Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

Should Have, Could Have: What Parents Regret About High School

By Robert L. Hampel — February 23, 2010 4 min read

Each semester, my undergraduate history-of-education students ask their parents 10 questions about their time in high school. The interviews usually confirm what we discuss in class—the impact of protests in the late 1960s, the rise of special education, more female sports, and contrasts between rural and urban, Catholic and public schools.

But the replies to one question have surprised me: “If you could travel back in time, what would you change—in your own behavior or in the school itself—to make your high school experience better?”

Rather than fault their schools, most parents criticize themselves. Of the 178 respondents since 2007, 110 focused on their own behavior. Only 23 dwelt on the high school. Thirty-three others revisited both school and self. “Nothing” was the answer from eight, and four felt out of place because of acceleration or relocation.

Looking back, high school was a combination of studying, socializing, and joining. Nearly all of the 143 parents who would change their younger selves made comments in one or more of these three areas:

Study harder. This was the point raised most often. Sixty respondents wished they had been more diligent. They spoke in general terms of more time and effort—trying harder—rather than describing particular study strategies they would have used. Eleven of the 60 regretted their choice of courses: They should have taken more college-prep or honors classes. Only six said they should have eased up, had more fun, and cared less about grades.

Friends. There were 51 remarks on this subject, with 28 respondents recalling how shy and isolated they felt. If they could relive this time, they would be more outgoing, make new friends, or date more often. In contrast, nine said they were too obsessed with popularity, ignoring or teasing people they should have treated decently.

Extracurriculars. Of the 44 comments, only two parents said they had done too much. Everyone else said they would either get involved more or stay involved. Many different sports and clubs were recalled as enjoyable experiences.

What could the school have done differently? Smaller classes, higher expectations, and different courses were recurring suggestions, but none was as common as the wish (from 12 parents) that guidance counselors had been more helpful. They either were not accessible or they were pessimistic. Even so, 143 of the 178 parents took personal responsibility for their disappointments and shortcomings, rather than blaming the teachers, administrators, or curriculum.

If these parents represent the opinion of middle-class America, then self-reliance has clearly not gone out of style. Will and stamina, making better decisions and sticking with them, and using the array of available opportunities wisely: Those are the lessons learned from high school by Americans now in their 40s and 50s.

What are the implications of these responses? First, that grassroots dissatisfaction with high schools may be less acute than policymakers’. Motivation and perseverance come from within, these parents seem to be saying, even if rules and regulations provide a system of incentives and penalties. Many know from experience that change begins when a student decides to push a bit more.

The second implication is that current school improvement initiatives may be too narrow. The federal Race to the Top competition and its reform counterparts overlook extracurriculars and friends. Education takes place in classrooms and depends on teachers and textbooks, many reformers assume. What young people learn from each other and from their coaches and advisers seems irrelevant to folks like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Isn’t life after the final bell the students’ own time? How can educators intrude on socializing and playing, when they already dominate seven hours of each weekday? Don’t we want engineers who know calculus rather than volleyball and Facebook?

Those objections miss the basic point my students’ parents expressed. These adults wish they had been more engaged across the board—in academics, after school, and with other people. They regret holding back much more than jumping in. If these parents came to my class, I’d begin my discussion of their interviews by showing them the carpe diem scene in the film “Dead Poets Society,” in which the teacher played by Robin Williams exhorts his prep school students to seize the day.

Schools teach rules of engagement. Either overtly or covertly, they tell students whether or not participation matters. Can Fred pass without talking in class as Mr. Smith lectures day after day? Does a chemistry lab require Linda, Yvonne, and Jose to work together? Are intramurals available to eager but less talented players? Does anyone ask questions when a boy without financial hardship prefers working a 20-hours-a-week, late-afternoon job over trying out for varsity debate? In many ways, educators can challenge students’ avoidance of the abundance of educational, athletic, recreational, and social choices. And they also can take a stand if they see students overengage, needlessly exhausting themselves to impress college-admissions officers.

Many high schools do try to fight disengagement. The press for academic success is stronger today than 25 years ago, thanks to the tight alignment of curricular frameworks and state tests. Fewer students are anonymous whenever educators make good use of advisory periods, smaller classes, senior projects, and other efforts to combat isolation.

Still, if my students’ children take my class in 2035, I hope their interviews report fewer should-haves and could-haves.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Should Have, Could Have

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being As Schools Weigh How to Use New Aid for Homeless Students, Finding Them Is Step One
Schools are getting $800 million in federal aid for homeless students, but also must locate those who newly qualify due to the pandemic.
10 min read
A Jefferson County School District student receives takes several bags with free meals delivered by a school bus in Fayette, Miss. As schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, buses that once transported students now deliver meals and internet access. Those interruptions have made it more difficult to identify students at risk of homelessness.
A student receives free meals delivered by a school bus in Fayette, Miss. During the pandemic, buses that once transported students now deliver meals and internet access. Those interruptions have made it more difficult to identify students at risk of homelessness.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Student Well-Being Citing Pandemic, USDA Waives School Meal Regulations Through June 2022
The USDA has extended regulatory waivers that will allow schools to more easily serve free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
2 min read
Jefferson County Elementary School children sit at desks and eat their school-supplied breakfasts in Fayette, Miss., on March 3, 2021. As one of the most food insecure counties in the United States, many families and their children have come to depend on these meals as their only means of daily sustenance.
Jefferson County Elementary School children sit at desks and eat their school-supplied breakfasts in Fayette, Miss., on March 3, 2021. As one of the most food insecure counties in the United States, many families and their children have come to depend on these meals as their only means of daily sustenance.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Whitepaper
Accelerating Learning Through Meaningful PBL
Learn what the experts say about growing student engagement and accelerating learning during this unprecedented time.
Content provided by Defined Learning
Student Well-Being Kids and COVID-19 Vaccines: The Latest News
Follow along here for important updates on the development and rollout of coronavirus vaccines for kids.
3 min read