Special Report

Less Than Awesome

By Bess Keller — April 23, 2003 13 min read
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Like a tiresome old uncle cornering a member of the next generation, A Nation at Risk admonished teenagers to try their best for their own good. After all, they get out of learning only what they put into it. And, well, yada, yada, yada, yada.

But for all the finger-wagging of the 20-year-old white paper, the nine high school seniors who met for a focus group convened last month by Education Week do not disagree with the message. Each clutching at least a modicum of success from his or her time in high school, the youths endorse individual effort.

Invited to look at what may have kept them from doing their best, five mention the drama of teen life and its pressures: problems with parents or individual teachers, angst over relationships, fitting homework in with a job, getting enough sleep. “Just being a teenager gets in the way,” muses one.

Three also accuse themselves or most adolescents of being “lazy,” the teenage sin on the mind of the report’s authors.

To be fair, the report was more about a national attitude than about the personal shortcomings of students. It chastised “society and its educational institutions” for not asking enough of the young, for losing sight of the basic academic purpose of schooling, and for disproportionately depriving poor and minority children of opportunities to develop “their individual powers of mind and spirit.” Schools, the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared in 1983, are places of neither “high expectations” nor the “disciplined effort needed to attain them.”

Today's teenagers find high school to be somewhere between horrible and inspiring.

Two decades later, how do high school students—whose schools were most pointedly the target of the commission’s disapproval—view their slice of the American educational pie?

A host of surveys suggest that for most teenagers in most places, school is neither horrible nor inspiring. As with the Nation at Risk generation, many in this generation don’t believe they’ve been given a thorough intellectual workout in their four years of high school. Nor have they developed a strong sense of themselves as can-do learners.

“Some of the teachers have very high standards for us,” says a college-bound girl in the focus group. “And some have low standards for us.”

Like the rest of the students in the group, she attends a 1,000-student public high school in an inner-ring suburb of a Mid-Atlantic city.

She says her greatest academic challenge has been Spanish, which she signed up for purely because “most colleges” require two years of a foreign language. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she remarks. “I am just real bad at Spanish ... and the teachers were good and all.”

“You just don’t want to learn it,” a male student offers.

“Yeah,” she sighs.

For students from poor or minority backgrounds, in contrast to white and middle-class students, the high school experience is both the same and different. Same is the lack of inspiration. Different is the greater likelihood it will have a crushing effect.

That’s in part because minority youngsters often come with poorer preparation for their schoolwork and more uncertain visions of their futures. It is also because many schools dish out to them the lowest common denominator of American secondary education and not its peak experiences. Finally, even when adequate resources, such as knowledgeable teachers, are available, schools and faculty may be less alert to their needs.

In a separate focus group, which is part of ongoing research by the City University of New York’s Michelle M. Fine, one student mourned the experience he did not have in high school.

“I think what entails having a great experience ... is being involved in [Advanced Placement] programs and the extracurricular activities. But, if you’re not involved in the AP programs, you’re just in a regular class; you don’t get the same experience at all.”

He feels he has been shut out by coming from “sort of a special ed. kind of program where I had some learning difficulties,” so that by 10th grade he had no choice but a “regular” English class. “And even in the sciences, as well, like, you start at one place, and you have to just stay at the bottom.”

In surveys, the vast majority of teenagers say that education is important to them, and that they want to do well in school. The nonprofit research and polling organization Public Agenda found that an overwhelming 96 percent of the representative sample of 1,300 public high school students it surveyed in 1996 said college was important. The same percentage said that doing well in school made them feel good about themselves. Two-thirds of teenagers from all racial and economic groups reported that their friends “look up” to kids who do well in school—even if the achievers have to be careful how they wear their success.

That good opinion seems to carry over to schools. Most teenagers deem their high schools adequate or better for an education, places where competent adults keep them relatively safe and on track.

In a 2001 survey of a representative sample of more than 1,000 9th through 12th graders sponsored by the Horatio Alger Association, a scholarship fund, almost half the students gave their schools a B grade. Another 20 percent said their schools rated an A. And nearly nine out of 10 said “at least one teacher or administrator [in my school] cares about my success.”

A survey last year of some 4,000 high school students in New York and New Jersey—part of Fine’s research—showed that more than two-thirds of the teenagers overall agreed that their schools had prepared them for college “as well as any school in the country.” For the African-American and Latino students surveyed, the proportions of those agreeing dropped, but in both cases still exceeded 55 percent.

