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Attention on Ability:How the U.S. Education System Downplays Effort

Updated on September 5, 2015


The major problem with the American school system is that it focuses primarily upon ability. As a result, effort is largely ignored because ability and effort are perceived as “compensatory:” a belief that one is more important lessens the weight of the other (Graham & Folkes, 1990). However, effort is necessary for the overall achievement of the population because not all Americans are given ability or have everything handed to them. Nonetheless, the school system in the U.S. uses grades and standardized tests to measure intelligence; in other words, the school system measures the ability of students, leaving effort unnoticed. Also, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act gives funding to schools based on ability. The differential teaching offered by teachers’ based upon their students’ traits notifies the students that natural-born ability is important, not effort. Additionally, the whole system of ability grouping signifies that ability leads to success. On that note, success appears as locked in early due to the fact the cultural capital helps the wealthy succeed, making it seem as if ability is all that matters. The credential economy on which the U.S. stands places importance in degrees and certifications; thus, actual learning is not necessary, but faking ability is. The typical U.S. classroom is unidimensional, making social comparisons more easy to make and ability more salient in students’ minds. All of the aforementioned issues will be discussed in further detail; yet, there are many other factors that reveal the U.S.’s focus on ability that will not be discussed.

Grading and Standardized Tests

Grading emphasizes students’ amount of ability in U.S. schools. This is because of the competitive nature of grading. Plotting students in an ordinal dataset makes them overtly cognizant of the comparative way in which grades are used. There are two ends of the grading distribution: an “A” signifies high ability, whereas an “F” signifies low ability in that subject. Therefore, it is easy for students to trace where they belong on the spectrum and compare each other. This competitive grading system pushes the students to realize a pattern in their grades over time, which is why “By around eighth grade, ability is considered stable” by the students (Holloway, 1987). Competitiveness solidifies the concept of one’s own stability in one’s mind because it is a constant reminder of one’s comparative intelligence to others (Holloway, 1987). The grading distribution acts as such a reminder, causing students to believe they are either smart, or not; consequently, effort will not make much, if any, of a difference in students’ minds after many years under the grading scheme.

Standardized tests also make ability more salient in students’ minds. Standardized tests "measure better what students bring to an educational program, not what they leave it with"

(Popham, 1978). This is due to the fact that standardized tests must be made to be general in order to measure the whole U.S. population and the tests tend to use questions not taught in schools. As a result, ability is the object of measurement. Effort is clearly not being measured by standardized tests because there is no way to study for them, as there is for an exam in the classroom. One does not know what to expect on such tests and how to prepare for them. Also, standardized tests do not contain any problems that can tell how much effort a student put into the test. Effort can only be seen in such tests by whether or not the students filled out the bubbles. Therefore, standardized tests, as well as grades, communicate to the students that ability is what matters.


Not only does the NCLB Act measure students’ intelligence through the use of standardized tests, but NCLB also gives funding according to those tests. More specifically, NCLB ties the “performance of schools and districts, measured by many more standardized tests, to the receipt of federal funds” (Karen, 2005). Thus, the ability of both the students and the schools are measured by standardized tests, making ability even more apparent in the students’ eyes. This is true especially because of the implications for low-ability schools. Such schools receive little funding in comparison and the differences are extremely noticeable. Within every school district there are schools that are considered awful, that are generally run-down, and schools that are considered fantastic, that are generally very well-kept and nice looking. Since everybody in the community knows which schools are which, it signals to the students that they either have high ability for belonging to the well-kept schools or have low ability for belonging to the run-down schools. Again, the issue of comparison and competition is made salient in the students’ minds, which shows the students that ability is all that matters. NCLB’s unequal distribution of funding makes ability seem as if it is all that matters because it takes funding away from the low-performing schools, as if their students’ and teachers’ current performance levels signify that there is no hope of improving the schools. Low ability students are ignored, whereas the high ability students are perpetually tended to by NCLB.

