Education Opinion

To Improve High Schools, Listen to the Insights of Students

By Ronald S. Byrnes — February 23, 2005 6 min read
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Students praise subtle, intangible, yet vital aspects of their schools’ cultures that reformers rushing to propose changes might miss.

Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the National Governors Association, is about to convene what is being billed as a national high school summit. Recently, he wrote, “With the help of teachers, administrators, business leaders, policymakers, parents, and students, this bipartisan task force will make the entire high school experience more rigorous and relevant to college and the workforce.” It will be interesting to see if teachers and students in particular will be full-fledged participants in the process.

I hope the governors will listen and learn from students, as I have been privileged to do for the last several years. At two colleges, I’ve taught a seminar I created called “Reinventing the American High School.” Throughout the course, students listen to one another’s stories, discuss high school ethnographies, watch high school documentaries, and write about what made high school meaningful and meaningless at different times in their own school years. Inevitably, the students impress me with their thoughts on how they would improve their high schools. The success of the governors’ Feb. 26-27 summit may hinge in part on whether or not they sincerely consider recent graduates’ insights and perspectives.

Here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned from countless discussions with recent graduates and from reading thousands of pages of their heartfelt writing about their high school experiences.

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First, my students don’t write about interesting books they read, memorable class discussions they participated in, or papers they were proud of writing; instead, they are most passionate about their extracurricular activities. Often they credit a particular club, sport, service project, drama production, or musical group as the most important and rewarding part of their experience. Similarly, many say that a special club sponsor, coach, drama teacher, or band director was the most important figure in their high school years. They talk with fondness about the sense of community they experienced in their extracurricular activities.

Second, and closely related to the first lesson, my students do not describe their high school accomplishments in academic terms; instead of recounting skills they developed, knowledge they gained, or topics they became interested in, students focus much more on their sports championships, their band awards, and their student-body titles. In light of this recurring theme, I’m concerned that the governors and other reformers will slight the importance of extracurricular activities. Reformers need to think through how extracurricular activities might advance, and at other times thwart, academic aims. It will be far easier for the governors to mandate tougher course requirements and high-stakes tests than it will be to communicate an inspiring vision for how extracurricular activities might contribute to important purposes of schooling.

Third, a lot of my students, no doubt following the lead of adults in their lives, were seriously overextended during high school. Many took difficult classes, participated in several extracurricular activities, worked part time, and helped out at home. One fairly typical student, describing only her school activities, explained: “I not only participated in the honors program, but also dance, softball, orchestra, Latin Club, student government, Photography Club, peer tutoring, and student mentoring.” Being well-rounded is valuable, and reformers and policymakers can’t require hard-charging, frazzled students to slow down, but many students are going well beyond being well rounded.

Fourth, my students are critical of the attention their schools devoted to athletes in the major sports at the expense of students’ academic accomplishments and successes in minor sports, the arts, service-learning, and other extracurricular activities. “Our school rarely hosted assemblies,” one student reflected, “to honor those who worked hard academically.” Another lamented that “by mainly supporting the more mainstream activities like football,” his high school left out “the small groups like band or drama.” Students talk and write in convincing detail about the preferential treatment star athletes received. Even former student-athletes are quick to acknowledge this. Too many teachers, students argue, allow star athletes to misbehave, turn in work late, and sit silently in class.

My students’ most influential teachers were not just knowledgeable, but also caring.

A fifth lesson: My students’ most influential teachers were not just knowledgeable, but also caring. They successfully connected with students as young men and women. They also demonstrated care by challenging students and by teaching creatively and flexibly. “In science,” one student explained, “Mr. C. had us make strange contraptions. The entire purpose of the contraptions was to waste energy. This could be accomplished a number of ways, but in the end we had to explain momentum shifts, potential, and kinetic energy, and how it’s used and stored as well.” “One of the most important aspects of high schools,” another wrote, “is that the teachers care and be willing to change to become better teachers.” This student described her best teachers as “loving, interesting, and determined.” If provided with the opportunity to influence the governors’ thinking about teaching excellence, my students would implore them to pay at least equal attention to human qualities, such as care and respect, as they do to rigorous subject-matter tests.

Sixth, my students would tell the governors that teaching excellence takes many forms and that they should guard against one-size-fits-all prescriptions for improving teaching. One student described a favorite teacher as “very forthright.” She explained: “She ran her class with the attitude of ‘either respect me or leave my class. It’s as simple as that!’ She made it quite clear that we were in her world, and we were not to cross or disrespect her in any way. She had a spark that I found admirable and that not many teachers had.” The same young woman expressed a different kind of respect for her Advanced Placement English teacher—“a true-to-life example of intellectual brilliance,” in her estimation. “It was impossible to walk away from this class or even an ordinary conversation with this teacher without learning something new. I had great respect for her mind and an admiration for the passion she expressed in her teaching.”

Finally, many students also praise subtle, intangible, yet vital aspects of their schools’ cultures that reformers rushing to propose changes might overlook. “Diversity was welcomed and encouraged at BHS,” one student noted. “There was a sort of openness there that many schools were lacking, but that BHS had mastered like a form of art.” Another wrote, “I feel fortunate that I was able to attend a school that challenged me as a student and as a person.”

I hope the governors won’t approach high school reform exclusively in terms of future economic growth, and thus succumb to business-model groupthink. If improved economic competitiveness is the main catalyst for strengthening our high schools, and secondary students are viewed primarily as future workers and consumers, only easily quantifiable aspects of schooling will garner attention. In this scenario, I suspect the governors will convince one another that even more test-score-based competition between schools and teachers is needed to motivate teachers and students. And the insights of these recent graduates, and others like them, will be lost.

I wonder, too, whether the governors’ proposed reforms will take into account the social problems that inevitably complicate high school teachers’ work. Too often, they are expected to compensate for a wide range of intractable social ills—family strife, poverty, violence, racism, sexism, and other forces—that they have no more control over than other citizens.

If the governors propose only business-model-based reforms, some essential elements of the puzzle—substantive extracurricular activities; close teacher-student relationships; excellent, yet varied teaching; and inclusive, caring, and challenging school cultures—will remain elusive. Reform fatigue will deepen. And the secondary education status quo, with its associated achievement gap, will persist.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as To Improve High Schools, Listen to the Insights of Students


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