February 01, 2003 6 min read

Redesigning Senior Year
by Nancy Faust Sizer
(Heinemann, 272 pages, $23)

At most high schools, teachers complain about “senioritis” like septuagenarians griping about the aches and pains of age. The syndrome, which manifests itself among seniors as progressive disengagement, is easy to diagnose but almost impossible to cure.

While hardly a new phenomenon, senioritis has become much more acute in recent years, writes veteran high school history teacher Sizer. She’s not the first to make this assertion; indeed, a prominent national commission has been formed to study the problem and propose remedies. But the case Sizer makes for change is particularly noteworthy because she draws both from personal experience—she’s taught in public and private institutions—and from her own research, which includes detailed interviews with some 150seniors from a diverse group of 26 schools across the country.

One after another, these students describe the senior year as “blow-off” time, a kind of extended end- of-adolescence celebration. The reasons Sizer offers for this attitude are varied and somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the current generation of high schoolers, particularly those from the middle class, have been given just about everything they want by their baby boomer parents—extravagant birthday parties, diverse entertainment, and self-esteem-boosting pats on the back. As Sizer astutely notes, they have been raised in an “atmosphere of welcome and admiration.” It’s no wonder so many feel a sense of entitlement.

Yet these kids who’ve been indulged in so many ways also have had to compete more vigorously than ever before to get accepted to the colleges of their choice. This means they’ve had to take and do well in a number of specific courses as well as score high on the SAT. They’ve also had to pad their high school records with all sorts of impressive nonacademic experiences. “I need extracurricular activities to dress up my college applications,” one senior acknowledges. “One way or another, I have to pump up the stats.” By senior year, many are burned out.

For all practical purposes, seniors consider themselves finished with high school once they’ve submitted their college applications. Knowing that the remaining courses and grades count for little, many relax and refuse to work, and they expect their teachers to ease up, too. Those teachers who don’t, Sizer writes, risk “more than disengagement; they may face punishment.”

So what should high schools do? The author, who is married to well-known progressive educator Theodore Sizer, proposes that the senior year become a time for students to examine issues pertinent to this transitional period of their lives. Much of this would be done, Sizer writes, in the “senior seminar,” during which students would read and discuss literature “about leaving home, about formative experiences, about autonomy and community.” In a more practical vein, they might also undertake a comparative study of college curricula or costs.

Sizer also wants seniors to immerse themselves in long-term projects on topics that engage them emotionally and intellectually. Students interested in theater might write and produce plays. A promising young scientist might study the causes of pollution in a local lake or stream. At the end of the year, they would present their projects to members of the school community.

Unfortunately, most of these ideas will not be easy to implement at typical high schools. Thanks in part to college and university admission requirements, most secondary school academic programs are inflexible, obliging students to continue amassing traditional credits right up to graduation. Still, reworking the senior year along the lines Sizer suggests is certainly a worthwhile goal if we want graduates to leave high school with a genuine sense of accomplishment. Too many now leave feeling disappointed with themselves for their dismal senior-year performances.

Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence

by J. Martin Rochester
(Encounter Books, 316 pages, $26.95)

In what is essentially a back-to-basics tract, Rochester, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, denounces a wide rangeof popular classroomapproaches—cooperative learning, whole language, fuzzy math, and others—as examples of the progressivism that is ruining public education. He tersely dismisses progressivism as “absolute nonsense” and “an utter failure” and claims it’s the reason our kids can no longer read and write and why they need intensive remediation when they enter college.

This book is typical of the anti-public school genre, relying heavily on personal experience—Rochester’s children attended public schools in the 1980s—and collected anecdotes, most of them examples of teacher stupidity. He then juxtaposes these highly subjective impressions with hand-picked test-score data and the like to give his argument an objective air.

Amazingly, while attacking the laxity and trendiness of public education, he virtually ignores the imposing impact in recent years of the standards and accountability movement. And in one spot, he decries a perceived drift toward less and less homework, when, in fact, the current trend is exactly the opposite. If Rochester’s book, to borrow his own words, isn’t absolute nonsense, it’s certainly an utter failure.

How Ideology Trumped Evidence
edited by Richard L. Allington (Heinemann, 288 pages, $23.50)

A professor of education at the University of Florida and a highly regarded reading expert, Allington writes that he was preparing “to slide into retirement” until a disturbing development caught his attention. Policymakers at the federal and state levels, he noticed, were using dubious “findings” from the 2000 National Reading Panel Report to write legislation requiring rigid phonics instruction in public schools.

Although hardly an apologist for whole language (he has criticized its excesses), Allington decided to stay and fight what he and the other reading specialists who contributed to this volume see as wayward ideology masquerading as scientific research. The result is a compelling book that calls into question the ascension of phonics instruction to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The authors amass substantial evidence to show that they are not exaggerating when they warn thata “nothing but phonics” trend is sweeping the country. At least 26 states have passed “phonics bills,” many with specific language about the “appropriate” way to teach reading. Pennsylvania, for one, stipulates that schools should offer “an exact, concentrated, thorough, sequential presentation of phonetic knowledge through techniques and practices which are introduced incrementally, logically, and systematically.”

What the authors find particularly galling is that lawmakers and education bureaucrats rarely mention children reading and discussing rich literature. The emphasis, it seems, is on what one contributor describes as “decodable texts.” Allington himself writes that the current state and national frameworks for teaching reading emphasize “the lowest-level proficiencies—the ones that are easiest to accomplish and measure.”

Ironically, U.S. 4th graders finished second in recent international comparisons of reading achievement, ahead of such high- literacy countries as Sweden and France. Maybe, one wonders after finishing this persuasive volume, politically motivated policymakers are trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken at all.

—David Ruenzel

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