Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

The three ‘musts’ for good education: personal responsibility, motivation, and discipline

Several years ago, my son took an AP U.S. history course in high school; I was helping him with it, in the process learning a lot myself. But I was surprised that my son, who had had all A’s for 10 years, including multiple years of studying so-called social studies, knew so little about history, the world, politics, etc. In fact, they had never gotten past the Civil War times and only once ventured outside of America.

Not long ago America was the world leader in education — but not anymore. Colleges now have to provide remedial courses to almost half of their students while school and college grades are constantly inflated. In 2014, the National Center of Education Statistics found only 15 percent of young adults demonstrated the proficiency to write well-organized essays consisting of clear arguments, and only 6 percent could make informed, critical judgments of written text. But this problem truly begins in the education system. Harvard students can’t name the capital of Canada and American University students don’t know how many senators represent each state. A 2013 study of several thousand undergraduates led by New York University sociologist Richard Arum found that 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning skills, and after four years, this number only dropped to 36 percent. And we want young people to vote …

Misguided cures

Unfortunately, suggested reasons and cures from both left and right are misguided. Lack of funds, as the left suggests, cannot be a problem since we spend much more on education now than we used to and outspend many countries that are ahead of us; so throwing more money at schools will not help. Poor students’ problems are quite possibly not the result of them being poor; their troubles are sometimes the result of their parents’ (or quite likely, just one parent) not caring, not encouraging learning, and not checking homework or coming to school conferences – the things that do not cost anything.

On the other hand, unions cannot hinder the learning process by protecting bad teachers as much as the right implies because even good teachers have difficult times using their full potential in a restrictive school environment (and they also need some protection from bad administrators). Therefore, vouchers are not a panacea either since the good private schools usually limit enrollment to good students only (even when there are no special rules, the space is always limited and that by default filters out those who are not interested in good education). Nor will more local control help – most school board members are not experts in education. And what is the difference between Minnesota and Florida in our fast, interconnected world? What sense does it make for a kid moving from Arizona to Minnesota (or even from Minneapolis to Duluth) to adjust to a new schedule, new classes, and new curriculum? Unfortunately, there is currently no consistency in learning a subject, let alone in correlation between the subjects. 

So what is the cause?

It all starts with lack of three “musts” for good education: personal responsibility, motivation, and discipline. Nothing is the kids’ fault anymore – there is always someone else to blame; and parents, who are actually supposed to be the main educators and disciplinarians, along with many do-gooders, lead the way in this kind of thinking. It’s bad teachers, too much homework, or discrimination that causes the problems. Students are constantly praised as unique and hardworking even if they have done nothing to deserve it, just to support their self-esteem. But high self-esteem — without real accomplishment that supports it — is actually an impediment to learning: Why learn if you are already so good?

Discipline in schools is not a problem anymore – it barely exists. Teachers are often afraid to punish kids and instead let them do almost anything they want just to make school “fun,” so they come to school. But learning is work, sometimes hard work, and “having fun” in school cannot be the main objective. Of course, even when it comes to punishment, the most severe one is out-of- school suspension, which actually does what those bad students want the most: They don’t go to school.

Anything and everything is done to keep students in school, even those who don’t want to stay. So here comes the lack of motivation: Why study hard if you will be allowed to graduate anyway? Graduation tests have been abandoned (too many kids can’t pass them) and more and more colleges do not require ACT anymore even though all developed countries have high-stakes graduation and college entrance exams; as a result, high school diplomas (and even college diplomas) are devalued. 

If we honestly look at most of the countries that are ahead of us in education, especially those in Asia, we can see that students there have motivation and personal responsibilities, and discipline is always strictly maintained, both at school and at homes. We don’t even need to actually travel there to see it – just look at how well Asian students in America are doing and correlate it with the Tiger Mom’s book. Attitude is the driving force for success in everything, including education, not the government’s help.

