The American Adolescent: Facing a ‘Vortex of New Risks’

June 21, 1989 33 min read

Following are excerpts from “Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century,” the report issued by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development:

Young adolescents today make fateful choices, fateful for them and for our nation. The period of life from ages 10 to 15 represents for many young people their last best chance to choose a path toward productive and fulfilling lives.

Depending on family circumstances, household income, language, neighborhood, or the color of their skin, some of these young adolescents receive the education and support they need to develop self-respect, an active mind, and a healthy body. They will emerge from their teens as the promising youth who will become the scientists and entrepreneurs, the educators and health-care professionals, and the parents who will renew the nation. These are the thoughtful, responsible, caring, ethical, and robust young people the Task Force envisions. To them, society can entrust the future of the country with confidence.

Under current conditions, however, far too many young people will not make the passage through early adolescence successfully. Their basic human needs--caring relationships with adults, guidance in facing sometimes overwhelming biological and psychological changes, the security of belonging to constructive peer groups, and the perception of future opportunity--go unmet at this critical stage of life. Millions of these young adolescents will never reach their full potential.

Early adolescence for these youth is a turning point towards a diminished future. Many will live outside or on the fringes of those communities that produce the achievers and the leaders in this society. A substantial number will grow into adults who are alienated from other people, who have low expectations for themselves and for whom society has low expectations, and who are likely to produce in uncommon share the unhealthy, the addicted, the criminal, the violent, and the chronically poor. These are the youth left behind.

In even the most affluent communities, young adolescents display the attitudes and behavior that portend difficulty. Such young people often drop out of school or participate at such a low level of effort that, even if they graduate, they have few marketable skills. They may abuse alcohol or drugs, or engage in other antisocial or criminal conduct. For many of us who ought to be concerned, however, daily life is too demanding, change comes too rapidly, money is too plentiful for us to care about troubled teenagers, school dropouts, juvenile offenders, or adolescents who can neither read nor write nor choose to participate fully in school.

Apart from our moral responsibility, we also face an economic imperative to ensure that these young people are properly educated. With the numbers of elderly rising rapidly, the economy cannot support both swelling ranks of the retired and endless additions to the unemployed and the underemployed. Response to drug addiction, crime, violence, and teenage pregnancy continues to consume substantial national resources. With the need for literate and skilled workers increasing, and the pool of such people decreasing, business and industry cannot idly watch a new generation of potential workers slide into chronically unproductive lives.

Who are these young people left behind? How do they differ from their counterparts who enter the later teen years so ready for the demands of life? Why are some youth so well and others so ill prepared for their future? Answers to these questions begin with an understanding of what it means to be a young adolescent in America as the 21st century approaches.

By age 15, millions of American youth are at risk of reaching adulthood unable to meet adequately the requirements of the workplace, the commitments of relationships in families and with peers, and the responsibilities of participation in a multicultural society and of citizenship in a democracy. These young people often suffer from underdeveloped intellectual abilities, indifference to good health, and cynicism about the values that American society embodies.

These characteristics of a critical mass of young people in this country are apparent to any observer. What is less clear, because this period has until recently been the least understood of any stage of life, are the causes of this alienation.

During early adolescence, many youth enter a period of trial and error, of vulnerability to emotional hurt and humiliation, of anxiety and uncertainty that are sources of unevenness of emotions and behavior associated with the age. Yet the turmoil can herald the emergence of a new individual with the potential to learn, to think critically and independently, and to act responsibly according to principles and a code of ethics.

This time is of immense importance in the development of the young person. Biologically, young adolescents experience puberty, a period of growth and development more rapid than in any other phase of life except infancy. Over four or five years, dramatic changes occur in height, weight, and body composition, and young people acquire the capacity to reproduce.

Youth enter puberty at a significantly younger age today than in previous generations. In the United States 150 years ago, the average age of a girl’s first menstrual period was 16 years; today it is 12.5 years. The change for boys is less pronounced but follows a similar trend. While they become biologically mature at earlier ages, many young adolescents remain intellectually and emotionally immature. Thus, young people 10, 11, and 12 years old are able to, and do, make fateful choices involving their own sexuality that can affect their entire life course.

