high schools in a high-risk era

(Macon, Georgia) At last weekend’s meeting, we discussed economic insecurity and its effects on young people. Many high school students believe (whether or not it’s true) that their lifetime prospects of earning satisfactory wages depend on their climbing as high as possible on a ladder that ascends from their local community college to the branch campus of their state university, on to the flagship state school and regional private colleges, and then all the way up to the summits of Harvard and MIT. Their sense of insecurity and omnipresent risk (some scholars argue) leads to a “rat-race” mentality in which everything they do only matters if they can put it on their resumes and use it for admission to college. They feel compelled to obtain marks of success that they can advertise. They see other students as competitors and doubt that local groups and networks have much value.

To the extent that these generalizations apply, they could help to explain some well-documented findings: young people have low and declining trust for their peers and they are less likely to join formal voluntary groups than in the past. Increasing numbers of adolescents report that they volunteer, but often their participation is episodic (see pdf); and many cannot explain to interviewers why they serve. Some admit that they are basically “padding” their resumes. There may be a sense of hollowness in today’s adolescence, as if what you do when you’re 16 is simply practice–a competitive “try-out”–for life that really begins after graduation.

Any change in this situation would presumably require economic growth, greater financial security, and more sharing of risk. After all, real family income has been basically flat since the early 1970s, and families are shouldering more individualized risk as unions shrink and health coverage gets worse. These trends could have negative effects on adolescents’ sense of security, mutual trust, and concern for their communities.

I’m afraid there is not much that I can do (or participate in doing) that can mitigate such pervasive social problems. However, I am trying to become involved in the debate about high school reform, and lately I’ve wondered whether comprehensive reform might make a positive difference. After all, today’s large, anonymous high schools are relentless sorting mechanisms. Their wide variety of courses, extracurricular activities, and social groups create numerous internal competitions and hierarchies. Students are left to make their own choices among these offerings. If they aren’t ambitious enough, then they cannot ascend very high on the college hierarchy; but it’s just as damaging if they aim too high and get poor grades. Since young people see their performance as having dire economic consequences, they agonize about how to make themselves look successful.

Again, the high school “rat-race” is largely a phenomenon of increased insecurity and individualized risk in the broader economy. Nevertheless, it seems possible that students would feel more comfortable and fulfilled if they attended small high schools with coherent, required curricula, lots of opportunities for participation in diverse groups, partnerships with adult institutions, and guidance from teachers who knew them as individuals. These are hallmarks of whole-school reform.

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3 Responses to high schools in a high-risk era

  1. Notes for a talk on status hierarchy and public policy

    Reducing status inequality looks like a good idea. But can it be done? Would reducing income inequality help?

  2. teacherken says:


    I picked this up from a link at Mark Kleiman, with whom I overlapped at Haverford, not that it means anything.

    I am a teacher in a fairly well known hs in suburban DC. About 1/3 of our students get in via competitive exam, but we are also a geographic school. We send aout 80% of our kids on to post-secondary education immediately (I think for our large suburban district the overall figure is below 60%). The toughest competition is for kids who want to go to Maryland-College Park, because so many apply there .. we have kids with 4.0’s that as a result don’t get in to the state U.

    That said, I do not see a pattern of kids being unwilling to cooperate, or anything like sabotaging the chances of others. For one thing, if faculty or administration caught a hint of it there wold be hell to pay. We would kick kids out of National Honor Society for something like sabotaging someone else, and we have barred kids from admission because of a single episode of telling rumors about other kids.

    While we are quite insistent on students giving their best in academics, we are equally emphatic on what could be called educating the whole child, including what is generally called character education. In this we have the strong support of the vast majority of both our students and their parents.

    I cannot speak for high schools in general, as this is the only one at which i have taught, although I have for Haverford’s admissions department visited others and interviewed students from a wide variety of acadcemic settings. I believe that if adults will be firm about what is acceptabole behavior and what is not,many of the problems about which we read in our high schools could be avoided.

    Of course, this is but one small window on the much larger set of problems in Aemircan public education. My worry is that all we hear are the problems. I do not deny their existence. But I also believe that there is far more positive going on than most people ever encounter in the general news media. And what makes it to the publicn consciousness is often colored by the bias against public education or progressive approaches to education that are characteristic of far too many one one side of the political balance in this nation.

    As to comprehensive reform, I’m not certain that addresses the problems. That is, it sounds far too much like yet another attempt to impose one way of doing things, a tactic that has failed miserably in the past. Some, like Bill Gatges, argue strenuously for small schools — the one in which i teach has 2,800 students, which enables us to offer a diversity of courses and programs that would not otherwise be available to the students. A student can explore interests in Latin, Music and Genetics at the same time. Smaller schools are unlikely to be able to deliver that. Further, we deliberately mix students of a variety of academic levels in some classes — Health, gym, art, music – we consider this part of their civic education, that they learn to appreciate and get along with those of different gifts .

    I do not believe that we can come up with ONE way to address anything in education. If i can be excused for borrowing from Chairman Mao, I think instead we would be far better off to let a thousand flowers bloom, and create situations where there is more choice among educational approaches, so that parents and students can find one that makes sense for their needs.

    Sorry to post such a long and rambling comment, but this is an issue about which I am passionate, as should be obvious from my words.

  3. Peter Levine says:

    Thanks for this comment and the benefit of your experience. I actually agree with almost everything you wrote, and would simply note that …

    1) I’m not concerned about kids who refuse to cooperate or who sabatoge one another. I’m worried about a gradual but substantial decline in the percentage of adolescents who say that they trust one another. I worry about that trend because it seems unpleasant to live in a world without trust, and because we know that trust correlates with joining organizations. Like trust, organizational membership has declined among youth. So I would be looking for subtle signs of wariness and alienation among your kids, not actual cheating and sabotage.

    2) There is lots of great practice out there. Schools are diverse, and hardly any criticisms that one can make of education would apply to all schools, let alone all teachers. I nevertheless suspect that there is a tendency for high schools to sort kids (or to let them sort themselves) in ways that increase their stress and prevent them from doing intrinsically valuable, satisfying work in their communities. Again, that is a generalization that does not apply to all students in all schools, although I have seen it with my own eyes in several contexts.

    3) If the Gates approach is “small schools for everyone,” then I’m against it. But I think that’s a bit of a caricature. The Gates Foundation appears to be supporting some experiments with small schools, some efforts to divide student populations into “learning communities” within schools, and various other efforts at comprehensive reform.

    By the way, I doubt that the relationship between school size and student success is linear–schools can be too small or too big. Besides, it would be foolish to break up a huge school if it’s doing well. Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks to large schools, if we hold everything else constant. For example, not as many people can participate in leadership roles if a school has 2,800 kids instead of 500.

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