Education Opinion

What Kids Can Do

March 01, 2001 3 min read
America’s 15 million high school students are the most underused asset in the public education system.

In response to last month’s column, “Technical Difficulties,” a high school teacher wrote to offer another explanation for why information technology is not flourishing in schools. The prevailing attitude at most schools, he said, is, “Don’t trust the kids.” The fear is that students will misuse technology by visiting sites they shouldn’t or by wasting time on computer games.

America’s 15 million high school students are the most underused asset in the public education system. Except for extracurricular activities, in which they play music or publish literary magazines or compete in sports, students are rarely asked to produce something that would interest—and even benefit—the outside world. The main reason for this, educators insist, is that there is no uniform and objective way to assess and compare the varied output of students. But that also can be said of Olympic performances, National Book Awards, the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Fair, and most other judgments we make in life.

The Coalition of Essential Schools and other reform groups have pressed hard to persuade educators to evaluate students on performance—such as exhibitions of their work—instead of on standardized tests alone. That seems like a no- brainer given that, after we leave school, we are all judged by what we produce and how we perform rather than by multiple-choice tests.

To compound the problem, too many teachers and parents underestimate students or, even worse, focus on their shortcomings. We often fail to recognize how creative and capable students can be when encouraged and given the opportunity. To demonstrate this creativity, Barbara Cervone, formerly of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, has launched a nonprofit organization called What Kids Can Do.

The group seeks out and publicizes examples of student accomplishments across the country. As an example, Cervone points to the seaside community of Lubec, Maine, where two years ago, with the help of their teachers, 20 students turned an abandoned water-treatment facility into a state-of-the-art wet laboratory where they farm mussels and raise salmon and trout in purified water beefed up with a homemade brew of nutrients. Last year, they started a baitfish business for local anglers.

In the classroom, the Lubec students devised an experiment that could be lucrative for the Maine fishing industry because it is yielding important data about the best diet for enhancing the roe of sea urchins—a delicacy in Japan. Their work has attracted the attention of national aquaculture companies and has enabled the students to meet with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and area biotech entrepreneurs.

Now the students are engaged in helping find a way to protect Lubec’s vulnerable marina from the ravages of Atlantic storms. A documentary video they made is part of the town’s ongoing effort to win federal assistance.

Lubec may be a dramatic example of student achievement, but it is by no means the only impressive one. A team of teenagers in Oakland is designing a plan to revitalize the block around their local subway stop—and learning economics and design principles in the process. In rural Alabama, students are publishing newspapers for communities that had no source of local news. They conduct research, learn to write and edit, and meet deadlines. In an animation program in one California high school, students turn out professional-quality productions for which they conceive the story, write the scripts, and draw and photograph the scenes.

Even younger kids can be more creative than most of us realize. My daughter, who’s not a certified teacher, volunteered to teach writing to 5th graders in her son’s elementary school. The writing those kids produced was extraordinary— better than writing by some high school seniors and so good that the students got to read their work for the public at a Borders bookstore one evening.

Engaging students in meaningful work would likely reduce boredom and disciplinary problems, stimulate more parental involvement, and inspire self- confidence and responsibility in kids. Unfortunately, conventional curricula and schedules do not create a very receptive environment for such work.

—Ronald A. Wolk