Young adolescents increasingly look outward from the home to gain an understanding of themselves and their circumstances. It is here, as they come face-to-face with realities of life in America: The terms and conditions of early adolescence have changed dramatically.

These young people enter a world in which they will likely be tempted, if not pressured, to experiment with drugs and alcohol. They may live in neighborhoods so dangerous that they fear walking to school. They date earlier in life than their parents did. They are at once admonished to control their sexual urges and bombarded through the media with the allure of sex. They are challenged to make the ideals and values of a just society their own, yet made painfully aware that money and power are the keys to success.

They begin to assess their prospects and to decide how much to invest in their future by staying in school and keeping out of trouble. They begin to perceive their own future either as promising or as hard, bleak, and empty of opportunity.

In our changed America, the sense of community that once existed in urban neighborhoods and in some rural towns has eroded. Stable, close-knit communities where people know and look out for each other are far less common than they were a generation or two ago.

Although the economy continues to expand and jobs are plentiful, the unskilled can find only low-paying work. Many families struggle to maintain their standard of living and often sacrifice time with each other. Family structures have changed dramatically, as both divorce and single-parent households are far more common than a decade ago. Families and individuals move frequently to find jobs, affordable housing, or other opportunities. The workplace has changed, as more women work outside the home and people switch jobs more often. Whole industries have disappeared in recent years.

In these times of rapid change, when young people face unprecedented choices and pressures, adult guidance is all too often withdrawn. Many parents, seeing that their child is developing in profound ways, mistake the stirring of independent thinking for the capacity to make adult decisions. They do not realize that their child’s needs for autonomy require not rejection of filial bonds, but a realignment of roles and relationships within the family.

The young adolescent is moving from dependency to interdependency with parents, as well as with friends, relatives, and other persons outside the home. While renegotiating relationships with parents and other care-givers, often in outwardly stormy ways, the young person simultaneously seeks to maintain strong ties with exactly those people.

Freed from the dependency of childhood, but not yet able to find their own path to adulthood, many young people feel a desperate sense of isolation. Surrounded only by their equally confused peers, too many make poor decisions with harmful or lethal consequences.

During early adolescence, all youth are caught in a vortex of new risks. They face risks that were almost unknown to their parents or grandparents, and face those risks at an early age. Many youth today first experiment with tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs during early adolescence. ...

More and more teenagers below the age of 16 are becoming sexually active. Partners face extremely high risks of the young woman becoming pregnant. ...

Besides the risk of pregnancy, young people are in serious jeopardy of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Fully one-fourth of all sexually active adolescents will become infected with a sexually transmitted disease before graduating from high school, a grave situation that makes aids a potential timebomb for millions of American youth.

Motor-vehicle and other accidents, taken together, are the leading causes of death among young people 10 to 14 years of age. Substance abuse and risk-taking behavior account for many of these accidents, as does association with older adolescents involved in such behavior, especially while driving. Between 1980 and 1985,the suicide rate more than doubled for 10- to 14-year-olds, although suicide remains one of the least likely causes of death for early adolescents. Seriously delinquent activities rise during early adolescence and peak at age 15.

Many problem behaviors of young adolescents appear to be interrelated. Young people who smoke and drink often experiment with illegal drugs and early, unprotected sex as well. These same young people are also prone to school failure. They are not merely exploring new behaviors, in short, but trying out lifestyles that become more entrenched as they grow older.

Poverty and Discrimination Add to Risk

Although all young people face significant stress in early adolescence, many reach late adolescence relatively unscathed. But many others fail to develop the intellectual capacities and coping skills that they will need to meet the demands of adult life.

The risks that all young people face are compounded for those who are poor, members of racial or ethnic minorities, or recent immigrants. These youth generally attend the weakest schools, have access to the least adequate health services, and have the fewest clearly visible paths to opportunities in the mainstream.

Rates of retention in grade--a school practice directly related to students’ dropping out--are far higher among minority youth in the middle grades. For many of these young people, the decision to drop out is clearly made before they begin high school. ...

It is not acceptable that minority youth are chronically the worst educated in our society. By the year 2020, because of higher birth rates among minority populations and patterns of immigration, nearly half of all school-aged children will be non-white. Continuing to allow minority youth to face extraordinary risks of failure is a direct threat to our national standard of living and democratic foundations.

