Apathy and Anonymity
Those who criticize the American high school would do well to consider just how difficult is has become to be a teenager. Young people on the brink of adulthood must contend with a whirlwind of destabilizing forces that undermine their scholastic potential and leave them wondering what society expects of them. And so it is that "Breaking Ranks," the new report on the restructuring of high schools from the National Association of Secondary School Principals in partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, concerns itself as much with young people as with the institution that makes claims on so many of their waking hours. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1996.)
While many of the document's recommendations necessarily revolve around changing the structure and reforming the bureaucracy of high schools, the report operates simultaneously on another, more human, level. In this regard, "Breaking Ranks" seeks to combat two of the main im-pediments to the academic development of post-adolescents--anonymity and apathy.
Many high school students feel, by and large, that few people, not even their teachers, really know them as they would like to be known. They get the sense, rightly or wrongly, of acting as human fungibles as they march from class to class, encountering different teachers every 50 minutes and sitting with an entirely different set of classmates each time. Their academic aspirations and their scholastic problems remain bottled within them, tapped infrequently by the harried counselor who must also deal with 499 other confounded youngsters. Given these circumstances, some students drift into boredom or misconduct, not sufficiently engaged by their educational experiences to involve themselves in substantial academic learning or in the communal aspects of high school. The embers of their dissatisfaction are stoked by a larger society teeming with cynicism over authority, government, and almost all of life's institutional dimensions. This is a society that, despite what it tells the young, shows in ever so many ways that it does not value matters of the mind and that responsibility to community is for chumps. News and analysis count to Americans mostly for their entertainment value, and the culture of complaint makes quaint relics of selflessness and altruism. Nonetheless, the high school struggles to persuade teenagers of the merits of learning and to inculcate within them an appreciation of civic virtue.
As a first step toward banishing anonymity and apathy, the high school must reduce scale and personalize the experiences of students. They must gain a sense of identification and connectedness. Teachers should spend their time with fewer students so that they can build relationships with them. Thus, the report recommends that each student in the restructured high school have a "personal adult advocate," a person in the school who meets individually with the youngster on a regular basis and serves as a liaison between the student and others in and out of the school. Places that have tried this approach, such as Shoreham-Wading River Middle School on Long Island, N.Y., know that it can work. In addition, "Breaking Ranks" calls for every student in the high school to have a "personal learning plan," something like the individualized education plan that federal law mandates for all disabled students. No longer will a young person have to wear a label to get personal attention.
Attacking anonymity from another direction, the restructured high school will break into small units that the report proposes contain no more than 600 students. The same teachers and the same students will see each other with frequency, and no one will get lost or be able to hide. Furthermore, each teacher will carry a load of no more than 90 students a term, enabling teachers to spend more time on the needs of individual students.
The report speaks to the importance of teachers' showing students that they care about them. Good teaching is about establishing an atmosphere favorable to learning. Parents know full well that their children tend to stop striving when they think that the teacher does not care about them. "Breaking Ranks" envisions curricula and instruction that appeal to the interests and aptitudes of young people. This is not the sham of self-esteem pursued through feel-good slogans of "I'm great because I say I'm great." Rather, the report recommends that "teachers will know and be able to use a variety of strategies and settings that identify and accommodate individual learning styles and engage students." Moreover, it calls on teachers to design work for students that causes them "to persist and, when successfully completed, result[s] in their satisfaction and their acquisition of learnings, skills, and abilities."
And, because perceptions of irrelevance exacerbate the apathy of students, the report recommends in several ways that high schools link academic pursuits to the world that young people inhabit. "The content of the curriculum, where practical, will connect itself to real-life applications of knowledge and skills," it says. The report puts teeth in its bite by recommending that high schools "guarantee that students can meet performance standards in entry-level jobs." This warranty is supposed to include a "return" policy so that the student can be brought up to snuff. Students need to believe that learning has a purpose, an essentiality in competing for the attention of those otherwise distracted by part-time jobs, schoolhouse romances, the mall culture, and television programs. The report recommends, for example, that high schools align assessment with what is taught, creating a straight line between expectations and acceptable results so as to underscore the purposefulness of lessons.
The breakdown of family and community across the United States has left alienation in its wake. High schools, no less than other sectors of society, suffer the consequences. Thus, the report points decisively toward steps designed to promote a sense of responsibility and to rebuild community. It advocates that high schools predicate their very existence on the same democratic and civil values to which the country itself supposedly pays fealty. The future of the American experiment in democracy depends on the outcome, because nationhood will wither if anonymity and apathy continue to proliferate among the young.
Thus, the report recommends that all high schools "advocate and model" a set of core values, rebutting the misguided notion that high schools should straddle questions of values by remaining neutral. There is no neutrality where virtue is at issue. Strong language stresses that possession of weapons, drugs, and violence will lead to removal from the regular program--at least until a student turns over a new leaf--and that the high school should not hesitate to safeguard the community that it hopes to foster. Furthermore, on the assumption that high schools can offset anonymity and apathy by nurturing a feeling for the common good, the report endorses the idea of a requirement that students participate in service learning.
Finally, students will have a greater stake in the high school itself if they exert some control over their destiny. "Breaking Ranks" recommends that every high school accord meaningful roles in decisionmaking to students, along with parents and staff members. It goes further and proposes, under a set of recommendations devoted to leadership, that the high school set out in a deliberate way to cultivate the leadership qualities of students.
Skeptics may place these various efforts to dispel anonymity and apathy at the periphery of school reform, deeming them little more than the coddling of young people. But the context of the full report makes it clear that students must demonstrate achievement in "essential learnings" to receive diplomas. The lengthy deliberations that led to "Breaking Ranks" were inspired by a belief that getting the most out of one's education matters more to those who know that they matter to someone else and that the acquisition of habits of involvement and responsibility is basic to a healthy society--inside and outside the high school.
Gene I. Maeroff was the staff writer for "Breaking Ranks." He is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N.J., the partner of the report's sponsor, the National Association of Secondary School Principals.