Differential Teaching

Teachers’ expectations change according to their students; and, these expectations are based around the teachers’ beliefs in abilities. Expectations of abilities that teachers’ form affect the way they treat their students, leading to differential teaching. The students receiving this differential treatment then compare how they are treated to how the rest of the class is treated. The students soon understand their teachers’ conceptions of their ability levels. A multiplicity of student traits can cause teachers’ to perceive the ability of their students in a different light. For example, one study found that SES and whether a student was black or white affected teachers’ expectations (Harvey & Slatin, 1975).

Variations in expectations between students makes the students create conceptions of themselves and their ability levels. Teachers who perceive students as low in ability can communicate this to the students implicitly by giving pity to a student after a failure, praising a student after an easy success, and offering help without being asked. All of these ways of communicating low ability have been found to significantly affect older children’s’ performance and also their conceptions of their own ability levels (Graham & Folkes, 1990). Not only do these teaching methods make students focus on ability, they also are all supported, for the most part. U.S. teachers do not really see the harm in giving pity, praising, or offering help because these are all supportive practices. However, students can easily read behind the actions and understand that they are pitied for their failures because the teachers think they have low ability, whereas the teacher is angry at their peers’ failures because they have high ability. Ability is communicated through differential teaching because it causes students to compare each other and makes ability cognizant in their minds.

Ability Grouping

Ability Grouping is a method in which students are put into classrooms according to their abilities so that teachers can more easily teach homogenous classes; it is also the primary piece of evidence that the U.S. shows students that ability is more important than effort. Sustaining placement theory, which argues that students are, for the most part, stuck within the groups they are placed in early in their education careers (Oakes & Guiton, 1995). When looking for students to be processed in an advanced math course, the most logical way to go about it is by transferring the students who were in a gifted education program or were already in advanced math courses before. Also, sustained placement occurs because of necessary “curriculum prerequisites” for upper level classes that students who have been stuck in low ability groups cannot hope to meet (Oakes & Guiton, 1995). Thus, schools tend to sustain the placement of students in certain ability groups, leading students to solidify their conceptions of their ability because of their lack of mobility between groups no matter how much effort is applied to learning.

Cultural Capital

Students with higher cultural capital, or more knowledge of and conformity to the dominant classes’ culture, are more likely to succeed in school and be placed in higher ability groups (Wildhagen, 2010). Those with a more extensive language repertoire and who practice more conformity to the standards of the school generally have higher cultural capital. Cultural capital is transferred to children primarily from family members, then the children go into school and are rewarded for their cultural capital, as social reproduction theory proposes. “Numerous studies” have revealed that “high-status cultural capital is positively associated with academic performance and educational attainment” (Wildhagen, 2010). Hence, kids are given the tools they need to succeed in school before they even enter school, making effort in learning seem frivolous. Ability seems as if it is all that matters in the U.S. because students are locked in for success if they have high-status cultural capital and doomed for failure if they have really low-status cultural capital.


Credentials are status symbols that reveal whether someone is qualified. Examples of credentials are degrees, licenses, letters of recommendation, etc. “Employers choose employees on the basis of educational credentials;” consequently, it is of the utmost importance for students to obtain credentials in school in order to be accepted into the job market (Dornbusch et al., 1996). Although credentials simplify the selection process of managers, they are inherently flawed because they do not reveal effort. Credentials do require some effort to obtain, that is true; nonetheless, there are discrepancies in the amount of effort put forth to obtain a credential. Students can get a degree through cheating, obtaining the minimum grades needed for passing, and last-minute cramming. On the other hand, students can get a degree through actually learning the material. When the goal of education is to learn, then why are those who use short-cut methods given credentials too even though their effort is lacking? This problem downplays the importance of effort in schools and makes putting effort forth to learn seem like a waste of time. Thus, the use of credentials in the U.S. causes effort to be left by the wayside because credentials are used primarily to communicate ability.