No definitive statistics exist on the numbers of youth at risk of unhealthy and unproductive lives. Recent first attempts at estimating these numbers indicate, however, that of the 28 million girls and boys ages 10 to 17 in the United States, about 7 million may be extremely vulnerable to the negative consequences of multiple high-risk behaviors such as school failure, substance abuse, and early unprotected intercourse. Thus it is estimated that the future of about 7 million youth--one in four adolescents--is in serious jeopardy.

Another 7 million may be at moderate risk, because of occasional substance use and early but more often protected intercourse. About half of the nation’s youth are at low risk of engaging in seriously damaging behaviors. They may, however, require strong and consistent support to avoid becoming involved in these problems.

That half our nation’s youth is at serious or moderate risk is cause enough for alarm. But even among those at little or no risk of damaging behaviors, the pervasiveness of intellectual underdevelopment strikes at the heart of our nation’s future prosperity. American 13-year-olds, for example, are now on average far behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations in mathematics and science achievement.

Most distressing is the fact that the critical reasoning skills of many American young adolescents are extremely deficient. ...

The economy will increasingly have little use for youth who are impaired by high-risk behaviors or who are intellectually unprepared for the challenges of a changing economy. Job growth is concentrated in occupations that require much more than basic literacy. ...

Middle-grade schools have been virtually ignored in discussions of educational reform in the past decade. Yet, they are central not only to channeling every young adolescent into the mainstream of life in American communities, but also to making vast improvements in academic and personal outcomes for all youth.

Middle-grade schools--junior high, intermediate, or middle schools--are potentially society’s most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift. Yet all too often they exacerbate the problems youth face.

A volatile mismatch exists between the organization and curriculum of middle-grade schools, and the intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal needs of young adolescents. For most young adolescents, the shift from elementary to junior high or middle school means moving from a small, neighborhood school and the stability of one primary classroom to a much larger, more impersonal institution, typically at a greater distance from home. In this new setting, teachers and classmates will change as many as six or seven times a day. This constant shifting creates formidable barriers to the formation of stable peer groups and close, supportive relationships with caring adults. The chances that young people will feel lost are enormous.

Today, as young adolescents move from elementary to middle or junior high schools, their involvement with learning diminishes and their rates of alienation, drug abuse, absenteeism, and dropping out begin to rise. The warning signals are there to see.

The ability of young adolescents to cope is often further jeopardized by a middle-grade curriculum that assumes a need for an intellectual moratorium during early adolescence. Some educators consider the young adolescent incapable of critical, complex thought during rapid physical and emotional development. Minimal effort, they argue, should be spent to stimulate higher levels of thought and decisionmaking until the youth reaches high school and becomes teachable again.

Existing knowledge seriously challenges these assumptions. Yet many middle-grade schools fail to recognize or to act on this knowledge.

Furthermore, many middle-grade schools pay little attention to the emotional, physical, and social development of their students. Young adolescents need proper nutrition, health, and social services to maintain good physical and mental health and fitness. Students who are hungry, sick, troubled, or depressed cannot function well in the classroom, no matter how good the school. Moreover, young adolescents need adult guidance to help them cope with one of life’s more confusing periods.

Middle-grade schools cannot meet all these needs alone. To fulfill their vital functions, they will need to operate at the center of a network of community resources that includes local government, health services, youth-serving organizations, private businesses, and the philanthropic sector. In many localities today that network does not exist, and middle-grade schools are unable to meet their responsibilities to their students or to the community.

Caring is crucial to the development of young adolescents into healthy adults. Young adolescents need to see themselves as valued members of a group that offers mutual support and trusting relationships. They need to be able to succeed at something, and to be praised and rewarded for that success. They need to become socially competent individuals who have the skills to cope successfully with the exigencies of everyday life. They need to believe that they have a promising future, and they need the competence to take advantage of real opportunities in a society in which they have a stake. ...

Many middle-grade schools today fall far short of meeting the critical educational, health, and social needs of millions of young adolescents. Many youth now leave the middle grades unprepared for what lies ahead of them. A fundamental transformation of the education of young adolescents is urgently required.

