High school blahs

In an excellent series, the Oregonian looks at high school underachievement. While elementary students are doing better than ever in Oregon, high school students aren’t showing any progress.

The slide is dramatic: Six years ago, two of three Oregon fifth-graders earned proficient scores on state reading exams. As that group of students moved to middle school, fewer met standards. And by the time those students completed their second year of high school last spring, only about half met reading standards.

Many students are “disconnected.” They don’t think they’re learning anything valuable in school. They don’t think their teachers know them or care about them. And sometimes they’re right.

At Barlow High, students in English, biology and Spanish classes regularly listen to music on headphones rather than their teachers, even after instructors stop class and ask them to turn off their compact disc players.

Ask them? What ever happened to confiscating contraband?

Here’s an AP history class at Beaverton High:

The lesson is lively but constantly interrupted. Someone pops open a can of soda. A boy eats his way through potato chips, Doritos and a sandwich. Two students come to the door with prom pictures. A dozen students enter and leave during the period.

Teachers are shocked to learn their high school will be labeled “failing” by the state.

The Oregonian also profiles three students who are sliding through school. Even the college-bound student has decided to take easy classes so he can get As and Bs without breaking a sweat.

This is unusually good reporting. It’s not just an Oregon problem either.

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  1. “Ask them? What ever happened to confiscating contraband?”

    Are you kidding? If a student won’t give his/her CD player to the teacher voluntarily, the teacher sure isn’t going to forcibly take it away! Can you say, “litigate”? Sure you can.

    Students know this; they have the power in the classroom, not the teachers and administrators.

  2. Indeed. One favorite student line is “You can’t touch me.” Well, actually, teachers CAN touch a student if they refuse a reasonable request — like taking their arm and “guiding them” from the class or such. But, of course, this doesn’t mean that an angry parent won’t come barging in and demanding restitution!

  3. I agree. Teachers cannot enforce reasonable rules.
    If I taught High School, I would announce that attendance was not mandatory, but I would not make class notes available, I would not accept late homework, no taking tests late or makeup tests, etc.
    Of course, this kind of policy would be enough to have me dismissed.

  4. Well, same here, but these articles are NOTHING new folks…the educational system in the United States is the only one where kids do worse the longer they attend (though that may not be true anymore in certain European countries).

    If kids want to slip and slide their way through
    school and think they can get it all done in the last year of high school, it’s NOT likely to happen (I know several students this happened to when I was in high school, and they paid for it for many years afterwards).

    Slacking in school is a sure way to make sure you are wrecking your future (in my opinion).

    One other thing, school is so easy these days, I mean, sheesh, 6 hours a day x 5 days a week, I routinely work 50 hours a week, plus take 2-3 classes a semester, earn certifications and degrees, and these kids think they have it hard?

  5. School teaches a lot of abstract concepts that do not seem very useful or interesting to kids. How many algebraic word problems have you had to solve since getting out of school? Do you really need to know the names of the heart’s chambers? Can you give them a reason why they should care who Louis the 14th was? Some really do need this, but it seems very abstract to a 13 year old who thinks science, math and history are dull. The sad truth is the way we teach it, it is dull. If I relied on my teachers for having a reason to learn this stuff I never would have learned any of it.

  6. Here’s one of the state academic standards for social studies in California. Mind you, this is for *sixth grade*:

    Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious and social structures of the early civilizations of India, in terms of the arrival of the Aryans, the location and description of the river system and physical setting that supported the rise of this civilization, etc….

    I won’t defend boring teaching practices, it’s just that there are times when standards just don’t match kids’ interests. And yet, we must teach these topics. It’s the law.

  7. Divide and Conquer the Girl of Your Dreams!
    Learn Calculus Today!

    Add to your wealth subtract from your debts learn Algebra today!

    Study the holy mysteries of numbers and incomensurability. Become a Pythagorean!

    Discover the mystery of life! Become a Vivisectionist and get your hands bloody!

    Why should a young man choose an older mistress? Lets ask Ben Franklin!

    What is the best way to fart? Lets ask Ben Franklin?

