Twenty years ago this week, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a rallying cry for raising expectations and improving performance in American schools. Part of its message was addressed directly to students:
“When you give only the minimum to learning,” the report sternly admonished, “you receive only the minimum in return. Even with your parents’ best example and your teachers’ best efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and how well you learn.”
Yet among the 40-odd papers commissioned to inform the panel’s work and the more than 200 individual testimonies at public hearings, students’ voices were seldom heard.
For the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, a report whose martial rhetoric and warnings of academic mediocrity have reverberated throughout education policymaking for nearly a generation, Education Week looks more closely at teenagers’ views on what’s wrong—and what’s right— with the nation’s public high schools.
To help us with our efforts, Professor Michelle F. Fine of the City University of New York and her graduate students provided data from a survey of nearly 4,000 youths in the New York metropolitan area. And they conducted a focus group with nine students in a Mid-Atlantic suburban high school. We also sent three reporters back to their alma maters—in three different parts of the country—to see how much has changed in the past two decades.
The following stories make it clear that while some things have changed since 1983—sadly, and most notably, an increased concern about school safety—other things have not. Although today’s teenagers may be taking more academic courses than their 1980s counterparts, many report that they are bored and unengaged in their schooling and, in their own words, just sliding by.