Tragic Flaws

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At a time when young people need adult role models and interaction with other age groups, they are sentenced to four years of isolation in academic warehouses.

Had it not been for a special relationship between one teacher and a troubled student, New Bedford High School in Massachusetts could have been devastated last fall by a tragedy even worse than the one that struck Columbine.

The incident at New Bedford—where a student told a teacher that a group of teenagers allegedly was planning to shoot up the school—is only the latest of several since Columbine in which students were thwarted from carrying out violent attacks. Not surprisingly, educators, parents, and the public express shock and surprise after each episode, wondering aloud how "that nice kid next door" could have been a potential terrorist. Unfortunately, they don't seriously consider that high schools provide fertile soil for such antisocial behavior.

In fact, three national reports that assessed the American high school 30 years ago predicted events like Columbine and New Bedford. Each study found high school to be a seriously flawed institution and warned that it had become a breeding ground for adolescent alienation.

The reports warned that high schools isolate teenagers from the rest of society, pigeonholing them into rigidly defined age groups and affording them virtually no interaction with adults. As one study declared, high schools have effectively "decoupled the generations." As a result, Lawrence Cremin, the distinguished Columbia University historian, observed: "The ordinary processes of socialization have been weakened, confused, and disjointed; and the symptoms are everywhere apparent—in the steady decline of academic standards in inner city schools, in the growing irregularity of attendance at most schools, and in the rising incidence of theft, vandalism, personal assault, and general alienation in all schools."

High schools, especially big ones, nourish an adolescent subculture characterized by cliques and rivalries, racial and ethnic prejudices, bullying, casual sexual relationships, drugs, and depression. At a time when young people need adult role models and interaction with other age groups, they are sentenced to four years of isolation in academic warehouses.

A number of recent studies echo the conclusions of those conducted in the early 1970s. They found:

  • widespread student boredom, apathy, and, in extreme cases, alienation
  • inflexible departmentalization
  • fragmented, disjointed curricula lacking relevance
  • rigid curricular tracking
  • unequal learning opportunities and serious gaps in achievement based on socioeconomic status and race
  • low student achievement
  • high dropout rates
  • large, impersonal, often overcrowded schools, particularly in big urban districts
  • resistance to change.
  • Steps are being taken here and there to address these problems, but a much broader and more concerted effort is needed.

In schools that nourish tolerance and respect, kids are more likely to spend their days learning and growing than planning massacres.

High schools should be places where students know and care about each other, where the focus is as much on developing good human beings as it is on test scores. University of Georgia professor Carl Glickman argues that the most important purpose of public schools is to teach "the young the knowledge, skills, and habits which enable them to lay more profound claim to the responsibilities and power of democratic citizenship." Students need to work on real problems, he says, exercise choice, be responsible to others, share their learning, and use their knowledge to contribute to the community.

As they do, they will develop tolerance and respect for others, and they will build relationships with their peers and adults. When asked what they value most about school, students often cite relationships. They yearn to establish the kind of trust with their teachers and fellow students that prevented a catastrophe at New Bedford. In schools that nourish such relationships, kids are more likely to spend their days learning and growing than planning massacres.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 13, Issue 5, Page 3

Published in Print: February 1, 2002, as Tragic Flaws
Web Resources
  • The Coalition of Essential Schools, founded in 1985 by Dr. Theodore Sizer, was established as an extension of Dr. Sizer's A Study of High Schools. This study suggests that the quality of education in high schools will not change without a complete overhaul of their structure, methods, and goals. CES's recent report "Reinventing High School: Six Journeys of Change," looks at six high schools that have implemented innovative reform plans.
  • In his speech "Changing the American High School To Fit Modern Times," Sept. 15, 1999, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says that school size does matter and that smaller schools help students build better connections with one another.
  • The Office of Vocational and Adult Education and the U.S. Department of Education established the New American High Schools program, which recognizes schools whose reform efforts include ensuring that all students are "challenged by rigorous academics and high expectations" and are "benefiting from a small, safe, personalized learning environment."
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