Young adolescents have a great need for intimacy, yet we put them in large, impersonal schools. Young adolescents need increased autonomy and they need to make their own decisions, yet we put them in environments of review and rote learning. Young adolescents show great variability among themselves and within themselves, yet we put them in classrooms where we ignore their variability and need for flexibility.

In reaching its vision of transformed middle-grade schools, the Task Force visited or examined sites of middle-grades innovation, and met with talented and committed individuals throughout the country who are deeply engaged in making middle-grade schools work for young adolescents. Integrating the most current research knowledge with considered and wise practice, the Task Force found that the transformation of education for young adolescents involves eight essential principles:

Large middle-grade schools are divided into smaller communities for learning.

Middle-grade schools transmit a core of common knowledge to all students.

Middle-grade schools are organized to ensure success for all students.

Teachers and principals have the major responsibility and power to transform middle-grade schools.

Teachers for the middle grades are specifically prepared to teach young adolescents.

Schools promote good health; the education and health of young adolescents are inextricably linked.

Families are allied with school staff through mutual respect, trust, and communication.

Schools and communities are partners in educating young adolescents.

The middle-grade school proposed here is profoundly different from many schools today. It focuses squarely on the characteristics and needs of young adolescents. It creates a community of adults and young people embedded in networks of support and responsibility that enhance the commitment of students to learning. In partnership with youth-serving and community organizations, it offers multiple sites and multiple methods for fostering the learning and health of adolescents. The combined efforts create a community of shared purpose among those concerned that all young adolescents are prepared for productive adult lives, especially those at risk of being left behind.

School should be a place where close relationships with adults and peers create a climate for personal growth and intellectual development.

Many large middle-grade schools function as mills that contain and press endless streams of students. Within them are masses of anonymous youth. Student populations in a middle-grade school exceed 1,000 in many jurisdictions and reach as high as 2,000 in some urban areas.

Such settings virtually guarantee that the intellectual and emotional needs of youth will go unmet.

Consider what is asked of these students: Every 50 minutes, perhaps six or seven times each day, assemble with 30 or so of your peers, each time in a different group, sit silently in a chair in neat, frozen rows, and try to catch hold of knowledge as it whizzes by you in the words of an adult you met only at the beginning of this school year. The subject of one class has nothing to do with the subject of the next class. If a concept is confusing, don’t ask for help, there isn’t time to explain. If something interests you deeply, don’t stop to think about it, there’s too much to cover. If your feelings of awkwardness about your rapid growth make it difficult to concentrate, keep your concerns to yourself. And don’t dare help or even talk to your fellow students in class; that may be considered cheating. ...

Three qualities should be infused into such a setting. First, the enormous middle-grade school must be restructured in a more human scale. The student should, upon entering middle-grade school, join a small community in which people--students and adults--get to know each other well to create a climate for intellectual development. Students should feel that they are part of a community of shared educational purpose.

Second, the discontinuity in expectations and practices among teachers, the lack of integration of subject matter, and the instability of peer groups must be reduced. Every student must be able to rely on a small, caring group of adults who work closely with each other to provide coordinated, meaningful, and challenging educational experiences. In turn, teachers must have the opportunity to get to know every one of their students well enough to understand and teach them as individuals. Every student must have the opportunity to know a variety of peers, some of them well.

Finally, every student needs at least one thoughtful adult who has the time and takes the trouble to talk with the student about academic matters, personal problems, and the importance of performing well in middle-grade school. ...

The Task Force recommends that middle-grade schools develop these qualities by:

Creating smaller learning environments;

Forming teachers and students into teams; and

Assigning an adult adviser to each student.

...Teaching a Core of Common Knowledge

Every student in the middle grades should learn to think critically through mastery of an appropriate body of knowlege, lead a healthy life, behave ethically, and assume the responsibilities of citizenship in a pluralistic society.

Every middle-grade school should offer a core academic program and should expect every student to complete that program successfully. The purpose of setting this goal is practical: The future of this nation as a stable, prosperous democracy requires that all members contribute to the common good of society and meet their obligations as citizens.

