A pair of new government-sponsored studies tell us what we already know: that students who believe in hard work, are religiously active and have parents and friends who encourage these values tend to do better in school than those who do not.
But they also tell us something that many of us have trouble accepting: that the values commonly known as the "Protestant work ethic" work for minority and low- income children as well as children of affluence. Indeed, the researchers found that values have twice as much impact on academic success as family background.
That finding so supports the preachments of Secretary of Education William Bennett, whose department commissioned the studies, that the temptation is to conclude that the studies were designed to prove his point. In fact, the researchers say, the studies were under way before Bennett started extolling the importance of traditional values. The wonder is not that the researchers -- Alan L. Ginsburg of the Department of Education and Sandra L. Hanson of Decision Resources Corp. -- reached such unsurprising conclusions. The wonder is that such common- sense conclusions have eluded so many public educators.
Every major newspaper has carried stories of Asian children who arrived here with no money, little schooling and hardly any English and who quickly became academic leaders in their schools. The stories almost always explain the phenomenon in terms of deeply held values: hard work, respect for learning (and for teachers) and parents who lay great stress on academic achievement.
But somehow the public schools have been reluctant, in recent years, to work at instilling those values in our children. The schools from time to time have taught about values. But they have been shy about teaching the values themselves: the self-evident importance of hard work, dedication to task, reliability, discipline, long-sightedness and basic morality. Maybe it's because of a fear that these things somehow amount to unconstitutional religious instruction.
It is a disastrous mistake. Giving young people -- including young people from disadvantaged households -- a solid grounding in the basic values may be more helpful than the best of the remediation courses in helping them to achieve academic success.
The best way to do that is to create an environment in which these values obtain: at school as well as at home. One of the great advantages private schools have over public ones is that the former have no compunctions about teaching values quite directly. But it is also true that the best of the public schools, including those public schools that regularly produce academic winners in unlikely circumstances, are led by principals who refuse to allow poverty and racism to become excuses for neglecting the basic values.
The two new studies do not suggest -- and I certainly don't -- that values training can, by itself, eliminate the negative effects of hunger, social disorganization and racial discrimination. And I, for one, find it discouraging that Bennett preaches his values sermons while serving an administration that seems hell-bent on putting the government on the wrong side of the war against poverty and racism.
But values do matter, in education and in life. As the authors put it: "Encouragement of positive values is essential for higher achievement. Remediation alone does not foster high aspirations to achieve educational excellence. If disadvantaged students are to believe that they can succeed outside school, they must be challenged to achieve success in school."