says American high schools are a disaster


Photo of a storm-ravaged high school, with a repurposed, positive message around its sign © Kansas City District

Here’s Laurence Steinberg’s Slate article on high schools. And here’s my response:

The Slate article doesn’t have the comments feature enabled. And I think that serves as a perfect analogy. Now, I see the reasons they might have comments disabled: website policy, too difficult to moderate, you never know what kind of mindless comments you might get. And that’s just the price of having a widely-read online magazine.

So, consider the other side of the analogy: according to the article, American high schoolers are failing at achievement compared to global peers, such that, for them, “success in college” or even “success in post-graduation life” isn’t really “enabled” by the American school system (my words, not Steinberg’s). That’s just the price of having a widely-attended school system: you never know what kind of low-achieving attendees you might get. That doesn’t mean we should try to revolutionize the system, akin to seizing control and disabling or enabling certain features.

To Steinberg’s credit, the article is rife with external links showing numbers and statistics shaming American students with their own “failures” at school. But in the end, I view those statistics as just one big complaint that things need to change, without anything actionable and small-scale on how to change.

Furthermore, I don’t see American high schoolers’ positions as something we can change. Their lack of success reflects not necessarily a failing of some kind in our government or educational policy, but an American value. As Steinberg writes, American high schools are a place for socialization. We are a very socially-minded country, if not species (!), which is why so many American teenagers are concerned with succeeding in the social realm both in high school and outside. As Americans, we just don’t inherently value rules and tests the way high-achieving Asian societies do. And I don’t think that is something we need to change.

It’s our brazen social habits and desire to flout rules and structure that we become innovators and positive thinkers in America. It’s the nature of our society and our history. If we really want high schoolers to achieve higher, then we need to drastically reduce the student-to-teacher ratio and provide more personalized instruction based on students’ interests. This way, they won’t burn out from boredom and under-stimulation, as the Slate article suggests they do.

The problem is, schools can’t promise that low ratio. It’s not in the budget or in the provisions of government policy; it’s not even entirely guaranteed in all the promising charters signed by charter schools. Student-geared education needs to happen on the family level, where it is manageable and trustworthy. And — I bet you weren’t prepared for this addition to the fold — that’s why I think poor people (notice I’m not saying stupid people) need to stop having children, because the education of those children is highly likely to suffer.

A disclaimer: Anything I write here is a one-sided conversation until other people add their thoughts. I don’t presume to be the final word on anything here, and I welcome intelligent responses to these thoughts!


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