Publication Date

August 1988


American high school students devote much less time and energy to their studies than the students of other nations. The cause of the lack of motivation is the lack of rewards for studying hard and for taking rigorous courses. This occurs for four reasons. First, the u.S. economy fails to give academic achievement its due reward in the labor market and rewards instead credentials that signify time spent, rather than competencies acquired. In most other countries credentials are more closely related to competencies obtained, so school achievement is a more important determinants of prestige and income as an adult than they are in the U.S.

The second cause is the zero sum nature of academic competition and resulting peer pressure against studying hard. The most important signals of one's achievement--rank in class and GPA--are indicators of one's ranking relative to close friends not measures of performance on an absolute scale in the way a scout merit badge is. Since studying hard makes things worse for friends, the peer group pressures everyone to take it easy.

The third reason is the almost total absence of school sponsored recognition of the academic achievements of students who are not at the very top of their class. Most students learn very early that they have no realistic chance of getting one of these prizes and their reaction is often to denigrate both the reward and the achievement it honors and to honor instead other forms of achievement --ego athletics, being cool, being popular--which offer them better chances of success.

The fourth reason is the admissions criteria of the nation's better colleges and universities. In the United States these decisions are based almost entirely on (a) scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a test which does not assess achievement in the science, history and math courses taken in high school and (b) high school class rank and GPA, a criterion that generates zero sum competition among classmates. In Japan and most of Europe, admission to the better universities and into the most selective programs of study are based largely on the student's performance on a battery of achievement exams taken at the end of secondary school (eg. "A" levels in the UK and the Baccalaureate in France).

The paper conclude with a discussion of a variety of reforms that will strengthen incentives to study and generate parental pressure on local school administrators for higher standards and better teaching.


Suggested Citation
Bishop, J. (1988). The motivation problem in American high schools (CAHRS Working Paper #88-13). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.