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April 04, 2005

high schools in a high-risk era (2)

Here's another take on an issue that I've written about recently, the "rat race" in our high schools:

We live in an era of expanded opportunities. There are more careers and lifestyles to choose from. Some people have confidence that they can innovate successfully, realizing their private ideas and goals. The "dot-com" expansion of the late 1990s was just an example of that opportunistic spirit.

The other side of the coin is individualized risk. We don't have as many strong, tight-knit neighborhood communities as we used to. The array of voluntary associations has changed; fewer groups provide guaranteed support in return for long-term commitment. The government's safety net is weaker, and fewer people belong to unions. Corporations don't even pretend to offer long-term job security. Public-sector careers are less desirable than in the past.


If your job is to educate adolescents in this climate, then you may feel that you must tell them about these opportunities and risks. They cannot rely on peers, communities, or voluntary associations to get ahead. Instead, they must develop marketable skills. A skill or experience that can be recognized formally is better than one that eludes classification.

There is one national or international employment market; many kids would be smart to get out of their own neighborhoods, family networks, and cities in order to compete in that market. College is the first step out. Public Agenda Foundation recently polled a national sample of young adults and conducted some focus groups of the same population. One young Hispanic man reported the message that he had received from his parents, which was fairly typical: "It's basically, you go to college you get to live well. ... They used to tell me and my brothers and sisters, 'Do you want to be succcessful? Do you want to live in a house? ... Go to college.'"

Unfortunately, only about two thirds of adolescents (and half of Latinos and African Americans) complete high school; and only about one third attend college. Colleges are arrayed in a national "pecking order" of prestige. They all demand roughly the same skills and experiences from their applicants. Every kid had better try to get into college, and the "best" college he or she can.

One young adult in the Public Agenda study gave this advice to a younger sibling who is just entering high school: "Know your conselor and tell her, 'This is what I want to do; help me find the best school that I could get into.'" If teachers and counselors fail to teach working class and rural or inner-city kids how to play the game, then those students will have an extra, unfair disadvantage versus the children of yuppies, who understand the rules.

There are advantages to this new system, but it also has some disadvantages. First, teenagers are being asked to make decisions that have excessively serious long-term consequences. While adults should normally pay the price for decisions we make, it's too much to ask unsupported 14-year-olds to make choices that will affect them 30 years later.

Second, schools face two basically unpalatable choices. They can try to motivate all their students to play the game as hard and as well as possible (which is difficult and creates intense pressure), or they can serve as "gatekeepers," deciding which kids may take honors courses, which ones may serve on the school newspaper, which ones may apply to Harvard. Then schools have enormous power.

Third, everything seems to matter only for its impact on adult life. Kids don't learn because subjects are interesting; they don't participate in extracurricular groups because they're fun. Instead, they do what they need for their resumes. In the Public Agenda survey, 49% of young adults said that college is most important because it provides "a credential that employers with good jobs look for"; 26% said that it's important because it "helps make you a responsible adult"; and 23% say it's important because it provides "real skills."

Finally, this kind of pressure is not good for civic learning, because it doesn't reward students for caring about their immediate surroundings--their peers and communities. It doesn't teach cooperation. It doesn't emphasize shared or public problems, because the only goal is to impart individualized "human capital" for the marketplace.

If all this is roughly right, then the question is: Can high schools be redesigned so that they promote collaboration, equity and mixing, concern for community, and civic skills? Will that kind of reform simply leave working class kids at a disadvantage in the race against yuppy children whose parents know how to make sure they obtain "human capital"? Or can small "learning communities," authentic "service opportunities," and "community-based learning," make life better for all adolescents?

In some ways, this is the heart of the debate about high school reform, as reflected in recent public statements by Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, and others. The key question is: Must we ratchet up the pressure on all students (and their teachers) so that everyone gets off to a better start in the marketplace? Or can we make high schools a partial refuge from an intensely competitive world in order to enhance other values?

Posted by peterlevine at April 4, 2005 07:33 AM

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