|What is it about our schools that causes students to make every effort to avoid them or, if they can’t, act out their frustrations in misbehavior?|
Last spring, the Rhode Island Department of Education reported that some 16,000 students—10 percent of the state’s enrollmentwere suspended during the 2000-01 school year. Many other states and most large urban districts probably experience suspension rates at least that high. Such statistics undoubtedly bolster the public’s opinion that discipline is one of the primary problems in public schools and give rise to the question, what is wrong with these kids?
The question should be, what’s wrong with the schools? The main reason for suspension is truancy and tardiness (65 percent of the cases); disrespectful and disruptive behavior is a distant second. What is it about these schools that causes students to make every effort to avoid them or, if they can’t, act out their frustrations in misbehavior? The kids have already answered this question. A survey conducted a decade or so ago asked them what they like most about school. The most common response was “nothing.” In another survey, when students were asked to pick a word that best describes their school experiences, “boring” was the number one answer.
If memory serves, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that much of our own schooling was boring and even, on occasion, agonizing. At a time when their bodies and brains are demanding activity and engagement, adolescents are segregated from adults and herded into classrooms where they’re expected to memorize the principal products of Peru, plow through Silas Marner, and sort out the causes of the Hundred Years’ War.
Kids can’t imagine why they should learn this stuff, except to pass a test and please the teacher. They surely aren’t convinced by the admonition that they will need to know these facts sometime in the future. Consequently, they feel as though they’ve been forced, for much of their young lives, to play an endless game of Trivial Pursuit, fulfilling someone else’s vision of what they should know and be able to do.
For too many adolescents, school falls somewhere between a waste of time and a series of humiliating failures.
Nearly 30 years ago, in what reads like an eerie prophecy of the Columbine tragedy, sociologist Urie Bronfenbrenner wrote: “If the institutions of our society continue to remove parents, other adults, and older youth from the active participation in the lives of children, and if the resulting vacuum is filled by the age-segregated peer groups, we can anticipate increased alienation, indifference, antagonism, and violence on the part of the young generation in all segments of our society—middle-class children as well as the disadvantaged.”
In that light, truancy and tardiness are benign results of student alienation. For too many adolescents, school falls somewhere between a waste of time and a series of humiliating failures. Truancy is often a rational way to escape an intolerable situation, especially for those who were never taught to read well or for whom English is a second language.
Contrary to common belief, most adolescents are not lazy or mindless. When placed in a nourishing environment and blessed with competent and caring teachers, they overcome huge deficits. And when they are genuinely interested in something, they eagerly learn about it. Who doesn’t remember the joy of playing a guitar, knitting, or identifying birds? Learning can bring young people enjoyment and pride, and if students are invested in what they’re doing, they will work long and hard to accomplish their goals.
Kids who are engaged in activities and projects do not skip school or become disciplinary problems. Indeed, one learning accomplishment provides a springboard to the next. A good teacher, for example, can guide a student from an interest in fishing to a passion for oceanography.
How our middle and high schools continually fail to recognize and capitalize on this concept boggles the mind.
How parents and the public allow the situation to continue decade after decade is even more inconceivable.
—Ronald A. Wolk