Schemes and solutions that don’t work

Of course, if one doesn’t want to see real problems, proposed solutions will be making things worse. Technology is being introduced as an answer to all questions, but if one doesn’t know where to go, switching from a horse to a car will not make any difference. Computers, even the best ones, cannot replace people’s thinking abilities, and using more of them will not have any effect. Smart boards will not help if kids don’t pay attention and teachers do not know material themselves.

On the other hand, new teaching schemes keep popping up: block scheduling, reverse (flipped) classroom, and many others. All of them are just superficial attempts to change something since things seem bad enough. But they are, in fact, trying to fix the wrong things, those that are not broken: the traditional education system — when teachers explain, assign homework, and then answer questions of hard-working students who want to learn — has worked for millennia and brought mankind to where it is now.

So let’s get back to basics, to what worked before. Let’s restore discipline and instill responsibility and motivation in students by allowing class retention of those not ready to advance and expelling those not willing to work hard (and who also disrupt learning for those who do). Let’s stop finding excuses and shielding kids from real life — kids are not more sensitive now than they were a hundred years ago unless adults teach them to be that way. Let’s have just one test – the one required to graduate – and let teachers decide when and how to test kids the rest of times. Let’s stop coming up with useless teaching innovations and over-relying on technology.

In other words, let’s go forward to good old times when schools were a place for learning rather than having fun.

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.  


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 05/15/2017 - 04:05 pm.

    Change our thinking on how to get children

    ready for life after 18 and High School. K-9, heavy emphasis on reading, writing, math, problem solving and critical thinking. 10-12 get into how to be employable or prep for college. Introduction to the trade jobs, job mentoring and what employers are looking for those who don’t want to go to college.

    There was an article here at Minnpost where someone was suggesting more money for preparing our children to be employable after High School. My suggestion was spend some of Trillions, yes Trillions, we spend on education here in the USA for 13 years of public school on helping our kids for life after 18… As I’ve felt for years, if our public schools truly cared about our children from 5-18 years of age (worth money to public school districts), they would equally care about them from 18-65 during their working years!!!

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/15/2017 - 04:55 pm.

    I’m not so sure what “good ol’ days” you’re talking about.

    High school graduation rates are about 75% now–that’s pretty much what it has been since the 1950’s. See for historical statistics. Pre-1950’s the rates of graduation go lower for each year you go back. In 1910, 10% had graduated from high school.

    Broken down by demographics–obviously minority populations had even worse graduation rates.

    And, as with many issues, those who start out with disadvantages (for example, parents who have not been impressed with results of their education experience)–do you abandon the next generation to find their own way, or do you work harder to make sure that the next generation can see their way beyond their current dilemma and into a better future ?

    The kids you seem to think are coddled and shielded from “real life” often have real lives you would not survive.

    Your 100 years ago is an educational desert.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/16/2017 - 10:58 pm.

      Diffrent things

      I think you confused graduation rates with high school diploma holder rates. Graduation rates refer to those who attend high school and graduate from it so it may be 100% if all students graduate even though only 10% of kids attend high school – and that was most likely the case a hundred years ago. This supports my theory that in good old times those who went to high school worked hard there so their diplomas were meaningful so they got good jobs after that… Now it’s the opposite: no hard work, no one cares about high school diploma, and no one gets a job based on that. And those who did not go to high school worked hard to survive…

      Where did I say that those who are disadvantaged should not be helped? But we understand help differently. In my mind, help is forcing kids to work hard in school without finding excuses and imposing discipline on them there hoping that they will learn it and apply to their lives at home, not feeling sorry for them and finding the way let them get a diploma no matter what.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/15/2017 - 06:01 pm.

    This ignorance of the world is nothing new

    It was a problem when I was in high school in the 1960s, and I went to high school in an outer suburb of Minneapolis.

    You can tinker with the schools all you want, but the main obstacle to good education in the U.S. is American culture. It glorifies the athlete, the pop star, the rich, and the physically attractive, and that is reflected in the teenage subculture. If you are visibly interested in learning or the arts, you will not be one of the cool kids. Oh, you can be a straight-A student, and your parents may demand it, but it’s not the learning that is important; it’s the grades that will gain you entrance into a good college and from there into a good job. If you are interested in learning, you have to redeem yourself in the eyes of your peers by joining a sports team.

