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Humdrum High


Only 53 percent of high school students put a "great deal of effort" into their school work, and more than a third have not written a paper more than five pages long the entire school year, according to a recent survey of more than 80,000 high school students conducted by Indiana University Bloomington. Martha M. McCarthy, director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement said, "I think our data give a wake-up call to high schools to say we need to make our courses more challenging."

Does this survey reflect the trend in your district? Why don't high schoolers feel challenged by their courses? What can be done to effectively engage students?


Without a doubt teachers are ready and prepared to teach on a daily basis. The student who is coming to school today is not the same student who came to school 25 years ago. Today, these kids think that they have a sense of entitlement for easy grades and less work. Overall they are lazy, and it starts at the Elemetary schools which now have parents doing their projects and assignments. Man this is great I will get an A.
Poor work ethics. Having to pay your kids to get good grades, electives all over the place so if they fail they will take it over. If teachers today truly held students accountable for their grades, the failure rate would be enourmous. We have open book test's now, we allow them to take their test at home, we give them extra assignments for extra credit, block schedule so they now do their homework in class. Their lazy and we allow it. They know it or they would get to work.

Learn from other cultures and countries. Start the school day later. It appears to be scheduled for adult convenience. Provide early care where needed. Teach foreign language when their brain is primed to learn language--before they turn 10. Provide fuel every hour for students to consume. Ban soda and junk foods. Provide water, fruit, nuts, whole grain snacks, yogurt. Allow time for stuents to socialize between classes if on block scheduling. Provide time for organized discussion and debate during class. Have students journal their experience thoughout their formal education. Survey students each term for a response about their experiences in the classroom. Ask what would make it better, and how. Listen to them. Use the feedback to improve education in America. Kids are perceptive,and very honest. They begin to hide the truth when they learn no one wants to hear it, do anything about it, or when they are judged by it. End government funding for education at 16 years of age. Put the funds into providing state of the art educational facilities. By this age students should have demonstrated the ability to continue with particular academic, trade, professional or vocational training. The training selected should reflect the personal interests of the student--not the parent. Education from this point until college might be subsidized by the government, with parents paying tuition for students to attend. Students should be responsible for keeping the facility neat and clean--learning to respect and give back to the environment/community they are part of. Like the world they are eventually going to live in and contribute to.

I agree with much of what D. Cadorette says (D. is for David, right). But she hasn't addressed the question asked at all, even if the first comment is little more than a list of grievances, at least it does that. One reason I'd suggest for high schools not being challenging enough is that sometimes teachers are penalized if they do demand more of their students. This is a very well-worn question and the survey's results should have surprised no one. This nation largely accepts mediocre schools; if that ever changes, teachers will demand more.

Teachers have experienced the humiliation and embarrassment of being told to change their grades by administrators, being told to offer extended deadlines, being told to allow work to be submitted at the end of the quarter when it was due in the first several weeks. After several of these experiences, which undermine their credibility with students and parents, it is understandable that they modify their expectations and practices. I hate to agree about the possibility that too many students are expecting to go to college when it is not reasonable. Given the spectrum of abilities and work ethics, many students are better suited and would be happier in a vocational training program for part of their high school experience and more specialized training in their chosen field after high school. The reality is that not every student has the intelligence, the interest, or the motivation to spend four or more years in even more intense and demanding study. That is a very difficult concept to get parents to understand. Most students already know it and I'm sure they wish we'd help their folks get the message and let them develop a more realistic plan for their future. Then we'd have people in our communities doing important jobs that require a great deal of skill, and doing them well.

Schools need to make drastic changes if they want to reep drastic results. In making curriculum more challenging we must address stimulating. As they say, "Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results." We have a generation of kids who use their fingers to aid stimulation of the brain with video gameing and computers. Without realizing it, these kids seek higher levels of stimulation when they are bored. It's a different generation than ever before. Then they come to the classroom and are expected to sit, listen, watch and learn. Often without movement, dialog, debate, or feedback. Their brains are so accustomed to being stimulated of course they are bored--and their thoughts elsewhere. Have them work in small teams where they can be interactive, role playing, creating questions and discussion. We have to be creative with students in the classroom or we are failing our children. It's a different generation, and it's time for change. Text is great as a reference and reading assignment. Once the kids read it, disuss it, act it, play games with it, use current events with it, ask what the kids think of it. If they don't, why not? Have them write if they won't respond verbally, but for heavens sake, read it and respond to them. Provide them feedback that shows you care about them as people. Build credibility with them. It works. Get them involved. Provide stimulating environments. Post what you want them to think about. Post things they will ask about. Have a suggestion box. Ignore the comments that are inappropriate--they are seeking attention. Show attention to appropriate suggestions. Kids will respond. They will learn you care. Above all else, respect the students. You don't know what their lives are like away from the classroom--any more than they know yours.They probably know more about you. Respect them--they will respect you. And we just may motivate them to learn. This is not intended to offend any educator in any way. We just need to understand a new generation, accept them for who they are--not who we want them to be, and adjust our educational goals to meet current needs. And of course, with appropriate, defined behaviors for all.

