Schools and Culture: Kid Failure and Adult Voice

Summary: In a national culture that often infantilizes too many young people, how do we in schools create an environment that counters this characteristic of the prevailing culture, and in the process essentially grow in our charges the personal and essentially adult attributes they need to be successful in their lives? Small issue.

Our local newspaper, the Seattle Times, periodically performs the historic task of newspapers by publishing lengthy exposes that prod government or other institutions to long overdue reforms. Their editorial page has consistently beaten the drum for educational reform, has to some extent a finger accurately on the pulse of schools, and with some authority promotes assorted reforms. For that, I respect the Times; they get a lot of the scene better than many outsiders, and they seem to work hard at it.

Recently the editors outlined a blueprint for action for the K-University system. Among the ideas were familiar comments about middle schools, and their status as a sinkhole for the prospects of some students. For reasons that are unclear, too many students flounder in middle school (usually grades 6-7-8), or its cousin, junior high school (7-8-9). Certain characteristics of middle school students, from poor grades, to attendance problems, to disciplinary problems presage poor performance in high school, dropping out, and generally falling off the path to personal and economic success.

From my position in the high school, when I periodically dig back into the lives of the 25% to 30% of my students who struggle in some way (and these are the ones who make it to high school), almost invariably the patterns of failure appear in their middle school record, and then often much of the time in the middle school record of kids who had done acceptably in elementary school.

The Times editorial offered a tidbit I had not known. In a Harvard study that compared kids who attended middle school with kids who attended a K-8 pattern, the latter group proceeded to be relatively more successful in high school, though also showed declines. The Times comments that there may be something in the nature of middle school that may be the culprit, but acknowledges that we aren’t sure why middle school appears to function less successfully than the K-8 alternative.

I can speculate as well as the next. Middle school kids, particularly seventh and eighth graders, are entering a phase of their cognitive and emotional development where they naturally and culturally begin to challenge the authority –parent and adult — whom they heretofore more or less have accepted as the rule giver and boundary setter.

At the same time, the strength of those cultural and familial boundaries are less certain; many commentators have lamented a culture in which too often an openness to diversity of thought becomes misdirected into the disappearance of boundaries. The distinction between right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy behavior, has become less clear, and with it the willingness of authority to exercise normal adult control of the young ones becomes wobbly.

Enter youngsters hell bent to challenge the boundaries. A normal healthy fear of consequences has been muted in the elementary years by permissive family structures and an even more permissive society. As middle school kids challenge the orthodoxy that would have them doing their homework, being respectful of teachers and one another, and in general performing as is necessary to make the next steps to high school and beyond, their elders falter in their certainty, too many kids in effect call the bluff, and tune out the jabbering and correct but ineffectual voices telling them to do well in school. Too many kids prove to not work toward the accountability expected, nor to know how to work hard, or to overcome difficulties because the culture all along has let them off the hook, and now when they are called to account, we emperors have no clothes; we cannot force them to do what we know they need to do, because the aura of authority once lost is difficult to regain. Of course, this is essentially a critique of our culture, not of the kids who, despite their wayward behavior, are mostly still innocents. We have simply failed them already.

It is one thing to put the finger on the pulse, and to describe the reality, but another to determine a course of corrective action, whether toward the middle school dilemma, or toward its offspring in the high school. Why is it that a K-8 system is relatively more successful? Note “relatively.” It would be useful to know if they are relatively successful, or simply less prone to failure relative to middle schools.

But perhaps they are relatively more successful because there is no transition during student age known for upheaval. Transitions are always more fraught with difficulty through many human settings. In a K-8 system the authority structure stays intact during a difficult stage of development, particularly in a culture that struggles to maintain structure. Kids need that structure because, contrary to popular culture, they really do not yet know what they are about, though they are getting there.

My wife, a veteran of all three levels of schools, suggests that elementary schools are by their nature more lockstep and prescriptive, and so may better hold in check the incipient educational mayhem.

More needs to be known about these whys and wherefores. However, there is a larger question over time toward which I hope to bring to bear my musings. If we have too many kids who do not know what it is to be accountable, to meet expectations, to work through difficulty and what it is to work truly hard, then what is the regimen, what is the school culture, what is the relationship with the parent community that will begin the slow slog toward acculturating our students in these personality characteristics they so lack, and without which they will not join the march in this technological and internationally competitive age?

Though we lament our current condition, and fulminate about the character of too many of the kids we encounter, it remains our professional responsibility to both the kids and our culture to find remedy for the reality we face.

From where I sit now, I think the answer lies in schools becoming more prescriptive and more structured, and in the adult, professional, and parent community finding a stronger voice that reminds our young charges that though we respect their thinking and their urge to growth, there are important matters in which we still know more than they do, and they had damn well better listen to our prescription, at their future peril. They must take us not as the voice of threat, but the voice of reality and see us as a source of wisdom. Something in that general vicinity, down the road some time later. Stay tuned to Schooldog!

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