Thursday, February 13, 2014

Your local high school is a disaster ...

"Our high schools are a disaster." Seriously? Apparently so, according to a piece published by this past week. Perhaps the online magazine needed to use a catchy title to reel in readers. Mission: accomplished. As someone who's worked in a high school for the last eight years, I couldn't help but want to read what terrible circumstances have turned these educational institutions into a disaster area.

The major critique leveled against high schools is that students are bored with such a tedious environment. While this trend continued across various nations of the world, American high schools were said to be more boring than others. I find this to be a strange critique since American high schools offer more academic and extracurricular activities and options than many of those same countries. In terms of extracurricular activities, American schools allow students to develop nearly any interest they see fit to pursue. So, why are students claiming our high schools are boring despite the many options available to them?

Let's be clear: some teachers are terribly dry and boring. Despite this fact, many teachers genuinely care about making a positive classroom and want students to have a valuable learning experience. The bulk of teenagers would claim to bored regardless of the learning environment.

A very uncomfortable fact of teaching in the United States relates to educators confronting the fact that we compete with the best entertainment technologies in human history. High school students today have access to video games that are terribly realistic. Netflix allows us to see every movie or episode of practically any television show in our broadcasting history within seconds of requesting it. Phones have become utility devices we carry in our pockets with access to more information than some of the world's largest libraries. Ironically, these devices are used for watching videos of cats doing silly tricks.

Our students immerse themselves in entertainment, to the point where everything else in life becomes secondary. It's easy to be entertained because in many cases, children aren't required to engage anything. Movies, television, texting, music – much of it is very passive. Much of what teachers in high school ask students to do is active, requiring a great deal more attentiveness than the forms of entertainment.

Reading an entire book seems like a Herculean task for many students who live in a world where everything 'worthwhile' is said in 140 characters or less. Students balk at the very idea of taking notes, as if anything a teacher would say would be worth the energy it would take to write down. Our children can't be bothered with such mundane activities as reading, or writing. Even with video games (some game makers admirably try to implement problem solving into games), children give up when they can't figure out a solution. They turn to the Internet for a guide on how to achieve a certain goal within the game.

In many ways, our students lack the discipline and willpower necessary to be prepared for college or the 'real world'. While I admire the tech savvy nature of America's youth, I have little confidence in their ability to complete tasks that require mental discipline and dedication. They expect to never have to involve themselves in menial jobs, which they characterize as 'beneath' them. Younger generations demand respect, whereas previous generations commanded respect. There's a distinct difference between the two.

The Slate article also pointed out high school reading scores have been standing still over the last few decades (while elementary and middle school scores increased) despite government action such as The No Child Left Behind Act, and the Race to the Top funding program. They argue that nothing schools and government have tried are working. If that indeed is true, then what should that tell us when schools and the government have tried practically everything to improve achievement of students in high school? Perhaps it's not the high schools that are failing. Maybe students and parents need to step up their level of commitment. Are we really to believe that teachers at lower levels somehow have greater skill and dedication to their work than high school teachers?

Part of the problem with high schools are the students. And this fact doesn't mean our high schools are a disaster, nor should it signal to anyone that students are the only problem. American high schools face several difficult challenges that prevent optimal performance, most of which can't be discussed in the space permitted here. The one major change I would like to see is what all teachers enjoy talking about – money.

Funding is a challenge, but not in the way people might realize. The United States is willing to spent the right amount of money, but the distribution of those dollars needs to be greatly revised. Regardless of what anyone believes, high schools are very much understaffed. The ideal classroom size for a high school should be no more than 20 students per classroom. When dealing with high school students that have a learning disability, there should be a 1:1 ratio. Many teenagers are multiple grade levels behind their peers and require serious assistance to meet their needs. Our special education teachers are set up to fail because they can't spend enough quality time with the large number of students they are assigned to monitor.

Yes, computers and other advanced forms of technology are important, but nothing can replace the value of having a capable teacher in the classroom. Staffing remains an obstacle, particularly in West Virginia, where county and state level administrators grow in number while the student population has diminished over time. Explain to me how it makes sense that we need so many people at higher levels of administration when that money would be better spent on personnel.

If society truly cared about education of our children, we would reorganize our efforts in education and send armies of trained personnel and volunteers into schools to seize control of the authority schools lost long ago.

Maybe high schools aren't producing up to the level of expectation for, but I can live with that. After all, what can we expect from an online magazine with such little substance, it resorts to misleading headlines to draw in readers. The real question we should consider asking is how teachers are able to have students achieving at the level they are in spite of the students and the distractions that wear on teenagers?

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