August 21, 2006

Teen expectations: too little or too much?

Alexandra Robbins' new book on elite college-prep students The Overachievers is sparking a grumpy response from Jay Mathews this morning (hat tip: Kevin Carey):

Our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little. (emphasis added)

This is a century-long debate, going back to Progressive-era administrators who claimed that the reason why the vast majority of teens left school before graduation is because school wasn't interesting them. In the 1920s, Robert and Helen Lynd wrote (cynically, I think) about the dominanting influence of high-school basketball on the town and school politics of Middleton (Muncie, Indiana). In the 1940s those in the life-adjustment movement still argued that the dominant purpose of high school should be fitting youngsters to the social order and their utility as consumers. You still find those arguments around, and I suppose this is an elite variant.


As Mathews illustrates, such arguments have always had opponents. Since WW2, plenty of folks have claimed either that high-school expectations have declined (a myth) or that they have not risen high enough (a different question). Hyman Rickover,  Arthur Bestor, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier are among the most prominent school critics who have argued that we can and should expect more from teens.

There are three challenges for the raise-expectations argument. One is what it actually means to raise expectations. Mathews argues in his column that NAEP scores have been stagnant for 30 years. That's an arguable point; what sort of rise in test scores do we want and is reasonable? Maybe incremental improvement on such a broad measure is appropriate. In any case, NAEP scores are a pedestrian definition of expectations that obscures issues that others have raised, including Mathews himself with his AP-driven 'challenge index.'

The second challenge is the difficulty in changing a culture that has significant anti-intellectual tendencies. Those who have read Richard Hofstadter would claim it's a centuries-long legacy, but you can also point to the majority experience of most adults, who attended high schools, weren't challenged, and might well remember non-academic activities as the best parts of high school. On the other hand, the lives of those born in the 1960s were more academically-oriented than those born in the 1910s or 1920s, so there is hope.

The third challenge to reforming high school expectations is that high schools must simultaneously remediate academic weaknesses, challenge students, cope with adolescents who want more independence, and compete with the consumer world and job market for the attention of students. There are plenty of thoughtful people with ideas about how to address that stretch, but darned little research. Mathews is right: The students who enter ninth grade with a solid set of skills need challenges, and those whose parents and schools put too much stress on them, are a relative minority and not the most urgent problem of high schools. But Mathews' approach of "give them all AP courses" doesn't address the fact that many students need both intellectual challenges and significant help in some skill areas. Right now, high schools treat the world too often as if no student could be in both camps; if you come in with skill deficits, you don't get challenged. But you can't reverse that without paying attention to the need to boost skills.

No, I don't have answers. That's why I noted the dearth of research. Hey, aspiring grad students: here's an area!  Go make your fortune in it!

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Posted in Education policy on August 21, 2006 9:18 AM |