A closer look at students’ opinions of their schools, however, suggests that not many live up to all the “striving for excellence” mottoes that have popped up in all those school lobbies since the publication of A Nation at Risk.

Half the students surveyed by Public Agenda in 1996 said their schools didn’t challenge them to do their best. More recently, just over 70 percent of those surveyed in a 2001 Public Agenda poll of 600 public middle and high school students said “most do the minimum they need to get by.”

Other surveys seem to suggest that college- bound high school students are working on academics as little as they ever have, at least outside of school hours, and earning the highest grades yet. Only about a third of last fall’s college freshmen—a record low—reported having spent six hours a week or more studying or doing homework during the senior year of high school, according to an annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, which last year polled more than 282,000 students nationwide. At the same time, just over 45 percent of the freshmen—a record high—said they had earned an A average as high school seniors.

Many teenagers seem to embrace the two-way protection racket famously described by Theodore R. Sizer in his book Horace’s Compromise, published the year after ANation at Risk. Teachers don’t expect much from students, who in return don’t disrupt the class. The result is that the students most ready to learn perhaps can. Many of the rest slide by, putting out only the effort needed for a certain grade or to pass the course. They slide by in individual classes and in their overall programs.

One student in the recent Education Week focus group describes what happened when he moved to his current school this year: “I had four years of history already, and they gave me another history [course]. ... I don’t need the class. ... So, I felt like I don’t have to do the work.”

The guidance counselor didn’t put up much resistance, according to the student. In the end, basketball was substituted for history.

Still, that was nothing compared with his old school, located in a pocket of urban poverty where the students really ran the show. “Everybody leave the school when [you] want to leave the school, come when you want to come, mark your own grade down,” he adds wryly, prompting laughter.

An African-American, he’s glad to be out of that school. Indeed, in surveys, high school students show support for higher academic standards—at least in the abstract. Public Agenda found in 1996, for instance, that about three-quarters of those surveyed endorsed passing students to the next grade only when they have learned what’s expected of them. They also thought, in the same proportion, that higher standards and consistent enforcement would result in more learning.

Are low expectations and unwillingness to work hard the reasons teenagers don’t learn more in school? Not the only reasons, if you listen carefully to what they say about their classes.

In fact, asked to describe their most challenging schoolwork, the students in the focus group seem puzzled. They know what a hard class is, and an easy one. But work that is both demanding and rewarding, in which worthwhile goals are reached with effort and guidance—that doesn’t ring a bell.

Only one student quickly catches the spirit of the moderator’s question. Without hesitation, she names as her most challenging class one in music theory, which she takes with a favorite teacher whom she knows well.

“One day, I am doing my little project writing [a song], and all of a sudden ... he says, ‘Here—analyze this [piece of music] and bring me it in a week.’ And that’s hard,” she says, a note of pride in her voice. “I mean it is challenging, and I do enjoy doing it, but it just gets harder, you know.”

The quality of human interaction counts for students, who say their favorite teachers make learning fun or simply refuse to let them go unnoticed.

Unlike music, such staples of the high school curriculum as American history or English literature often strike students as hardly worth the investment of time it takes to master them. In this, they echo the views of the nation’s adults.

But even without the parachute of prior interest, teachers can make classes meaningful to most students, teenagers say. Many teachers do not.

More than seven in 10 of the representative sample of 878 public secondary school students polled last year for MetLife Inc.'s annual education survey, for instance, agreed or strongly agreed that “most of my schoolwork is ‘busywork.’ ”

Sometimes, according to the students, disruptive peers get in the way. In the 1996 Public Agenda poll, seven in 10 high school students said that too many kids act up in their classes.

Not all students suffer equally from the problem. As one of the focus group seniors says: “With the honors classes, the students don’t cause a disturbance and stuff like that, so [teachers] can be more relaxed and stuff ... and they can do things with some of the classes.”

Students like teachers who “do things.” A quiet boy in the focus group eagerly describes a favorite teacher whose subject is history: “He puts a lot of enthusiasm into it. He makes us get into groups and ... tries to do things that will work with our hands and stuff ... to have more of an understanding from each point of view, of every person, [of] what we are doing.”

Along with quality of work, the quality of human interaction also counts for students. In the focus group, some cite as favorite teachers those who made learning “easy” or “fun"—and cultivated understanding—with their creativity and zest. Others name teachers who simply refused to let them go unnoticed.