The broad outlines of the curriculum are the responsibility of state and local school authorities. But middle-grade educators can fashion a full academic program for all students that integrates English, fine arts, foreign languages, history, literature and grammar, mathematics, science, and social studies.

A curriculum containing these subjects today frequently lacks depth. At best, students are asked to demonstrate competency in the subject matter, but not in the ability to think or express themselves about topics that range across each subject. Middle-grade schools, in conjunction with state and local authorities, can vastly improve middle-grade curricula and instruction programs by:

Teaching young adolescents to think critically;

Teaching young adolescents to develop healthful lifestyles;

Teaching young adolescents to be active citizens;

Integrating subject matter across disciplines; and

Teaching students to learn as well as to test successfully.

...Ensuring Success for All Students

All young adolescents should have the opportunity to succeed in every aspect of the middle-grade program, regardless of previous achievement or the pace at which they learn.

This report calls for every middle-grade student to complete the core instructional program successfully. Ensuring success for all students should be adopted by transformed middle-grade schools as an attainable goal, not a slogan. Middle-grade schools must increase their success rates dramatically. Schools must encourage students who fall short of success to try again and again, and schools must try again and again, using every means available, to see that all students succeed.

Completion of the core instructional program, however, should not be the only criterion of a successful middle-grade experience. Middle-grade schools must strive to offer each student opportunities to exhibit excellence and to gain the confidence and personal satisfaction of becoming expert or very good at something. For many young people, mastering the core academic program will provide these opportunities. For others, opportunities to exhibit excellence may lie outside the core program in exploratory courses or athletics, or outside the schoolhouse through youth service or other community-based activities.

To ensure that all students learn, the educational program must be shaped to fit the needs of students by:

Grouping students for learning;

Scheduling classroom periods to maximize learning; and

Expanding the structure of opportunity for learning.

...Empowering Teachers and Administrators

Decisions concerning the experiences of middle-grade students should be made by adults who know them best.

Deeply ingrained in our society is the belief that individuals can be trusted to make decisions for themselves and for the common good. This belief is the bedrock of the democratic political system. Increasingly it is being adapted in business and industry as a means of involving employees in decisions about their work. ...

Democratization may be entering the American workplace, but it has not yet penetrated American public education. Teachers and administrators in middle-grade schools today are, as in all levels of American elementary and secondary education, severely limited in their ability to make key decisions regarding their own professional practice.

Teachers must have greater authority to make decisions, and responsibility for the consequences of those decisions, regarding the day-to-day educational experiences of their students.

Dramatically improved outcomes for young adolescents require individualized, responsive, and creative approaches to teaching that will occur only when teachers are able to use their intimate knowledge of students to design instructional programs.

Moreover, teachers need the opportunity to bring their own special interests and expertise to their teaching. Young people exposed to ideas about which teachers care deeply see course material not as isolated facts and abstract concepts, but as powerful forces that affect people’s lives and arouse people’s passions.

More importantly, students who witness teachers making decisions and discussing important ideas can envision what it is like to participate in decisionmaking. Increasingly they can become a part of decisions affecting their education. Young adolescents yearn for responsibility, independence, and self-direction. Yet research on American junior high schools shows that students appear to have fewer opportunities for making decisions than in elementary schools, a perception that both students and teachers share.

Students should begin in middle grade school to feel that they are part of a responsive educational system in which they have defined rights and clear responsibilities. The empowerment of school staff is a necessary and desirable step in creating a transformed middle-grade school that produces responsible, ethical, and participating future citizens. Middle-grade schools can achieve these objectives by:

Giving teachers greater influence in the classroom;

Establishing building governance committees; and

Designating leaders for the teaching process.

...Preparing TeachersFor the Middle Grades

Teachers in middle-grade schools should be selected and specially educated to teach young adolescents.

Many teachers of young adolescents today dislike their work. Assignment to a middle-grade school is, all too frequently, the last choice of teachers who are prepared for elementary and secondary education. Teachers view duty in the middle grades as a way station. After suffering through a few years with young adolescents, teachers move on to assignments they prefer and for which they feel they were prepared in their own education.

