We expect a lot out of kids.
I don’t mean this in the sense that teachers have high expectations, or that parents push their kids to succeed.
I mean that we ask kids to do big things, hard things that we don’t even ask adults to do, and we don’t give them a choice about it. We even structure their lives so that they can’t make a different choice.
Kids don’t get to opt out of getting an education.
We don’t force adults to do anything–even pay taxes. If you didn’t make any money, you don’t have to pay any taxes!
Of course, as an adult, you probably don’t want to live in a situation where you do nothing all day and make no money. You want to be productive, you want to find work you enjoy, you want to contribute and you want to be rewarded for your contribution. You want to do all of this because the alternative is starvation, both physical and intellectual.
But you get to choose the manner in which you do this, and you have an incredible number of ways you could spend your free time, even if you have little choice about occupation or income. Even if you have no money to spend, living at the start of the 21st century is vastly more interesting than living at the start of basically any other century. If you lived 100 years ago, you probably wouldn’t even have a radio.
When you are born in America, you are given a responsibility you cannot get rid of: you have an obligation to become educated so you can contribute. You are expected to contribute, particularly economically. You have no option to do something different for the first 18 years of your life.
In addition to not giving kids a choice about whether or not to be educated, we also create a lot of false choices for them, choices that aren’t really choices. You technically have the option to not participate in extracurricular activities, or sports, or music. You aren’t forced to take a foreign language class. You don’t have to do your homework or study for tests. But good luck getting into college. Even the informal structures of the system incentivize kids to make certain choices and take certain paths.
Kids are acutely aware of this, and it is this lack of choice which creates the constraining feeling many students experience. The fact that K-12 education is–from the consumer’s perspective–the cheapest education they will ever receive is not very consoling given their feelings about its context. Working with kids is a constant balancing act between allowing students freedom and constraining students in order to put learning (however it is valued and counted) first, as often as possible.
We build education policy in this way: if a high school is not graduating kids, and if a school system is not producing kids who perform well on standardized tests, we scrutinize and punish that school system. This ensures that everyone who works in that school system is bent on the goal of getting all the kids to learn as much as humanely possible–at least what can be measured and tested–and to complete the work required to get a diploma.
In this model, students are viewed as a homogenous group whose achievement data–averaged–describes the level of success of the system. And the goal of that system is to produce competent and effective workers who will stimulate economic growth. School is not really for kids–it’s for taxpayers, and they demand a return on their investment.
Don’t get me wrong–I am very in favor of educating our next generation. I know the alternative to mandatory free public school is child labor–that was the state of affairs once and nobody wants to go back to that. And there are definite benefits for kids. School is a place where we can help kids discover the world and teach them the skills to make their lives successful and meaningful. But we shouldn’t fail to acknowledge that we assign an enormous involuntary responsibility to people who are still very young. Being alive expects things of you whether you like it or not.
What do kids think about this?
Well, as a kid, you are probably:
- sleep deprived
- sitting for 7 hours a day
- having most of the choices about how you spend your time at school made for you
- eating too much junk food (Rockstar! Sour Patch Kids!)
- still learning how to operate in the world without the benefit of a fully developed prefrontal cortex or an effective set of coping strategies
- surrounded by a lot of other kids who all have these same problems
So we’ve designed a structure to keep kids on track. In fact, we’ve designed it so you have to try not to get a high school diploma these days.
Don’t do your homework? You get put in an intervention period where you get one-on-one attention every day from people to help you.
Have a disability? You have a yearly IEP and a caseworker whose entire job is to follow your progress and help your classroom teachers adjust instruction to meet your needs. You will have enough time to finish every assignment to the best of your ability–deadlines become completely flexible for you. You can even stay in school until you’re 21.
Don’t know how to do an assignment? You can email your teachers 24 hours a day or look up basically all high school level knowledge online. There are myriad apps to practice many skills you would learn, all available for free.
Not showing up to school? We will send a truancy officer to your house to collect you and bring you to school.
Not behaving in class? We have a wide range of behavioral interventions to implement that will teach you how to get along with others, as well as a system of rewards and punishments to encourage you.
