High School Is Rough All Over

By Neil Krasnoff

FROM CELIA:
Neil and I met when we were the only two passengers on an airport shuttle. After learning that he’d taught at several high schools in Texas, I wanted to know what he’d experienced. I’m fascinated by what young people are taught today about life and meaning, about what really matters, and about what success is, so I asked him many questions. Neil’s post followed from those questions.

As a science teacher and librarian in several different public schools, I’ve seen a real contrast between students who come from wealthy communities and those from working class ones: socioeconomic circumstances have an overwhelming influence on academic outcomes. What’s assumed to be privilege can create strong stresses that make kids anxious and unhappy while kids without wealth have pressures that  seem worse on the surface but can actually lead to real advantages since schools in communities with fewer resources may be free to be innovative and to use more student-centered teaching strategies. The title of this post quotes H.E. Hinton who wrote, “things are rough all over” in her young adult novel THE OUTSIDERS, because that reflects the different but very real challenges faced by most high school students.

The school I have taught in for several years served a suburban community created several decades ago as a result of “white flight” from a large city in Texas. It was set up from the start for people with inherited wealth or high incomes who were generally politically conservative and highly invested in how their children would be educated. That combination produced a climate that does not encourage risk-taking or controversy. The parents are very involved in the school and use their influence to get what they consider the best education, one that will result in their children being able to lead lives like their own. The parents want them to aim for future careers that pay well – if they are going to have to work at all. These parents spend inordinate amounts of money on college admissions consultants and pressure their children to develop whatever is necessary to get into a college like Stanford, Penn, or Cornell. They also teach their kids to “play it safe” so they won’t endanger being accepted by elite schools.

No other school that I’ve worked in has had as many admissions to selective colleges. The kids are pressured to achieve status with a focus on grade point averages, test scores, and advanced placement courses. High school becomes a numbers-based competition with little emphasis on the process of learning. The kids tend to cram for exams rather than study a subject and, unfortunately, they may cheat in order to get those desirable grades. Only a minority of students are genuinely interested in their courses and even they can be discouraged from discovering and developing their own interests. Although there are some kids who are out of the mainstream and aren’t afraid of being different, there is not much room for free thinking or activism. In this high school the students work very, very hard to meet their parents’ expectations. With that steady pressure to conform, to stay safe, and to maintain family status, this high school does prepare kids  for the competitive life ahead – the students are positioned for the kind of success their parents want.

Having to make the grade is not just a necessity for the students. There’s also a lot of scrutiny of the teachers and what they are teaching – especially the English teachers because of fears that the books kids read could lead them astray. The administrators are also invested in maintaining their own positions and they push for success for the whole school, not wanting to come out on the wrong side of the system-wide achievement levels they are expected to meet, even if that does not benefit the students.

I’ve chosen to teach next year in a school that’s just across the city – one where the kids are mostly from lower income families. Status is not the issue here: the focus for them is the reality of having to earn a living. Like the kids from the wealthy community, they learn from the lives they see around them. It’s a charter school where although the mission is 100% college attendance, many of the kids expect to work in construction or as movers, barbers, or cosmetologists. The kids who do want to do more think about something like starting their own business as a beautician or barber. If there’s a problem in the wealthy community with high parental expectations, here the challenge is to raise the students’ expectations for themselves. They need more support in every way compared to the privileged kids. The charter school students don’t have the benefit of enriched experiences or professional connections that the kids in the first school have, nor are their parents familiar with the process of getting into college.

One of the courses I will teach is for about 140 tenth graders is designed to challenge and support them. The students choose personal projects that involve setting realistic goals and timelines, executing their plans, and writing a 3,000-word report with a bibliography. These independent projects are meant to be independent but because kids at my new school need more encouragement and direction, I will work with them at first to find a topic that truly motivates them, one they can commit to completing. A significant difference between these students and the ones at the other high school is that because of parental pressure the wealthy kids are likely to work on assignments until 2 a.m., while the charter school students don’t have energy for that kind of effort because they have after-school jobs.  As a teacher I’ve needed to be part of a school that is student-centered, and I look forward to my new work.

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