Feeding The Elephant in the Room

I am going to ramble a bit in this piece, but as you read, keep a specific thought in your mind:

When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

Now, onto the ramble:

So, a lot gets said about the struggles of American secondary education. Recently, Dr. Laurence Steinberg took his turn in Slate coming right out in the title and calling high schools “disasters”. Which, as you can imagine, got some responses from the educational community.

Go ahead and give the article a read. I’ll admit that education is not known as the most provocative topic in the American mainstream, but Dr. Steinberg has written a piece that has been shared on Facebook a few thousand times and on twitter a few hundred more. It’s instigated some thoughtful blog responses. You have to respect his formula.

He starts with a nice mini Obama dig.

Makes a nice bold statement early (“American high schools, in particular, are a disaster.”)

Offers a “little-known” study early to establish a little authority.

Then hits the boring note and hits it hard. High school is boring. Lower level students feel like they don’t belong. Advanced students feel unchallenged. American schools is more boring than most other countries’ schools.

Then he goes on to discredit a variety of things education has tried to do over the last 50 (or so) years including: NCLB, Vouchers, Charters, Increased funding, lowering student-to-teacher ratio, lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, pushing for college-readiness. I mean, with that list, there’s something for everyone

Like it or hate it, that is an article that is going to get read.

However, there isn’t a lot in the way of tangible solutions. The closest Dr. Steinberg comes is in this passage: ” Research on the determinants of success in adolescence and beyond has come to a similar conclusion: If we want our teenagers to thrive, we need to help them develop the non-cognitive traits it takes to complete a college degree—traits like determination, self-control, and grit. This means classes that really challenge students to work hard…”

Nothin’ to it, right? It’s as easy as making our students “grittier”.

Now, I will repeat the introductory thought: When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

That blank gets filled in a variety of ways from the area of employability, or social responsibility, or liberation and freedom, or social justice to a variety of other thises and thats that we use our high schools for. We are using our high schools as the training ground for the elimination of a wide variety of undesirable social things. We’ve used our schools to eliminate obesity, teen pregnancy and STIs, discrimination based on race, gender, or alternative lifestyles. We have allowed colleges to push college-readiness to make their job easier. We’ve allowed employers to push employability to make their jobs easier. The tech industry feels like we need more STEM. There’s a push-back from folks like Sir Ken Robinson who feel like it’s dangerous to disregard the arts.

And they all have valid points. I’m certainly not mocking or belittling any of those ideas.

However, very little is getting said on behalf of the school. We are treating the school as a transparent entity with none of its own roles and responsibilities. It is simply the clay that gets molded into whatever society decides it should be. Well, since the 60’s, society has had a darned hard time making up its mind about what it wants and so the school has become battered and bruised with all the different initiatives and plans, data sets, and reform operations. Reform is an interesting idea when the school hasn’t ever formally been formed in the first place.

So, we have this social institution that we send 100% of our teenagers to in some form or another and we don’t know what the heck its for. No wonder, as Dr. Steinberg puts it, “In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students—the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—high school is tedious and unchallenging.”

Public enemy #1 needs to be the utter and complete lack of purpose in the high school system. We are running our young people through exercises… why? For what? What do we hope to have happen at the end? When we decide the answer to that question, then we eliminate the rest. It isn’t lazy to say, “I’m not doing that, because that isn’t my job.” It’s efficient. If you start doing the work of others, you stop doing your work as well.

We’ve never agreed on the work of the American high school, but I suspect some of what we are asking it to do should belong on the shoulders of something or someone else. I suspect as soon as we establish a purpose and simplify the operations around that purpose, we can start to see some progress on the goals that we have for our schools, which will spell success for our students and start to clean up the disaster that so many feel like the high schools currently are.

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