Don’t do anything in class? We will notify your parents, keep you out of extracurriculars, put you in special small-sized classes where you can’t hide from the teachers, or drag you into the office to be isolated from the rest of the kids until you catch up.
All of this isn’t working? We have self-paced computer classes available for you to take that will get you your high school diploma.
That still isn’t working? We will pay for your enrollment in an alternative school where you will be given a part-time job that earns $12 an hour. You will work four hours a day and attend classes designed specifically for kids with your interests and abilities the other half of the day.
This is a lot of second chances–way more than the world gives you after high school. If you go to a school that has the resources to do what I’ve described above, if you don’t graduate in 2017, it’s because you TRIED not to. Dozens of adults attempted to catch you over the course of a decade, and you would have to willfully resist their help every step of the way–and they are persistent and demanding, because they get punished if you don’t succeed, and they know how few opportunities await you if you lack a high school diploma.
Compare this with what college looks like: everything is your fault, and absolutely nobody cares if you succeed or fail. If you don’t go to class, nobody says anything. If you want to flunk out, nobody tries to stop you. If you don’t understand, nobody will check in with you partway through the semester and force you to go to tutoring. If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else will. It’s more humane in the sense that nobody is forcing you to do anything, but if we are measuring return on investment by graduation rate, colleges pale in comparison to high schools. Just compare the high school graduation rate with the college graduation rate: “Just 5 percent of students complete their associate degrees in two years… At non-flagship public universities, just 19 percent of students finish in four years, and just 36 percent do so at flagship or research universities.”
The high schools graduation rate? 83% of students graduate in 4 years.
High school looks like this, from a kid’s perspective: You wake up in the morning sleep deprived because your circadian rhythm is two hours later than the adult circadian rhythm. Then you go to school where teachers tell you to complete work that you find challenging (or maybe completely unchallenging) but probably uninteresting–not because it’s wholly uninteresting, but because you are so sleep deprived it is hard to really be engaged with anything fully. Plus, most humans don’t love all subjects–you have your favorites. If you don’t do what we say, we push and prod you. We keep badgering you and pestering you.
You HAVE to learn this stuff. You never said you wanted to. It doesn’t have to do with what you want to do for work. Maybe you don’t even want to work. Maybe you’d like to be a lazy bum. Maybe you’d like to live on an organic farm in Ireland. Maybe you’d rather play video games professionally. You don’t have a choice. You’re a kid. You must become proficient in all areas.
You don’t get to make choices about this. Other people make these choices for you. They explain to you why these are good choices, but you’ve never seen the outside world and you don’t obey the incentives of the adult world–yet. Adults are motivated by status, money, material wealth, pursuing their interests, and the satisfaction of having completed good work. You are motivated by free time to spend with your friends, athletic and extracurricular success, and whatever distractions you can drum up on your smartphone. You don’t care about the adult world, and you are not all that afraid of being unprepared for it, because you’ve never really seen it. You may even resist a lot of the advice adults give you, and then 10 years later you will resent that they didn’t push you harder and hold you more accountable.
We don’t force any adult to meet the levels of achievement we demand of students, and we don’t micromanage the lives of adults the way we do children, and we don’t refuse adults the option to opt out of the system.
When I ask a kid to do something, they are trusting me that it will be helpful for them later. And they will probably have to delay that gratification by at least a decade. If you go to college, you don’t really make money until you’re 22-24 years old.
And when we talk about changing the way schools work, we can imagine all sorts of alternatives, but in implementing those imagined alternative realities we crash into the unfortunate truth that there are always trade offs and balances we struggle to get right: freedom and choice can breed chaos, clarity and specificity can lead to a rigid system, and decentralized decision making can lead to indecision.
Here is what we should acknowledge in order to keep our empathy for our students up front:
Being a kid is hard. We demand a lot of kids. We don’t ask kids whether or not they want to participate in the rat race, and we don’t let them opt out of it. We ask kids to trust us–a lot. And kids do. They put an enormous amount of trust in us every day. They trust that what we are asking of them will be worth it, and it is our responsibility to make sure that it is.