College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A Key to Motivating Teenagers

By Erich May — January 14, 2014 5 min read
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Last April, I left the city and returned to the country. I had been the supervisor of instruction at a school in Allentown (pop. 120,000); I moved across Pennsylvania to become the principal in Hyndman (pop. 900). I left the third-largest city and one of the largest districts in the commonwealth and went to work in a small, rural charter school in a quiet little borough.

The differences between the two schools were readily apparent. The student enrollment at Allentown’s Trexler Middle School was 14 percent white; HOPE for Hyndman Charter School is 99 percent white. At Trexler, many students are just learning English or have parents who speak mostly Spanish; every student in Hyndman is a native English-speaker. At Trexler, we were part of a traditional school district with influential unions and a robust central office; at HOPE for Hyndman, we are a charter school with neither unions nor administrative departments.

But more striking than these differences are the similarities. The city school and the country school, the big one and the small one, the traditional public and the public charter—they have much in common, especially challenges related to motivating students.

Whether you’re in a city or a country school, the biggest obstacle to student achievement is the lack of motivation. Schools are like racetracks, and educators are like pit crews. But it’s the students who are at the wheel. They must want to win, and they must believe they can win. Their parents and other fans should be there, cheering them on and making them feel like they can do it.

When teenagers are told that college might not be an option, they become less interested in school."

But while suburban parents put a premium on education, many urban and rural parents seem less focused on this priority. Some parents themselves did not cross the finish line, and their lack of academic confidence can rub off on their children. In other cases, the parents did graduate, but their diplomas didn’t help them get ahead. Their children might take the attitude that “school didn’t help my folks, so it won’t help me.”

The cost of college is also discouraging. Parents who live in poverty in urban centers and rural routes are increasingly convinced that they can’t afford college for their children. After all, the price tag at public institutions rose 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And since 2010, student-loan debt has increased by 45 percent, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the cost of college loans and, more importantly, the cost of college tuition. In August, after the White House claimed an important victory in restoring the low interest rates on student loans, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi addressed the steep price tag of college tuition: “It’s not the cost of the loan that’s the problem, it’s the principal—the appallingly high tuition costs that have been soaring at two to three times the rate of inflation.” Taibbi focuses on the 38 million Americans saddled with student loans, as do many who write on the issue.

Missing from his article and many others on the subject are the 50 million children in elementary and secondary school. Tuition costs will also have an impact on them, especially teens who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. In Allentown and Hyndman both, I have had family conferences in which parents expressed doubts that their children would be able to afford college. They said these things in front of their kids, and when teenagers are told that college might not be an option, they become less interested in school. To protect themselves from disappointment, some decide college isn’t worthwhile.

As a high school junior told me not long ago, “The kids that can’t afford it, they don’t even want to go to college.” And from what I’ve seen, the teens who don’t want to go to college don’t want to go to high school either. They are less apt to work and behave, less apt to attend school and graduate.

Simply put, the lack of motivation and its attendant deficits are often rooted in poverty. Of course, it should be just the opposite: Poverty should motivate students. Education was the way out of poverty for my family. Without focusing on poverty, we need to get this message out to students: Education opens the door to future possibilities. We must also look for opportunities to tell students, “You can do it!”

Standardized testing has been such a downer for kids. Too many have been told, “You are below basic.” We need to change the terms and get the word out that they can get smarter and that their brains are growing just like their bodies. Paul Tough makes this point in How Children Succeed. We must convince students that “intelligence is malleable,” he writes. “If students internalize that idea, these studies show, they gain confidence, and their test scores and GPAs often rise too.”

We need to give kids a taste of success. It is a great motivator. People do what they’re good at doing. Students need to be convinced,sometimes even tricked into thinking, that they’re good at school. That’s not to say that everyone should get a trophy, but we need to create scenarios in which students will undoubtedly succeed and provide them with choices to develop their sense of autonomy and competence.

Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober cover autonomy and competence in “Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform,” a series of six papers published last year by the Center on Education Policy.

Usher and Kober also devote one of their essays to the effects of parent involvement, family background, and culture. Certainly, where student motivation is the big deficiency, we need to do a better job of involving parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, coaches and clergy, judges and employers—anyone who has his or her hooks in a kid.

Dual enrollment is another key to getting kids on track and keeping them there. If they can get their feet wet and pick up a couple of college credits while still in high school, they will be more apt to pursue higher education. Likewise, we need to give kids incentives to reel them in: We need to support the establishment of new scholarships and inform families about financial aid.

Meanwhile, we need to keep pressing for more affordable higher education. Not only students, but also legislators, philanthropists, and leaders of institutions of higher learning must be reminded that education is the path out of poverty.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as The Motivation Gap


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