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March 23, 2005

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:42 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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