Unidimensional Classroom Organization

A classroom is unidimensional “when daily activities tend to be organized around, and to imply, a single underlying dimension of comparison” (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984). In other words, when a classroom focuses on one type of ability or a single type of performance, it is unidimensional. Unidimensional classrooms allow students to more easily build an ability formation. This is because such classrooms reduce the possible interference of other variables in the students’ interpretation of comparative performance levels that occur within the classroom. More simply stated, unidimensional classrooms make comparisons easier. The availability of comparisons pushes students to form categorical explanations for patterns of achievement in peers and in themselves. Those who tend to achieve a lot are thought of as high ability students, and those who do not achieve much are low ability students. Unidimensional classrooms therefore make ability more salient and seem more important.

U.S. classrooms are unidimensional, causing students to perceive ability as more important than effort. The more undifferentiated the task structure is in a classroom, the more unidimensional it is. An undifferentiated task structure is one in which all students are working on similar tasks. “The more similar (undifferentiated) the tasks, the more easily students may compare performance” (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984). U.S. classrooms focus on one task at a time as whole. It would be bizarre to find a student learning addition while another student is learning multiplication in a single U.S. classroom. Low student autonomy is also found commonly in the U.S. school system, which also signifies a unidimensional classroom. Students are taught to obey the rules and are not given many choices in U.S. classrooms, which lowers their autonomy. Consequently, the U.S. school system is unidimensional and thus makes ability more noticeable and thus appear as important.

A Culture of Performance Goals

A performance goal is a goal for achievement sought out in order to make ability apparent by doing comparatively better than others or by achieving success with low effort (Ames, 1992). Performance goals create a motivation pattern that seeks to protect the ability status of the individual by avoiding failures at all costs. These goals ignore effort and focus on faking ability at all costs. Students who have performance goals do not really care about learning. The U.S. school system fosters performance goals through multiple mechanisms; therefore, hurting effort and making ability seem more important.

One major cause of the adoption of performance goals, and likewise the emphasis on ability, is “social comparison” (Ames, 1992). Social comparison is a measure of ability that is overused in the U.S. school system. Grades and standardized tests are built to compare the distribution of students easily. NCLB is an act that compares schools and makes the comparisons even more salient by giving more funding to high ability schools. Differential teaching is a practice built around social comparisons. Similarly, ability grouping compares students by pushing them into classes according to their ability levels. Credentials are a method to quickly and efficiently socially compare people. Cultural capital is used by schools to more easily compare students’ likelihood for success. Unidimensional classrooms make ability formations easier because of the fact that such classrooms allow social comparisons to more easily be made. In conclusion, the U.S. school system overtly socially compares students, which makes ability seem as important and downplays effort.


Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(3): 261-271.

Dornbusch, S. M.; Glasgow K. L.; & Lin, I. (1996). The social structure of schooling. Annual Review of Psychology, 47: 401-429.

Graham, S. & Folkes, V. (1990). Attribution theory: Applications to achievement, mental health, and interpersonal conflict. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Harvey, D. G. & Slatin, G. T. (1975). The relationship between child's SES and teacher expectations: A test of the middle-class bias hypothesis. Social Forces, 54(1): 140-159.

Holloway, S. D. (1987). Concepts of ability and effort in Japan and the United States.

Karen, D. (2005). No child left behind? sociology ignored! Sociology of Education, 78(2): 165-169.

Oakes, J. & Guiton, G. (1995). Matchmaking: The dynamics of high school tracking decisions. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1): 3-33.

Popham, W. J. (1978). Criterion-referenced measurement. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Rosenholtz, S. J., & Simpson, C. (1984). The formation of ability conceptions: Developmental trend or social construction? Review of Educational Research, 54(1): 31-63.

Wildhagen, T (2010). Capitalizing on culture: How cultural capital shapes educational experiences and outcomes. Sociology Compass, 4(7): 519-531


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I was more "effort" than ability during my school days. Some subjects, no matter how hard I worked, I only made a B. Respectable, but I did not have the economic opportunities of other kids, so success came late. I'm still proud of the work I put in and many of those who seemed to be brilliant back then peaked a little early. They say in sports that "heart can't be measured." And the same is true in education. A little effort goes a long way. Shared.


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