Other teachers of young adolescents lack confidence in their ability to teach these students. For some, this feeling comes from the structure of middle-grade schools; like the students, they feel overwhelmed by the impersonality of the environment, and they feel ineffective with the large number of students they must teach. For others, it comes from a lack of training related to early adolescence, coupled with the pervasive stereotype regarding the near impossibility of teaching young adolescents.

This situation must change drastically. The success of the transformed middle-grade school will stand or fall on the willingness of teachers and other staff to invest their efforts in the young adolescent students. Teachers must understand and want to teach young adolescents and find the middle-grade school a rewarding place to work.

The Task Force recommends that middle-grade education be transformed by:

Developing expert teachers of young adolescents.

Dramatic changes are needed in both what individuals learn to become middle-grade teachers and how they learn it. Above all else, prospective middle-grade teachers need to understand adolescent development through courses and direct experience in middle-grade schools. Because they will increasingly be teaching young adolescents of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, teachers must also learn about and become sensitive to cultural differences.

Teachers should learn to work as members of a team and, within the team framework, to design and help teach interdisciplinary, developmentally appropriate programs of study. As members of a team, teachers will be responsible for educating other teachers about the importance of key principles, concepts, and facts within their discipline, and for working with colleagues to find common ground in the subjects that they teach.

Teachers in a restructured middle-grade school will need education in principles of guidance to serve as advisers. Teachers will also need preparation in working with one- and two-parent families, families of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and families who for economic or other reasons are undergoing stress that may influence their children’s performance in school.

The Task Force envisions one approach to teacher education wherein selection and preparation of expert middle-grade teachers begins with undergraduate work, which does not differ from that required for many other professions. Indeed, the bachelor’s degree should qualify prospective teachers for many career choices and not lock them into teaching if they decide on an alternative or prove unsuited for the classroom.

For those undergraduates who are interested in a teaching career, however, opportunities to observe students in schools and other community settings, and to interact with young adolescents should be available as early as the freshman year.

Undergraduate education should, nevertheless, provide prospective middle-grade teachers with a solid core of knowledge in one or more subject areas. Potential middle-grade teachers would as undergraduates be expected to concentrate, therefore, on one and preferably two academic subjects such as English, history, mathematics, or biology.

Paid internships or apprenticeships in middle-grade schools would follow undergraduate education. Apprentice teachers would teach no more than half-time under continuing guidance from mentor teachers. Mentors drawn from both university faculties and the middle-grade school would help student teachers to develop their capacity to work effectively with young adolescents and to make informed decisions about their commitment to a future of teaching young adolescents. ...

While teaching, interns would take graduate courses to further their understanding of young adolescents and the art of teaching as well as their understanding of what is known about the processes of learning.

Selection of teachers to move beyond apprenticeship would be determined largely by their performance in classrooms. Traditional pencil-and-paper tests, which often bear little relation to actual classroom effectiveness, would be replaced with observation of candidates in actual and simulated classrooms and evaluation of candidates’ portfolios. Assessments of teachers by mentor teachers and other qualified individuals will screen out candidates who might be more effective in elementary or high school or those who should not enter the teaching profession at all.

Those candidates who are selected move from apprentice to licensed teacher. These teachers would continue graduate coursework aimed at obtaining a master’s degree or recertification according to state requirements.

The matter of licensure or certification presents an opportunity to increase the numbers and strengthen the quality of middle-grade teachers consonant with procedures currently in place. Teachers are usually licensed and certified (different states use different terms) for either elementary or secondary school, and 23 states offer an additional endorsement or credential for teaching in the middle grades.

The Task Force believes that all teachers who are licensed or certified to teach in either elementary or secondary levels should, upon completion of their education in middle-grade schools, receive a supplemental endorsement to teach at that level. This endorsement would not prevent them from teaching in elementary or high schools at some other time, if they chose to do so.

A middle-grade endorsement could be valuable for three reasons. First, it would recognize the special talents and training of a teacher who has decided to teach young adolescents. Second, it would encourage schools of education to offer specialized courses for the middle grades. Third, it would provide a fully legitimate status for middle-grade teachers, something many do not have at this time; prospective teachers are unlikely to prepare for a career for which there is no recognition to practice.

