School & District Management

Teen Culture Seen Impeding School Reform

By Debra Viadero — June 05, 1996 7 min read
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Attempts to improve high school students’ performance fail, a new book argues, because they run up against a formidable adversary: a teenage culture that frowns on school success.

“Part of the problem is that we keep asking schools to fix what’s wrong when it’s beyond their capability,” Laurence Steinberg, the lead author of the book on the American high school, said last week. “No curricular overhaul, no instructional innovation, no change in school organization, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training or compensation will succeed if students do not come to school interested in, and committed to, learning.”

The book is based on three years of surveys and focus-group discussions with 20,000 students and hundreds of parents from nine high schools in northern California and Wisconsin.

Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need To Do will be published this week by Simon & Schuster. The book includes some findings previously published in academic journals, but it is aimed at a more general audience. Along with Mr. Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, the authors are Bradford Brown, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sanford M. Dornbusch, a professor of human biology and sociology at Stanford University in California.

Mr. Steinberg gained national attention in the 1980s when he co-wrote a book suggesting that teenagers spend too much time flipping hamburgers and working at other low-skill jobs after school.

‘Going Through Motions’

Between 1987 and 1990, the researchers for the new book studied a mix of high schools, including middle-class suburban schools, a diverse central city school integrated by busing, schools serving mostly recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants, and a small school in a farming community.

Regardless of the school population’s socioeconomic level, they found, student disengagement was pervasive. Roughly 40 percent of the students said they were “just going through the motions” in school.

“True, most students report that they attend classes regularly--only about 10 percent cut classes routinely--and well over 80 percent say they would stay in school even if they were able to secure a good full-time job,” the authors write. “But at the same time, it is clear that when they are in school, a large proportion of students are physically present but psychologically absent.”

The researchers say teenagers’ poor attitudes toward school stems from their peers. One in six students surveyed, for example, reported deliberately hiding his or her capabilities because of worries about what friends might think. And large proportions of students long to be part of social cliques, such as the “populars,” “jocks,” “partyers,” or “druggies,” that sometimes deride high academic achievement.

“At least by high school,” the authors conclude, “the influence of friends on school performance and drug use is more substantial than the influence of parents’ practices at home.”

Other Influences

Contrary to some other studies, however, the researchers found that peers play a positive, central role in the academic success of Asian-American students. Locked out of more popular cliques in many schools, Asian-American students tend to associate with other Asian students who value hard work and achievement.

For African-American students, on the other hand, the pull of their peers has the opposite effect.

“Even black kids who come from homes where parents are stressing achievement are having their values and behaviors undermined by a culture that really scorns academic achievement,” Mr. Steinberg said last week in an interview.

Nevertheless, parents are not without influence. The researchers found, for example, that students who maintained an academic focus were those who came from homes in which parents were firm, loving, and respectful of their children’s growing autonomy--a parenting style the researchers label “authoritative.”

And certain kinds of parent involvement in children’s schooling can lead to school success, Mr. Steinberg said. The researchers found, for example, that helping children with homework at home was less important for parents than taking part in such school activities as teacher conferences and back-to-school nights.

“Showing up at school programs on a regular basis takes a great deal more effort than helping out at home, and this effort does not go unnoticed by students or school personnel,” the authors say.

Yet, by the time their children become teenagers, many parents have abdicated that influence. Of the parents surveyed, 40 percent said they never attend a school function. And a quarter of parents had no idea how their children were faring in high school.

No Time To Learn

Another reason that students fail to engage in learning is that they are busy with nonacademic pursuits, according to the authors. For example, two-thirds of teenagers work--half spending more than 15 hours weekly on the job. And when they’re not working, students spend 20 to 25 hours a week with friends.

Extracurricular activities also take up large chunks of high school students’ time. But, the researchers say, such programs often positively influence academic achievement. But they become a drain on students’ energy when, as is the case with some basketball or football programs, they require a weekly commitment of 20 or more hours.

What students generally are not doing with their free time, however, is homework. Seventy percent of the students in the study said they spend less than five hours a week on homework.

The bottom line, the researchers write, is that efforts to boost student achievement in high school must fix a wider scope on the problem.

“This is a problem for the country to deal with, and it has to be dealt with in a way that brings together families, schools, employers, institutions of higher education, and the mass media,” Mr. Steinberg said.

Some of the authors’ prescriptions include: providing more parenting education, finding ways to draw parents into their children’s schools, adopting a system of national academic standards and examinations, cutting back student work hours, and, in general, making it harder for students to “go through the motions” and still graduate and go on to college.

Early Reactions

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime proponent of high academic stakes for students, already has given the book a favorable review.

“This book deals with issues of great importance that have previously been ignored in the school-reform debate,” Mr. Shanker said last week in a written statement.

The authors’ bleaker characterizations, however, are expected to attract a more skeptical response from other educators.

“They are absolutely right with a substantial number of kids, and they are very wrong with a significant number of kids who do work hard and do their homework,” said Gordon Cawelti, a research consultant for the Educational Research Service in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Cawelti, who is conducting a study of 10 high schools working on school reforms, noted, for example, that enrollments in tougher Advanced Placement courses have gone up nationwide in recent years.

And Karl Hertz, the superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville school district in Wisconsin, said: “I’m not at all sure today’s kids are much more disengaged and are working more than they were 40 years ago. I just don’t believe that.”

Influences On High School Students

The book Beyond the Classroom is based on a three-year study of 20,000 students from diverse backgrounds. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nearly 20 percent of all students surveyed said they do not try as hard as they could in school because they are worried about what their friends might think.
  • Fewer than one in five students said their friends think it’s important to get good grades.
  • More than half the students said they could bring home grades of C or worse without their parents getting upset.
  • One-fifth of parents consistently attend school programs. More than 40 percent never do.
  • Two-thirds of the students said they had cheated on a school test in the past year.
  • Nine out of 10 students said they had copied someone else’s homework in the past year.
  • The average American high school student spends four hours a week on homework outside of school; 50 percent of the students surveyed said they do not do the homework they are assigned.
  • Two-thirds of high school students have a job, and half work more than 15 hours a week.
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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1996 edition of Education Week as Teen Culture Seen Impeding School Reform


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