What’s Wrong With High School? – Does Anyone Really Know?

Just read an article over at Slate today (you can find it by clicking on the word SLATE right here) titled What’s Holding Back American Teenagers. Now, I’m not particularly interested in analyzing the data presented here. Certainly the internet abounds with interesting analysis of the research studies and a long discussion could be had about the validity of the data about PISA results, SAT trends, etc. No, what interests me is the following passage and how it relates to some conversations I have had recently with students. Here is the passage that caught my eye

What’s holding back our teenagers?

One clue comes from a little-known 2003 study based on OECD data that compares the world’s 15-year-olds on two measures of student engagement: participation and “belongingness.” The measure of participation was based on how often students attended school, arrived on time, and showed up for class. The measure of belongingness was based on how much students felt they fit in to the student body, were liked by their schoolmates, and felt that they had friends in school. We might think of the first measure as an index of academic engagement and the second as a measure of social engagement.

On the measure of academic engagement, the U.S. scored only at the international average, and far lower than our chief economic rivals: China, Korea, Japan, and Germany. In these countries, students show up for school and attend their classes more reliably than almost anywhere else in the world. But on the measure of social engagement, the United States topped China, Korea, and Japan.

 We here in NE PA have had a pretty cold winter and have had a number of school delays and a couple of cancelled school days. I live on campus in a dorm of about 80 teenage boys. We recently had a situation where we had a three day weekend, one day of school, and then a school cancellation. The night when the cancellation was announced the uproar in the dorms would have made you think that Oprah Winfrey had just shown up to give everyone a free new car or something like that. The level of excitement and joy expressed – one day after a three day weekend – made me conclude that either (A) The students were overreacting and egging each other on in their joy at missing a day of classes or (B) The students really dislike what they do from day to day in their classes and were overjoyed at the release of one day of desperate drudgery. I am too much of an optimist, and I have too much faith in my school, to want to accept the second option. But the reality of the first option does bother me a bit. I take much of what happens in school personally. When my students do well, it makes me happy. When they struggle, I am frustrated and bothered. When they are happy and engaged in class, I feel good about what I am doing. So, I was motivated to talk with one of the more mature students in my dorm and I raised this question with him. He’s a wrestler, very serious about it and heading to a good university next year to continue wrestling. I asked him how we would feel at lunch one day if he got an announcement from his coach that practice that afternoon was cancelled. He said he’d be pretty bummed since he really looks forward to practice. I think he values the camaraderie of his team, the chance to get better at what he does, and the physical release that his tough practices provide. I shared with him my disappointment at the rowdy joy (shrieking, high fives, etc.) that I had just witnessed at our last cancellation announcement and I told him why I took it kind of personally. That it sounded like our students just hate what they’re being asked to do. He acknowledged that he had not thought about the message that these celebrations sent and said it was mostly about releasing tension. I understand that. I think I do. However, I KNOW that they would not react that way is a game was cancelled or a practice was cancelled (well, at least most kids), so I can’t shake the feeling that there is something more there. I have had similar conversations with kids who are regularly late to class. I know that, in most cases, they are not regularly late to practice, or concerts, or games, or play rehearsals.

So, I don’t know where to go with these thoughts. I want to have a meaningful conversation with my students about the messages they send when they are late, when they are overjoyed about not being together, etc. But I don’t want to lecture them and I don’t want to seem like some completely unrealistic pollyanna. I’ve got some thinking to do and I may use this space for more of it. 

PS – After rereading (before posting) I realize that this may come off as critical of my school or our students. Neither is intended at all. I know the feelings in my NJ school were similar with the weather. In South Florida, we had a year of hurricanes met with joy at school closings. These are pretty common reactions. I am just more sensitive now for two reasons – (a) I live in a dorm and see it up close and (b) I don’t want these reactions to reflect my own children’s lack of joy in their school life. 

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With High School? – Does Anyone Really Know?”

  1. Like I said on Twitter, for me, my knee-jerk reaction is that the sentiments in the article are true (and you can’t discount a person’s feelings, anyway). But I also think there’s a few caveats.

    It’s acceptable in American society for people to not like school. Every advertisement, book, tv show (etc.) says, “Oh, Small Child, it’s too bad you have to go to school tomorrow morning! You’ll miss out on so many things!” It’s also acceptable for kids to not like (or even hate) math and science. Clearly, if you like school or math or science, you must be a nerd.

    So of course no kid wants to go to school. No one wants to be a nerd.

    And with that, the parents are tacitly (or not so tacitly) endorsing the idea that school is bad. I even found myself consoling my sobbing toddler that tomorrow’s Saturday, so he won’t have to go to school (daycare) tomorrow. (I’ve now changed my wording to the positives of seeing friends and favorite teachers while at daycare.)

    1. That’s a really important comparison. English teachers probably never have a parent say ‘You know, I never could read’ but math teachers hear adults tell us all the time that they could never ‘do’ math. It’s okay in our society to make those jokes. Similarly, sentiments like those expressed by Alice Cooper as seen as perfectly acceptable. Sigh…

  2. I’ve encountered and am familiar with the feelings that you have, and sympathize.

    I think there is a lot to be said for the fact that school and most of the individual classes students take there are required of them. Sports and theater and band are activities they choose to participate in.

    I haven’t seen any kid being elated at PLC being closed for weather this year.

    1. Justin – your point about choice is key. I like to pretend that my AP students are there by choice. However, with their college aspirations and the pressure that goes along with them, they certainly don’t feel as if it is a choice to take these classes.

  3. You know I’m a huge school boy, but I remember in high school when we had some cancelation due to weather and I was ecstatic. I was happy because it meant I was given more time to social with friends, but I also think the less time in class was a factor too. I don’t think it changed in college, when we would give the professor a ten minute break, then leave if he didn’t show up. Only when I was in upper division physics and math classes (well and grad school too) would I have waited around for the professor. So there is an engagement factor, it may have to do with the fact that they are “forced” to be there which makes a difference, especially as a kid, in the enjoy factor of class. I don’t know, if there are any answers, but I completely understand the “taking it personal” approach, I am exactly the same way. In fact, my biggest pet peeve is that apathetic look students are notorious for giving in classes, which is part of my motivation for disappearing as the teacher – kids rarely are apathetic when they are the center of attention. I think I’m rambling, but interesting post.

  4. I’ve always thought that the fact that schools NEEDED to be compulsory was evidence of a problem. We have taken for granted that our consumer shows up. Dan Meyer said in a talk, “I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.”

    For the record, tons of players hate going to practice, too. Having to work hard is unpleasant, especially in a culture where “the pursuit of happiness” is such a powerful motivator, willingly making yourself unhappy now for some theorized happiness later can be a tough sell.

    I think we are a still struggling with an identity crisis in schools. We, as a culture, really can’t seem to agree on a purpose for schooling and as such, we have students running through this program that doesn’t have much of a cultural role. It’s just a thing we do. Perhaps the first real fix is to define the purpose of school.

    1. Andrew
      Thanks for dropping by. I visited your blog and added it to my WordPress reader. Looking forward to stealing some ideas from you!
      I often think about Dan’s quote from the TED talk and it depresses me a bit when I do. I like to think that people actually don’t hate what I do for a living…
      Most of the kids I deal with are pretty quiet about their dislike of team practice, maybe they just don’t want their coaches to know.

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