It should come as no surprise that one of the key ingredients of a good education is motivated kids. One of the issues that has bedeviled the study of charter and private schools is that often, the kids and families who elect to attend (or even apply for) these schools are just more motivated and oriented toward learning than those who don't. That means that a school billed as more challenging academically, which requires people to apply, will do better than a "regular" school, even if the former takes all comers or, for that matter, isn't any better. Motivation matters. If you knew you had to give a speech in French in four days to a big audience, you'd be a lot more motivated to practice than you probably were in your college French classes!
Some children start school more motivated than others. They come from families that really value learning (a positive focus) or come down hard for bad grades (a more negative focus, but probably effective, too). The question for raising the caliber of American schools, then, is whether you can create motivated kids in situations where families aren't sending the message that school matters.
I think you can. There have been a million articles written on successful-against-the-odds schools (I've probably written several dozen myself, as you can see from the links that follow). The common theme (aside from good principals and teachers, and often high standards) is that the schools have found some "hook" to motivate the kids. The Cristo Rey schools bring children into professional work settings 1-2 days per week where they see what skills might be needed to land high-paying jobs. The police academy magnets in LA interest kids in learning in the context of forensics, intense physical education and so forth. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship has kids learning math and writing so they can produce business plans (and make real money -- a real world motivation!)
What all this boils down to is creating conditions where students want to learn something because they are personally interested in the answer. I was reminded of this at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented conference, which I attended this past week. Much of the conference was aimed at teachers getting their professional development credits. I attended a session called "The Joys of Non-Fiction," led by Dr. Keith Polette, a professor of English Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. He started with a story of a kid in English class asking the reasonable question "Why did Poe put questions at the end of his story?" Almost every English class features short selections followed by questions, which Polette claimed was dull and not very effective.
So he tried another approach with us, showing us a black and white photo of a Victorian woman with no caption. Who did we think she was? People threw out silly answers. Then he gave us another clue. She did something no woman had done before. What did we think she did? (People threw out more silly answers, which he then made fun of. Humor always helps in teaching...) We pondered who she was, what she had done and why she had done it. And of course, by the time we had spent 5 minutes guessing who she was, we were all quite curious. When he finally gave us a short biography of a woman who turned out to be Bertha von Suttner, the first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, most people were genuinely interested in reading it, and in learning about this journalist who published Lay Down Your Arms in 1889. I am pretty sure most people would not have been interested in reading that chunk of text under other circumstances.
In other words, motivation can be created. The question for education reform is how to spread best practices to create motivation more broadly--for as many hours as possible that students are in school.