    These teenagers grow up to be the parents who elect the school board, the LOCAL body that runs the schools. In some parts of the country, parents don’t want their children taught about evolution, and in newspaper accounts of school issues around the country, one often reads the statement, “Our kids don’t need to know that stuff.”

    In my own high school experience, we had a pretty standard math and science curriculum, but we had only two superficial surveys of geography (in sixth and eighth grade) and a world history course that was really an area studies course in eleventh grade. We had American history twice, once in seventh grade and once in tenth grade, neither of which had much depth to it.

    This was in the 1960s, mind you.

    About twenty years ago, political developments in Oregon caused a reduction in school funding, which hit rural schools especially hard. A small town called Colton met the shortfall by cutting all subjects and activities that were not absolutely required by the state: art, music, theater, home ec., shop, clerical and business subjects, and inter-school sports. Concerned townspeople held a fundraiser–not for art classes, not for music classes, not for theater, not for home ec., and not for the shop and clerical classes that could prepare non-college students for jobs after high school–but for the football team. Yes, having a football team for half the year was more important to the townspeople than anything that could enrich the students’ lives or prepare them for life after high school.

    How do you improve education in those circumstances?

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/16/2017 - 10:59 pm.

      I agree that American culture, to certain degree, “glorifies the athlete, the pop star, the rich, and the physically attractive.” But didn’t it get worse in the last 40-50 years with more TV and then Internet with Twitter and Instagram? I mean how many people were able to actually see the Beatles? Now one can’t open a website without seeing an ad about Kardashians… And I wish math and speech team were as important as football and basketball. But if you re-read my piece, you would realize that what I suggest would move the schools in the right direction when Bieber and Gomez would be pretty much irrelevant for real learning.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/16/2017 - 09:59 am.

    I’m pretty much in agreement

    …with the author, but only partial agreement with Mr. Smith.

    The three characteristics in the article title would have gone far to ease the pain of some of my students over the course of my career, and of a good many more in the current environment. I’m inclined to agree that they’re too often lacking in schools now, unless the school is one parents have specifically chosen for their child—usually because the family already possesses those characteristics. My job as a teacher would have been much, much easier if every kid in my classes had those character traits in abundance. As it is, we give teachers insufficient pay, low community status, increasingly little control over what they do in the classroom, and a job that’s somewhere on a spectrum from “really challenging” to “impossible.” Then we punish them when they’re not able to achieve consistent instructional miracles, day after day, with every child.

    As for adult education, plenty of school districts offer adult classes in a wide variety of subjects for interested adults. If it’s not offered at the local high school, it’s probably offered at the local tax-supported community college, a place where adult education is often something close to second nature. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that local public school districts would be happy to educate many more community members in that 18-65 age cohort if given the financial wherewithal to do so. As it stands, usually the K-12 school levy is separate from the community college/MN State/MSCU levy, which is typically supported by a whole different source of public funding, though it’s still tax-supplied.

  5. Submitted by Kristin Neises on 05/16/2017 - 04:06 pm.

    If only it were that easy

    I gave my heart and soul to helping our son. From kindergarten on, I worked part-time, so as to help our son after school with his homework, provide nutritional foods, provided discipline, went to teacher conferences, met with teachers and principals, proper health screenings, etc., all to no avail. We did our best to raise a responsible, hard-working, disciplined son, and according to Mr. Gutman, we still failed. We were met with stony resistance on the educational front. Hours meant for homework turned into arguments – every single day. Just so you are aware, Mr. Gutman, you cannot put every child in a machine and have him or her come out just like you would want. There is no cookie-cutter way to raise children in this day and age. Thank goodness for tutors, summer school, and pure luck, we got our son through school. Although he never attended a two- or four-year school, he did find a vocational school and he now has a wonderful full-time job. It’s assumptions like yours, Mr. Gutman, that anger me, and I wish you would not paint everyone and every situation with a black and white brush. Have a good day.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/16/2017 - 11:00 pm.