    Do you want to obliterate all life on earth? Lets study microbiology and make a satan bug or we can obliterate Malaria.

    Do you want to feed the multitudes? Lets study chemistry and learn to make fertilizer or high explosives.

    I know practically nothing about India, but I am sure there is enought sex and violence in its history to keep the interest of fans of any Pop Star.

  8. George,

    You’re joking, right? I mean, I’m talking about eleven year old kids, and and you’re talking sex and violence? Please be the one to field phone calls from those (rightly) angry parents who want to know why their barely pre-teen kids are learning about ancient Indian sex and violence.

    You’re aware that the California state standards have a very specific, outlined course of study that teachers must teach? These can be handled creatively, of course, but there’s a lot less leeway (not to mention time) to throw in extras.

  9. I wish we were so lucky to have those social studies standards, Suzie Q. Instead, our sixth graders get:

    Identify the impact of culture as it relates to ancient cultures. Identify how time, continuity and change impact ancient cultures.
    Explain how people, places and environment influence ancient cultures. Give examples of how culture and society influence ancient cultures.

    So they are learning about…. what? Heck if I know.

    In fact, using the outstanding homeschooling history curriculum “Story of the World” by Susan Wise Bauer, I’m teaching history to my 3rd and 1st graders at home. They’ve learned all about the early civilizations of India, the Aryans, and the importance of the river systems, as well as other ancient civilizations. My kids look forward to history time and they ask for it if I forget. Neighborhood kids often come over and join us, because they enjoy it. Meanwhile, their public school classmates are learning about the importance of the neighborhood Handimart and Blockbuster. I’ll take ancient India any day.

  10. Oh, Bill. Bill, Bill, Bill.

    Please tell me you were joking and hoping for a rise out of someone when you made that crack about how easy kids have it these days? I’ve read over this and it’s a bit more acidic than I’d like it to be – don’t take it personally, I’m a teenager and angry at the world, ok?

    I’m in school for seven hours every day – est. five and a half hours of class due to lunch and free periods – free periods come because I’ve dropped gym and art as a senior. These free periods are used for homework and (in the past three months), college applications. I spend lunch and clubs tutoring middle-school friends of mine, and recently gave up one of the free periods to help a freshman with history.

    I spend three hours after school every day, most of the year, doing drama. You might say that this is my choice and unnecessary and shouldn’t be counted. If you do, I’ll say that you should try applying to college with no extracurriculars. I also spend time on this on weekends and over breaks – last year I spent 180 unpaid hours doing backstage work for our spring musical.

    I spend at least three hours each night – weekday and weekend – doing homework. I have taken off from my job because of application stress, and now mono, but previously spent eight hours a week working.

    I have finals coming up in two weeks, which I need to finish two papers for, study for the four exams, and help my 9th grader and 10 7th graders study.

    So I’m a bit unappreciative of the “You darn kids need to stop whining” argument. Maybe you don’t see this kind of stuff in the kids around where you live. But when my principal just announced to the class that the third person this year has had to take medical leave for stress-related depression, I’m not really going to take the “those whining kids” thing anymore. Actually look at what it’s like. Sit down a teenager and ask how his life is really going. Because on top of all the time committments and work, his girlfriend has also just left him for his best friend, his dad has grounded him because he stayed out late the one Saturday he made time to go out with friends, and his chem teacher is about to call home about his progress in class, causing another shouting match between his parents while he tries to be invisible in the corner. Easy? Maybe if you only see him trying to get rid of the stress on Saturday night. Maybe if you hear him blowing it off. But it’s not from the inside.

  11. of course, an avid young game player will pick up an astonishing fraction of these academic standards via something like Age of Empires, if craftily enjoyed, well before the sixth grade.

  12. Caddie, I see two kinds of kids in high school (for the most part) — I have the students who are interested in tons of stuff and can’t find enough hours in the day for it all. And I have the type who are bored with *everything* and can’t fill their days. In-between exists, but the contrast is astonishing.

    FWIW, the numbers of mentally ill — seriously ill — students in the school system is rising.