When voluntary certification at standards beyond required state licensure becomes available through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 1993, certification as a teacher with a middle-grade specialty is desirable. Such a certification will bring prestige to the job, increase the options for employment, help create a cadre of highly qualified teachers who specialize in young adolescents, and enlarge the pool of professionals qualified to act as team leaders and mentors.

Improving Academic PerformanceThrough Better Health, Fitness

Young adolescents must be healthy in order to learn.

It has been taken for granted that education in this country should emphasize academics over broader concerns for the whole student. Physical and mental health dimensions of educating the young adolescent, dimensions so vital to the ancient Greeks, are largely lost on us Americans. Many schools count on the school nurse to bring some health care to their students, but, with the exception of athletes, many students do not receive the health services they need. In the view of 70 percent of all U.S. teachers, poor health and undernourishment are problems for their students.

School systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students. But where the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge. So it is with health.

Given a choice, teachers prefer to educate bright, interested, and attentive students. However, teachers find that many of their students are inattentive and disengaged from the learning process. Although good health does not guarantee that students will be interested in learning, ample evidence suggests that the absence of good health lowers students’ academic performance. ...

Because of the direct link between the health of young adolescents and their success in school, the Task Force concludes that middle-grade schools must accept a significant responsibility, and be provided sufficient resources, to ensure that needed health services are accessible to young adolescents and that schools become health-promoting environments. Schools need not deliver the services directly but should make sure they are provided. Moreover, the school’s role will vary with the availability of family and community resources and with community values.

It is essential, however, that every middle-grade school have a coordinated system to identify health problems and provide treatment or referral to outside health agencies and individuals.

The transformed middle-grade school can meet these objectives by:

Ensuring student access to health services; and

Establishing the school as a health-promoting environment.

...Re-engaging Families in the EducationOf Young Adolescents

Families and middle-grade schools must be allied through trust and respect if young adolescents are to succeed in school.

Despite the clearly documented benefits of parental involvement for students’ achievement and attitudes toward school, parental involvement of all types declines progressively during the elementary-school years. By middle-grade school, the home-school connection has been significantly reduced, and in some cases is nonexistent.

The widening gulf between families and schools during the middle-grade years reflects many parents’ belief that they should increasingly disengage from their young adolescents. In the belief that adolescents should be independent, parents come to view involvement in their child’s education as unnecessary. While young adolescents need greater autonomy, however, they neither need nor desire a complete break with parents and other family members.

For their part, many middle-grade schools do not encourage, and some actively discourage, parent involvement at school. Particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods, parents are often considered to be part of the problem of educating young adolescents rather than an important potential educational resource. Many parents in such communities, after assessing their own poor relations with their young adolescent’s teachers and recalling their own painful memories of the classroom, become deeply alienated from their young adolescent’s school.

Reversing the downward slide in parent involvement and closing the gulf between parents and school staff with mutual trust and respect are crucial for the successful education of adolescents. Middle-grade schools can reengage families by:

Offering parents meaningful roles in school governance;

Keeping parents informed; and

Offering families opportunities to support the learning process at home and at school.

...Connecting Schools With Communities

Schools and community organizations should share responsibility for each middle-grade student’s success.

A community that sets out to educate all of its young adolescents to become competent, responsible, and productive adults must marshal its resources behind its schools. ...

All communities contain their own human and economic wealth. Finding these resources and linking them in sustained partnerships with schools will be a formidable task. Many schools today have no connection with community organizations. School policies and practices may discourage partnerships with local industry. Schools and businesses or community organizations may have conflicting policies that inhibit cooperation. Concerns about liability and union jurisdiction may pose barriers.

Yet the expense and difficulty of creating partnerships is almost certain to be outweighed by the ensuing benefits. This country’s inclination to solve problems at the local level has generated many examples of communities that have reaped such benefits. From a range of such partnerships, the Task Force examines five ways that communities are currently working with middle-grade schools by:

Placing students in youth service;

Ensuring student access to health and social services;

Supporting the middle-grade education program;

Augmenting resources for teachers and students; and

Expanding career guidance for students.

Copyright 1989 by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as The American Adolescent: Facing a ‘Vortex of New Risks’