School & District Management

Schools Seen as Out of Sync With Teens

By Bess Keller — May 02, 2001 8 min read
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Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Anne and her sleep-deprived peers have been championed by a growing band of researchers who protest the early starting times of many high schools. The scientists contend that the schedules fail to take into account the sleep rhythms that naturally accompany adolescents’ maturing bodies.

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Yet as compelling as parents and the news media have found those conclusions, research into the sleep patterns of teenagers forms just one part of a larger inquiry. Specialists in various fields are looking at the innate, or at least the universal, needs of adolescents and asking whether the nation’s high schools are meeting them.

Everyone who has thought about such questions acknowledges that the answers are complicated. For one thing, biology readies teenagers to function as adults long before most of them have acquired the skills needed to thrive in a complex society. For another, civilization demands a degree of protection both for teenagers and from teenagers that may well have been foreign to our ancestors.

“Universal education is only about five to six generations old, and we really haven’t had much chance to adapt this education to the way kids have evolved,” said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an influential psychologist whose specialties include creativity and socialization.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and others believe there’s an inherent tension between adolescents’ biology and the demands of contemporary society. And yet the tension could be handled more constructively by American high schools, they say.

By not catering to teenagers’ considerable powers—which are often equal to those of adults—and by not building on their desire to connect with the adult world, high schools all too often place students in a motivational vacuum, many experts believe.

Combine that with conditions at odds with the teenage body—early start times, too much seat time—and educators on the front lines are confronted with a formidable challenge. The result is that too many schools are losing too many students—if not in body, then in mind and spirit.

Biology’s Stamp

Many researchers make the point that by age 15 or so, adolescents are in many ways the physical and mental equals— even superiors—of adults. Older teenagers are at their lifetime peak for such characteristics as speed, reaction time, and memory. They are also generally more daring than adults, and more reproductively fertile.

None of that is surprising, researchers say, given the demands of eons of human evolution during which a failure of strength, bonding ability, or alertness in the years just after puberty limited an individual’s chances to reproduce.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, of the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., points out that before the last century, extensive schooling was usually reserved for a small number of people who weren’t typical of the species.

“Now we expect all children, regardless of temperament, to go through the same procedure of sitting and listening through 13 years, when all their programming is for running around and making things happen,” he said.

That problem is in some ways exacerbated with teenagers, who have many of the same capacities as adults for “making things happen.”

In his research, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues have queried teenagers about their jobs and about school, and found that in their jobs, “they feel stronger, more active, and creative than they do in school, though they are also aware that what they do as work doesn’t have much to do with their futures.” In contrast to the immediate results and sense of fulfilling a need that jobs provide, school tends to be abstract and theoretical, he says.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and a critic of American high schools, argues that recent developments in human biology, not just the legacy of early human evolution, play a role in teenagers’ dissatisfaction with high school. Today’s teenagers typically reach puberty two or three years earlier than their counterparts at the beginning of the 20th century, he says, and so have had the physical hallmarks of adult men and women for several years by the end of high school.

Nancy A. Metzler, a psychologist at Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, Ill., sees social factors contributing to that dissatisfaction as well. “Many kids are parenting themselves,” she observed. “They have been responsible for so much, both emotionally and economically, that some of the rules don’t seem pertinent.”

Desiring the autonomy of adulthood often clashes with the custodial quality of high school, especially when the school is rule-bound and offers few chances to connect with the larger world.

But it’s not just that teenagers don’t enjoy being in high school and view it as conflicting with their search for autonomy. Many don’t see a larger purpose for it in their lives—at least beyond getting a diploma. In a sense, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi says, they are being asked to forgo the keen pleasures of the present to invest in their futures.

High schools can and do cope by providing activities outside of class that address a wide range of interests and give life to the school. And the experts applaud that.

But the lack of purpose when it comes to academics creates an uphill struggle for teachers and administrators bent on higher student achievement.

William Damon, an expert on adolescence and moral development at Stanford University, stresses that adolescence is a time of finding a stable identity for adulthood, an identity that should include a notion of meaningful work and of service to others. If teenagers can connect what they are doing in school to that classic quest, they are motivated to learn.

“Motivation has to do with a kid’s desire to become a certain kind of person, to develop an identity he or she can be proud of,” Mr. Damon said. “I’m not suggesting eight hours a day on field trips, and I’m not saying anything against rigorous academic standards.

“But you have to supplement that with experience beyond the school that shows the child the importance of academic disciplines to self and community.”

In fact, experts agree that the age segregation of high schools should be breached wherever possible—by more teachers per student, more work experiences or community-service opportunities, more leaders of various types coming into the schools. Not only do such connections with adults contribute to the real-world quality of high schools, they help provide more of the guidance that teenagers still need.

Mr. Damon says that while most high schools have not excelled at connecting teenagers with experiences that inspire futures, the increase in “service learning” across the country is heartening.

Mr. Botstein of Bard College, on the other hand, has given up on high school, saying its “childish” character will never do for today’s teenagers. He would instead create schools that go from 6th through 10th grade, and then offer students a variety of next steps from work to apprenticeships to college.

“At a certain point, a young adult needs a teacher-professional and not just a teacher,” he says. “That’s part of the transition to adulthood and gives the studying a certain gravity.”

Better Fit Possible

Short of such a revolution, progress toward a better fit between teenagers and high school is still possible.

The research of Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues, using what he calls the “experience sampling method,” found that teachers can make an “enormous difference in student engagement” when they introduce tools and equipment into lessons. Other steps that pay off in engagement, the team found, include providing clear explanations of the goals of the class and giving students some control over their classroom activities.

Ms. Metzler, the school pyschologist, points to a program serving her 2,000-student high school in the Chicago suburbs that has improved the life chances of some 20 teenagers. It targets students who are close to graduating but have grown disaffected with school. Many of them have jobs.

Starting last fall, Community Unit School District 200, which includes Wheaton North, began offering late-afternoon courses several days a week so that the students can earn their diplomas without attending regular classes. Part of the appeal for students, Ms. Metzler said, is that “they have more freedom on campus and more freedom generally” under the arrangement.

On the other hand, the issue of high school starting times shows how difficult change can be, even when undertaken in the name of almost-undisputed facts about adolescent development. Few experts or educators defend those early opening bells, for instance, as good for the education of teenagers. More than a decade of research shows that as children go through puberty, their sleep patterns change, leading them to prefer staying up later at night and rising later in the morning.

But only a few dozen districts nationwide have pushed back starting times. Such a change can be disruptive and costly—posing problems for bus schedules, for example—and may ignite opposition from employers, coaches, sponsors of extracurricular activities, and parents who have struggled to put together a schedule they can live with.

If change is coming, it’s coming slowly. By the time it arrives on a broad scale, Anne Lange will be long gone from high school.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Seen as Out of Sync With Teens


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