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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Perspectives / Keeping Adolescents in Mind

    Perspectives / Keeping Adolescents in Mind
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      At a recent press conference to propose new reforms for high schools, Virginia governor Mark Warner noted that we need “to restore value to the high school diploma.” “Restore it to what point in time?” education writer Gerald Bracey wanted to know. Should we return to the 1950s, when LIFE magazine published a cover story on the crisis in high schools, or to 1983, when A Nation At Risk proclaimed that the typical high school education contributed to national mediocrity?
      The modus operandi of many who want change today seems to be to declare a crisis and then advocate a return to the mythical, golden, olden days. That said, we should acknowledge that there are reasons to support reform efforts in our high schools, including many of the recommendations endorsed by the National Governors Association. (See “Special Report,” p. 88.)
      First, look at the statistics. About 68 percent of those who enroll in high school today graduate. From that number, about 40 percent go on to college. One-third of those who enter college require some remedial courses before they are ready to tackle college work (Achieve, 2005). ACT notes that an even lower number—22 percent of the 1.2 million students tested by ACT in 2004—are fully prepared for college.
      Job prospects for high school graduates are bleak. Entry-level wages for those with a high school education have fallen by more than 20 percent since the 1970s (Larson, 2002). More and more, young adults will need advanced literacy, problem-solving, and technological skills to be successful in their 21st century world.
      As for the immediate effect of high school on young people, Public Agenda recently asked those ages 18–25 to comment on “life beyond high school” (Johnson & Duffett, 2005). Compared to college graduates, high school grads were less happy with their work situations. Just 20 percent said they loved their job, compared with 42 percent of those with college degrees. And when asked whether their high school teachers should have done more to prepare them for their future, 81 percent of the less educated said yes as compared to 60 percent with degrees. Young adults acknowledged their lack of foresight as younger teenagers: 78 percent who did not go on to college said they could have paid more attention and worked harder in high school; 60 percent of the college grads felt the same.
      How can we create high schools that better prepare students for the future? Solutions proposed by various groups include mandating more tests, creating more stringent exit requirements, emphasizing academic over vocational/technical programs, and demanding that each high schooler take four years of math.
      But will such changes convince current students to see high school as a meaningful opportunity? Let's acknowledge that more rigor, more standardization, and more testing cannot be the entire solution. Students today are living in a new world. In fact, the average IQ of young adults today is 20 points higher than that of their counterparts in 1940, reflecting human adaptation to the increased complexity of modern life (Larson, 2002). Globally, young people are healthier and more sophisticated than they used to be as a result of better health care and exposure to the Internet and other media.
      Yet adolescents are not miniature adults, as recent studies about brain development show (see p. 22), and their sophistication does not mean they will embrace mandates imposed by the government or even by their teachers. Too often, the traditional curriculum and instructional approaches used today do not seem to them relevant or useful for anything but getting into college (see p. 33). In fact, when teenagers were asked in a recent Gallup poll to select three words to describe how they usually felt in school, “bored” was their first choice, followed by “tired” (Lyons, 2004).
      Unfortunately, those who recommend “more rigor” in schools are often ignorant of school culture and know little about how to teach adolescents. And for the most part, they aren't asking those who work in the schools to suggest what needs to be done.
      This issue of Educational Leadership addresses “The Adolescent Learner,” not high school reform. But if high school reform is to succeed, we must provide what adolescent students want and need: “a more interactive teaching style, a more relevant curriculum, school rules that are responsive to their living circumstances, and schools that give them a role and voice in their own education” (Noguera, 2004). This issue suggests that what is most needed to achieve lasting improvement in middle and high school is a focus on improving instruction.
      Carol Ann Tomlinson and Kristina Doubet (p. 8) lead off the issue by highlighting four successful teachers who engage students deeply in their own learning. These teachers respectfully listen to their students and make learning relevant, challenging, and personal. Yes, they make lessons rigorous and demanding, too, but they don't simply make classes harder or teach to prepare students for tests. Turn the pages to see how they and other educators who keep adolescents in mind are accomplishing true school reform appropriate for 2005 and beyond.

      Achieve, Inc. & National Governors Association. (2005). An action agenda for improving America's high schools. Washington, DC: Achieve, Inc. Available: www.nga.org

      Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2005). Life after high school [Online]. Available: www.publicagenda.org

      Larson, R. (2002, November/December). The future of adolescence: Lengthening ladders to adulthood. The Futurist, 16–20.

      Lyons, L. (2004, June 8). Most teens associate school with boredom, fatigue [Online]. Available: www.gallup.com/poll/content/login.aspx?ci=11893

      Noguera, P. A. (2004). Transforming high schools. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 26–31.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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