One boy who transferred to the school in his senior year talks about a teacher who “when I first got here, helped me a lot. Everybody else was like, don’t care, ‘cause I came late. She was the only person who really helped me to get my work done ... by telling me to stay after class and get the work done and all that. It was nice.”

By a similar token, the focus group students criticize teachers who seem oblivious to classroom dynamics. But they reserve their sharpest cuts for teachers who don’t seem to want to help. “You ask them a question,” one boy says, “and they get mad at you ... and you are like, ‘But I am confused,’ and they are like, ‘It doesn’t matter. You should have listened the first time.’ And then you don’t ask questions.”

Four in 10 public school students in the 1996 Public Agenda poll said that too many of the teachers in their school did “a bad job.”

Asked in Michelle Fine’s survey how many teachers at their school “teach well, so that students understand the material,” more than 40 percent of the New York and New Jersey students overall said “a few” or “none.” That response was given by 48 percent of black teenagers.

‘The best teacher I have had was one who treated everyone completely equally, demanded respect, and taught well.’

A survey conducted in 2000-01 by the Minority Student Achievement Network in its 15 generally well-off suburban districts pointed up a striking difference between white students’ responses and those of black and Hispanic students.

The minority students attached much more importance to teachers’ encouraging them to work hard. In the network’s 34,000-student survey, white students cited such encouragement and teacher demands to work hard as of roughly equal importance in motivating them, while black students said encouragement was about three times as important as demands. Hispanic students said it was about twice as important.

Many students seem worried that higher academic standards, though welcome in one way, expose them to failure without a reliable safety net.

When the Education Week focus group moderator asks the seniors what they do when they are having trouble understanding the material in a class, they give various answers with a common theme: ask my aunt who teaches physics; take the problem to my mom; go to my father—he’s an engineer.

One girl, pushed by her teachers to take honors classes in which she is generally successful, says: “I go to myself ... because my parents didn’t finish high school. My sister quit college. And there is no one else to help me.”

Asked if there is anyone at the school who can help, she answers, “No.”

The focus group also suggests that when teachers fall down in urging students on or expecting more from them, overworked and risk-averse guidance counselors won’t pick up any of the slack.

“When I came here [as a transfer student], the counselor asked me if I wanted basic [English] again,” says a student. “And my uncle was like, ‘No way.’ ”

Another of the seniors, a top achiever, recounts the kind of exchange he sees as typical. “They’re like, ‘You know, this course is very difficult. So you may just want to take the lower level because the colleges would rather see an A in a lower-level course than a C in a high level.’ ... They just don’t want my self-esteem to go down.”

A student who acknowledges that she avoided honors classes because she thought the students there might snub her says she got virtually no help in lining up a college from the school’s three guidance counselors. “ ‘Cause like my parents didn’t help me at all. ... And I know probably a lot of parents are like that,” she says. “So I had to do it on my own, you know, and I think if they were to help out more, a lot more people would probably apply.”

What, then, would turn high schools in the direction envisioned 20 years ago in A Nation at Risk? More than six in 10 of the students in Public Agenda’s 1996 survey named “having more good teachers,” and more than a quarter chose that as the single most helpful change toward learning more.

Other actions that students endorsed, in rank order, were: having a teacher check class work regularly and making students redo their work until it is correct (19 percent said that would help them most); removing disruptive students from classrooms (14 percent); and posing essay rather than multiple-choice questions (13 percent).

In the Horatio Alger 2001 survey, more than six in 10 said having classes with fewer students would “improve schools a lot.”

‘The more friendlier you can be with the students, the better, because kids don't want someone lording over them all day with a whip or something.’

Another look at what teenagers think would help them approach learning with greater purpose comes from a Gallup Organization study of a large Chicago high school over four recent years. There, attendance and achievement were linked to students’ perceptions that they had received positive and personal responses to their work and their development, coupled with a sense that “I know what is expected of me at my school.”

Reflecting on the heaven and hell of high school, one of the most reticent members of the Education Week focus group, a young man, contributes this:

“I would say probably one of the worst scenarios ... would be a teacher who probably, like, just doesn’t care about the students at all. ... They are just about, ‘I’m here to teach, put notes down.’

“It would be better, I think ... the more interaction, to actually be with the student and try to help them through that. And if they are failing, just to try to be there,” he continues.

“Like one of my teachers ... from him talking to me, trying to help me out, [it] made me want to get through the year. And I am getting through the year now.”


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