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Our Obligation To Kids

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The future of any society is ultimately shaped by its children. The skills, the habits of mind, and the values they acquire as they grow will mold not only their lives as individuals but also the larger life of the community. That is why teaching is such a noble calling. As Christa McAuliffe said: "I touch the future. I teach.'' Yet society does not treat young people very well. Too many live in poverty; too many are unloved; too many are unchallenged.

In our most blighted inner cities and poorest rural areas, teenagers commonly grow up without ever seeing a physician. Disease, drug and alcohol abuse, and teenage pregnancy are rampant. In our cover story about a school-based health clinic, beginning on page 18, a physician says, "About 25 to 30 percent of my female patients have been abused, usually sexually, usually in an incestuous way, when they were young.'' He adds: "Teenagers should be the healthiest segment of the population, medically. But, in fact, they are the unhealthiest.''

More than 300 school-based clinics are now the primary health-care providers for thousands of students, many of whom have no health insurance. These clinics mostly treat acute illness and injuries, provide physical examinations, and offer counseling for mental and emotional problems. But their funding is precarious, and they are under constant threat from those who accuse them of promoting sexual activity.

Most of the young men and women who attend Whitefish Bay High School in suburban Milwaukee do not lack medical care or anything else. They are society's privileged. Writer David Ruenzel, who attended Whitefish Bay 20 years ago at the height of student activism, recently returned to see how the current generation differs from his and how, if at all, his alma mater has changed. (See "No Place For Dreamers,'' page 26.)

At first glance, what he saw was a typical suburban school populated by rather conventional, well-dressed, well-behaved students who pay attention in class, take copious notes, and are conscientious about homework--"nice kids.'' But after talking with many students and teachers and attending classes over several days, Ruenzel came to see Whitefish Bay and its students in a different light.

He found a high school virtually unchanged from 1973, driven by a relentless lecture-and-test routine in which the primary goal is not creative thinking and learning but successful regurgitation of facts. And students play the game well. Lacking any larger cause to motivate them and no greater goal than the next steppingstone in the academic scramble, they are highly competitive and almost obsessed with grades. When it comes to the future (their's and society's), they are, by their own admission, apathetic, pragmatic, and pessimistic.

But Ruenzel was startled to find that these same young people behaved differently in certain circumstances. In classes with inspired teachers who valued their ideas and their feelings, these students became intellectually and emotionally involved. Their behavior and outlook on life, Ruenzel suggests, are induced, at least in part, by school and community.

Unlike the grade-grubbing students at Whitefish Bay, many of the nation's African-American students retreat from academic competition, according to social psychologist Jeff Howard, whose story begins on page 34. "Schools are organized around a very simple, unspoken operating principle,'' Howard says. "And that is, we sort children by judgments of learning capacity. We decide who can learn. All of the policies and practices in American schools are based on that simple principle.''

Howard argues that once adults decide that children are too dull to learn complex material, they stop teaching them. And once children internalize these judgments, they stop trying to learn. The result is a performance gap between blacks and whites. By the 6th grade, many African-American children have effectively dropped out.

Howard created the Efficacy Institute in 1985 to help break the self-fulfilling cycle of the "innate-ability paradigm.'' Last year, it trained some 5,400 teachers in 55 school districts. Now Howard is calling for a movement much like the civil rights and desegregation movements to induce the African-American community to focus squarely on the development of its children. Howard knows what too many of us have forgotten: As adults, we have an obligation to our children, a responsibility for their mental and emotional health.--Ronald A. Wolk

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