    Sorry for those phone calls, Caddie. We gotta make ’em.

  13. Steve LaBonne says:

    Caddie, when you get out of school and into the real world you’ll eventually find out what real problems are. Until you reach that stage nobody will be able to convince you that you have it easy now. Once you’ve had real problems, you won’t need convincing.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Suzie Q

    In first grade I loved the Old Testament Bible stories that wer read to me. They were filled with sex and violence. The New Testament was filled with love and mercy. I hated it. If you are really going to teach social science or anything else we have to deal with real societies and the real stuff not the filtered models we teach in our schools.

  15. We moved to Oregon from Alabama when my daughter was just entering her senior year. We went down to the local high school, went over hertranscripts, and discovered that she already had enough credits to graduate in Oregon. However, they required her to attend that last year so that she could take Oregon History. he had one class every day.
    Now, Alabama, of course, has the reputation for low academic standards, based entirely, I suspect, on lower spending per student. Yet, a student from lowly Alabama arrives in enlightened Oregon to discover that she has already learned more than Oregon requires of their students.

  16. Caddie,

    Years ago in another life I was a soldier on duty on Christmas Eve in Germany. One of my young peers said, “George, high school seems so easy now.” He was dewy eyed when he said it.

  17. Caddie,

    Yes, life is usually harder after you get out of school. There wouldn’t be so many people saying how easy kids have it in school vs. the grown-up world unless there was a measure of truth in it.

    However, with that said, I don’t believe that that in any diminishes the difficulty of what you are facing now. From your perspective now, look back at your own memories of going off to school for the first time: you had to deal with new & strange faces, new tasks, learning to be quiet and ask permission to talk, etc. At the time, you probably felt it was very complicated; looking back, you may now have a feeling of nostalgia, thinking, “I didn’t know how easy I had it then.” That’s the same perspective that adults are coming from when they say that to you now.

    Yes, things are very hard and very stressful now. And when you leave school for a job, perhaps to marry and start a family, deal with aging parents, maybe some kind of personal disaster like death of a family member – then you will begin to look back on your current time with a touch of nostalgia at ‘how easy you had it then’.

    It’s also a matter of human nature to find the certainties of the past easier than the uncertainties of the future. Everyone longs for the “good old days” when things were simplier, but those “good old days” never really existed. To those who lived through them, they were just as complicated, stressful, and uncertain as the present. Some people have just forgotten that.

  18. I think my life is far, far easier now than it was when I was a teenager. Hang in there, Caddie. It gets much better.

  19. “If you are going to teach social science or anything else we have to deal with real societies and real stuff not the filtered models we teach in our schools.”

    I’ll grant that the standards are filtered, but it’s what the public asked for. You wanted accountability, you got it.

    But I’m not so cynical to believe that violence is any more real than kindness.

  20. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Oregonians have shown, time and time again, that they will do anything to educate students short of actual spending. Or course, every conservative knows that’s irrelevant.

  21. I agree about the two classes of kids in school, and I knew quite a few in both areas, but in general, the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with the student and parents.

    It seems the three kids being tracked seem to enjoy skipping class more than attending, now as I pointed out before, it’s very hard to make up all the classes one might be missing.

    In Nevada, we have class rank determined solely by the number of credits earned in high school, so it is entirely possible to have an 17 year old student listed as a sophomore on his report card, despite the fact that he or she hangs out with all the juniors and seniors.

    As a result, kids who skip a lot of classes often wind up without the needed credits to graduate. I’m afraid what is being reported in Oregon is fast becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Suzie Q

    I wanted accountability because most of my recruits (1977-1984)were illiterate and inmumerate yet had graduated from high school. I I do not care if they know the history of India.

    I cannot think anything more dull to kids than a dicussion of the economics, culture and geography of an ancient nation without including a discusion of their very real activities, love, hate, growth and destruction. The gowth and destruction of a civilizationa is a story. Please tell it.

    Look at the history of India and tell me how much kindness you can find. No more than in Europe during the 30 Years War. Even Gandhi unintentionally helped release a plague of religous violence during the partition of India.

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