucky." My parents worked their asses off - we were mid-to-lower middle class on Long Island. We never went on family vacations, because those funds were spent on nutritious food (we never had fast food) and school supplies. My parents were a constant presence, asking what we had done in school that day, peering over our shoulders as we did our homework. Our questions were never just answered, since Mom's answer of first resort was always "Look it up" or "check the index," and it was made very clear that just as my parents had to go to work to support the family, the hours we spent in school each day should be considered a similar sort of 'work,' and it was our responsibility to get it done well.


Neither of my parents went to college. Mom started, but dropped out when she got married. My dad went to trade school - he was an electrician. Dad rarely helped with homework because he worked such long hours, early and late, but he was a great help when it came to learning circuits in high school physics. Mostly, though, the way we got good grades was knowing that much as our parents had jobs, school was *our* job as children. My parents made it clear that non-performance wasn't an option, though there were different avenues for help if we needed them, such as tutors or extra books. This is to say, it's not like we were brought up in the Ivory Tower, though I merrily reside there now. We are regular folk, swinging between hard-put and okay in the middle class.


The idea that "luck" is the reason kids succeed is a dangerous one. It implies that there's no responsibility necessary, no labor-intensive oversight, and it's selling a product that allows parents to abdicate responsibility. Per a recent conversation with a good friend on this advertisement, I laughed out loud when she said, "Give kids good genes and educate them. That's not luck. If you have a fetal alcohol baby and don't buy them books, what do you expect?"


All kidding aside, though, it isn't luck. It a matter of time and diligence. Framing the discourse on student achievement as a matter of luck cheapens the work done by many parents and educators, and cheapens the student's own effort. It is not a matter of "luck" when a new college student succeeds or fails - it is usually a direct correspondence to how much work the student has put in and what sort of a support system the education system and their parents or home life have provided them. "Luck" has no place in education - let's leave it to the leprechauns and lottery folks, and recognize that work is what it takes to succeed.


Edit/Late Addition: I would argue the same goes for our work in LibraryLand, too.

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