Monday, January 21, 2013

A Critique of High School

From New York Magazine:
But if humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time—“sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,” as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote—then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.
Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured.
Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.
Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society,and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.”
Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)
In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Worth Repeating

A comment from Diane Ravitch's blog:
Labor Lawyer January 20, 2013 at 8:36 pm Although “liberal” on most political issues, my personal experience strongly supports tracking — based on ability to do the work — as common sense and heterogenous classes as creating unnecessary obstacles to effective instruction. Common sense says that students in a class will learn much more if a teacher teaches a subject at a single level for 60 minutes rather than three similar subjects at three different levels for 20 minutes each.
If you’ll forgive a sports analogy, a basketball coach would accomplish much more in a 2-hour practice if all participating players were at roughly the same ability level — high, middle, or low — than if 1/3 were outstanding Division I college basketball players, 1/3 were barely competent high school players, and 1/3 were junior high computer nerds who neither played nor liked basketball.
I acknowledge research demonstrating that low-achieving students do better in heterogenous classes than in classes where everyone is low-achieving. My explanation for this result is that, in most public schools, a class where everyone is low-achieving will suffer from minor but endemic misbehavior that effectively prevents effective instruction and that generates strong peer pressure to join in the misbehavior. If this is so, the solution is to track by academic ability (to maximize teaching efficiency) while implementing classroom management reforms in the low-academic-ability classes (to eliminate the endemic misbehavior).
Heterogenous classes minimize the disruptive effects of the misbehaving students by limiting the number of such students in any given class. However, this approach to the problem (of high concentrations of misbehaving students disrupting classes) necessarily increases the number of misbehaving students in those classes that, if tracked based on academic ability, would have relatively few misbehaving students.
In the low-SES-area schools, particularly in the inner-city schools, there are so many potentially misbehaving students relative to the number of likely well-behaved students, that spreading the misbehaving students evenly among all classes has the effect of creating endemic misbehavior in all the classes. Hence the flight of concerned/functional parents from these schools to the charters (and the mediocre test scores in all the classes). 
Bottom line: Track by academic ability, but simultaneously implement reforms in the low-academic-ability classes to minimize misbehavior. (Probably, the best way to minimize misbehavior would be to implement reforms starting in pre-K that improved reading/vocabulary for students from low-SES families, so that school would not be so frustrating — but that’s another long comment.)