      Of course they are different

      Of course every child is different and you did not fail if your son now has a steady full time job after graduating from a vocational school. In fact, I think vocational schools are a great idea and more people should go there – they will then struggle less in regular school… You don’t need to be angry with me because, in reality, you did what I suggested: instilled discipline and followed through…

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/16/2017 - 06:50 pm.

    Shorter Version

    The problem with society is that everyone else is not EXACTLY LIKE ME.

    Coupled of course with a complete failure to realize that there are a wide variety of personality types (my favorite test spells out 16 of them),…

    with only about four of those 16 ever being able to come close to fitting into the “perfect student” model this author so desires,…

    and a wide variety of families with various levels of functionality,…

    only a FEW of which provide the kind of support,…

    in terms of resources and dealing with problems,…

    required for kids to be responsible, motivated, and disciplined.

    The reality of education is that we can’t live in “la-la land” of how we’d like students to be,…

    because very few WILL be as we’d like.

    Rather, we have to deal in the most effective ways possible with the students who walk in the door,…


    Which is why we should put our best, brightest, most qualified and most perceptive folk in front of our classrooms,…

    support them like crazy,…

    and pay them enough that they’ll want to say there,…

    and why its necessary that we invest the MOST resources in schools attended by students with the most challenging family situations,…

    if, of course, we really want to close that stubborn “education gap” rather than just demagogue it to death,….

    which is, sadly, not the case with those talking about it on the “conservative” side, today,…

    who desperately want to complain about how the schools are “failing,”…

    but wouldn’t give a nickel to help a kid in a seriously dysfunctional family,…

    who’s never sure where their next meal is coming from,…

    nor if they’ll have a place to live next week.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/17/2017 - 10:52 am.

      I think most Americans don’t realize

      the obstacles that children from impoverished and/or dysfunctional families face.

      When adults are under extreme stress, such as having to work two jobs to survive or being trapped in addiction or suffering from the after-effects of abuse, they can’t meet their children’s needs, despite the best of intentions.

      I’m on the board of directors of a small local charitable foundation, and this year, board members have visited some of the charities that we fund. I wish everyone could visit some of these organizations and learn just what efforts and teamwork are needed to compensate for deficiencies in the home environment. The children need nutritious food, medical and dental care, opportunities for active play, and therapy for behavioral and psychological problems.

      Admonitions such as “Parents should just take responsibility” underestimate the depth and breadth of needs that some of these children have.

      My post above referred mainly to middle-class children and youth, but children from families under stress face an extra set of burdens. Yes, exceptional people can rise above early hardships, but most cannot, and those that do often enjoy the attention of a wise and caring mentor.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/17/2017 - 10:22 pm.

      I sometimes wonder how it is possible to read something and understand it the opposite way. Where did I say that all students should be the same or should be taught the same way? Of course, the rest is typical excuses that I said ruin students rather than help them: parents have no responsibilities and neither do students… And of course, that “conservative side” is the one which gives the most to charities to help “help a kid in a seriously dysfunctional family” while liberals want to invest someone else’s money…

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/18/2017 - 12:05 pm.

        These charities that help children from dysfunctional families

        rely heavily on local, state, and federal government funding. They could never make it on private donations alone. (As a member of a board that provides grants, I see their financials in the grant applications.)

        I have heard conservatives say that taxes are a disincentive to charitable contributions, that they could afford to give more if they didn’t have to pay taxes. That excuse works only with people who do not know that large charitable contributions reduce an individual’s taxes.

        By the way, conservatives give more to charity than liberals only if you factor in two items: 1) donations to religious organizations, funds that may or may not be used for charitable purposes, and 2) the fact that conservatives tend to be wealthier than liberals.

        A few years ago, I happened to attend services at the so-called “English church” (Angliska kyrkan) in Stockholm, Sweden. In talking to the expats, most from English-speaking countries, I learned that the Swedish government provides such a strong safety net that the only homeless people are late-stage alcoholics and hopeless drug addicts, and the Salvation Army takes care of them.

        Instead, the church does its charitable work in Latvia, a mere ferry ride away, where the upheavals of the past 25+ years have shredded the social safety net, leaving many people, especially the elderly and disabled, worse off than they were under the Soviet system.

