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Harvard Study Finds Student Achievement Valued over Caring and Fairness

A disturbing study from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education seems to indicate the youth of America may value their own success more than traits such as kindness, caring, and consideration of others.

Following a survey of 10,000 U.S. middle and high school students from 33 schools, an Executive Summary of the report concludes: “Our youth’s values appear to be awry, and the messages that adults are sending may be at the heart of the problem. . . . A large majority of youth across a wide spectrum of races, cultures, and classes appear to value aspects of personal success—achievement and happiness—over concern for others.”

Positive parental involvement is imperative. But are adults to blame as much as the kids for the dog-eat-dog attitude? Do they place too much emphasis on student achievement?

“About 80 percent of the youth in our survey report their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others,” states the report—commissioned by the Making Caring Common Project—which was also based on hundreds of conversations with and observations of youth parents and teachers during a ten-year span.

“Youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the following statement: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.’ ”

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of students reported that both their parents and peers would rank achievement more importantly than caring for others. Students were also more than four times more likely to select “hard work” than “fairness” as their top value.

How do such attitudes manifest themselves in the day-to-day existence for teenage students?

Of those surveyed, half of all high school students admitted to cheating on a test and close to 75 percent admitted to copying another’s homework. Perhaps more disturbing, more than half of girls in grades 7–12 reported at least one episode of sexual harassment at school in 2010–2011, the same year that nearly 30 percent of middle and high school students reported being bullied.

Why do these numbers go hand-in-hand?

“When youth do not prioritize caring and fairness over these aspects of personal success—and when they view their peers as even less likely to prioritize these ethical values—they are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behavior, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest,” concluded the report’s authors in their executive summary.

The researchers set out to examine the “subordination of caring,” explore the differences in what parents and teachers identify as priorities, and students’ perceptions of adult priorities as well as the degree to which youth make fairness a priority in their lives.

The report states:

“We asked youth to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others. Almost 80 percent of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20 percent selected caring for others. Youth also ranked fairness low in relation to several other values. For example, they were far more likely to rank ‘hard work’ above fairness. Some youth made it quite clear to us that their self-interest is paramount: ‘If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.’”

If the Harvard report uncovered a silver lining, it was that “caring and fairness still count.”

“While caring and fairness are subordinated to achievement and happiness, they are still important to youth, their parents, and their teachers,” the report concluded. “Roughly two-thirds of youth listed kindness as one of their top three values and 63 percent put fairness in their top three.”

Providing suggested solutions, the report concludes that “children are not simply born good or bad and we should never give up on them” and offers the following guidelines:

Children and youth need ongoing opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, sometimes with guidance from adults. Children and youth need strong moral role models. Children need to be guided in managing destructive feelings.

K12 promotes kindness and caring, respectfulness and sharing to help nurture the unique brilliance in every child. Turn to Learning Liftoff to discover ways to halt bullying, ensure fairness in the classroom, and bring a positive community experience to your child’s life and education.

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Seth Livingstone

Seth Livingstone is a veteran writer and editor who has spent much of his career in sports journalism covering multiple Olympic Games, Super Bowls, World Series, and Daytona 500s. He covered the Boston Red Sox throughout the 1980s and 1990s before joining USA Today and Baseball Weekly in 1999. He maintains his membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America and is a Hall of Fame voter. Seth holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and has also worked as a substitute teacher (all grades and subjects). He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and has two grown children.

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