        Yes, taxes in Sweden are high, but taxes are not the worst thing that can happen to a human being, although some conservatives appear to think that way.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/19/2017 - 02:42 pm.

          Two thoughts: First, it is hard to believe that Republicans are wealthier than Democrats considering that East and West coast states are predominantly Democratic AND wealthy… And second, if helping children in need is so important (which it is), why do we need those charitable NGO’s which are still funded by the government? I mean it’s an extra layer which makes things even less efficient… and wastes more money.

  7. Submitted by Cathy Erickson on 05/19/2017 - 08:04 am.

    Desired Qualifications…

    Congratulations, Ilya, on having an article posted in Community Voices…I appreciate your willingness to share commentary on many of the articles in Minnpost.

    My first reaction to your article was that your “three musts” read like desired qualifications found in a job description…meaning, you should already have those things before you walk in the door. I realize a school can teach these things, but personal responsibility, motivation, and discipline are things you LIVE…and can and should be found outside of the classroom.

    What I have observed in the education world over the past 15 or so years is that “the school” becomes the common choice to place more and more responsibility because the kids are already there, and what better way to “pass the buck” of personal responsibility than to say, well, they should learn that in school, or the school can take care of that. But as more and more “mandates” or “interventions” are put on schools, the more they have to try to accomplish in their already crammed day, and to me, that just seems like a recipe for failure.

    So is it the school district’s responsibility to implement the three musts, or is the key to more productive education that those traits be in place when they come to school?

    When you read through all the statutes and laws, graduation requirements, testing guidelines, and local policies, most all are reactionary to what a group of people at that time felt was an unmet need.

    The problem is, we’ve stacked too many unmet needs onto education.

    It’s like overbooking a plane – parents, community members, students, taxpayers, legislators, businesses, and all kinds of interests like health care, nutrition, special needs, English learners, and more, are all selling tickets for the education flight and everyone shows up at the airport expecting to get on the plane. And I’m not questioning their importance or validity…all these things are important.

    But there are just not enough seats to get everyone on board…and we’ve all seen how that works out…who are you going to pull off the plane?

    We need more seats…and frankly, we need more planes when it comes to education if we are going to keep adding more requirements.

    To me, Ilya’s “three musts” are like the oil change to make sure the plane can start up and get off the ground. But we still need a pilot, crew, places to sit, policies, safety regulations, snacks, room for storage, and most importantly, a destination.

    The real challenge in education is, if you put all the education stakeholders on one plane, almost all of them have a different destination. And many of them want to be the pilot…that’s why we have a hard time getting of the ground sometimes.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking article and follow up comments.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/19/2017 - 02:50 pm.

      Thank you, Cathy, for response and I totally agree that schools are not the place to instill those three “musts” and that was what I was trying to say (and I apologize if I didn’t make it clear): It should come from the family. Schools should support those things rather than break them by trying to make things fun and finding excuses for kids. And the law should consider that and hold parents accountable; for example, charge them for extra services or fine for kids’ disruptive behavior…

  8. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 05/22/2017 - 12:52 pm.

    Schools are not the curer of all ills

    Education began in the private home. Adults provided children with the necessary skills to function either independently or in a group. In addition, the adults taught the children the social and religious skills that would allow them to get along within their social group. As reading became necessary and as improved transportation meant that people could work away from their immediate family unit and choose vocations different from their parents’ work, education became increasingly sophisticated and it was provided by people outside of the family.

    We’re now living in a society in which schools are increasingly seen as the curer of all ills. Educators must feed the hungry, cloth the unclothed, provide therapy for the aggrieved, be a mouthpiece for popular politics while defending against less popular politics, house (temporarily) the homeless and– at all times– show an unswerving, deep understanding of and respect for each and every perspective that is presented to them.

    Makes it hard to find time to teach reading, huh? Maybe we need to invent new ways of meeting our children’s physical and emotional needs *outside* of the school building to free up the educators to do what they do best: educate.

Leave a Reply