High Schools are the same today as when I was attending mine some 25 years ago. A new computer lab here...a ton more special education rooms there...otherwise, they are quite similar. Kids today can get the same FANTASTIC education that I received if they want it. Of course, they would have to want it. They would have to work as hard as I did, taking all the rigorous coursework that was offered. They would have to study for hours on end--daily. The thing that might be different today is that teachers have lowered their standards based on all the trauma that is brought into their classrooms daily--broken homes, poverty, hunger, etc. Still, in the upper level courses of virtually any school I've visited, you can get a great education and get on with your life. The student just has to want it! As to what goes on in the lower level and "regular" ed classes--agreed! It can be a sad situation. Until society (meaning parents and the communities that comprise our student bodies) wakes up and decides that they want truly educated kids and will support us in that endeavor I don't see massive improvement/change coming.

1-Use teachers who only really want to be there and who themselves want to learn and grow with their students, not teachers who are in teaching as a fall back job.
2-Ask the students what they want to learn. Help them learn what interests them.
3-Teachers must themselves demonstrate that they read and write and enjoy the process. Students will find the teachers' genuine enthusiasm contagious.
4-Make doing "homework" a pleasure, a discovery, a challenge, and a thing to be shared with fellow students not just the teacher/authority figure. Homework will then become "Homejoy".
5-Stop teaching to the test. Stop tests altogether. Let the students figure out how to assess their skills--they can do this. Students will enjoy assesing each other when the learning becomes integrated with their real lives and interests and when learning is a true collaborative effort of the whole class. In this model, as in Outward Bound's outdoor educational philosophy, everyone succeeds together because the fastest, brightest, 'best', slows his/her pace to meet the slowest person. The slowest person is gelty nurtured and supported to go just a tad faster. Eventually, everyone is adjusting constantly--just as in real life--and everyone wins (also a possibility in real life with this model.

Our state Youth Advisory Team has given me a different perspective on high school rigor and student response. During my meetings with them they have made it very clear that at no time has a college requested information on how they performed on state academic assessments, nor has any employer. No one ever asks them to provide evidence of academic knowledge or skill. Placement in college and community college classes is either a bureaucratic suffle of schedules or a placement test totally disconnected from their high school experiences. Applying to college appears to still be based upon GPA, SAT/ACT test scores, participation in activities and letters of recommendation. Their conclusion? The adults in their lives are really not serious about expecting improved performance and increased levels of proficiency in academics. The easy "A" still works in a GPA-driven world. Their recommendation is that the adults have to get clear first what they really believe about high school performance and put it into place. If we are really ready to require rigor from every student and ready to integrate the high school and college systems around academic proficiency, they will rise to that expectation. But they think we have not come to that agreement. At least, in their experience, no one except their classroom teacher seems to care about academic proficiency enough to even ask for any evidence other than a transcript. My 30 years in the profession leads me to think they are right. Changing high schools means changing the adults and the structure of the system first. Every student needs to experience a rigorous curriculum that is directly linked to college success and the system needs to be modified to provide the additional time and support for every student to experience success. The failure of a student to achieve academic proficiency is first a breakdown of our delivery system, not a failure of the student. Creating such systems requires aligning the Pk-16 system around clear academic expectations for all students. Access to rigorous content is provided and expected of every student, not just those with the "right" profile and attitude. When we are serious about high expectations for performance for all students and build our systems to reflect that commitment, I believe the students will far exceed our expectations.

Often parents are to blame for teachers giving less work. I have seen the teachers back off over parents run to the central office over "too high expectations" or teachers have backed off because the nasty phone calls hurt so much it's just easier to give in. In our district a 36 year teacher, loved by every 8th grader he's taught, was told last year that he cold not reduce guidelines throughout the year for his research papers but need clear rubrics all year for what he expected after parents ran in the spring to the central office complaining, after 36 years, that the assignment was unclear. Part of the expectation all year was to learn to do research with less help. We are quick to blame "kids today" but if you look behind the less driven student, what do you find?

As a high school counselor I see and hear students say that they are not being successful in their course work because they are simply lazy. I am not sure if this is physiological or psychological in nature but I suspect it may be a little of both. I have a real sense of urgency in helping motivate our students to try harder and work harder at their studies so that they may experience success in high school and then of course in post secondary education. Thank you.

The problem with high schools is lack of coordination and purpose -- it's not lazy kids. Each teacher does his/her own thing, and kids try to beat the system (there is no system, just random courses). Exception: IB (not AP, they are just courses, not a program). And schools are too big. We need to create smaller learning communities where faculty develop a coherent program and with high expectations. When a student enters the "program," success is assured by the faculty team, who monitors each student's progress until the program is mastered.

As a teacher, there are many things that I don't have control over, but I do have control over my classroom. I have only worked in low SES schools, and whether you believe it or not - all kids want to learn even if they can't do as much as other students. I challenge any of you to dialogue with students about what they think about schools and they complain about not having supplies, having teachers that don't care, and not being challenged at school. Of course, there are lazy students, but, they, like adults, get away with that behavior becaus they are allowed to.

Yes, parents and administrators and other teachers can be petty, but at some point you have to decide whether you are going to stand up for your kids or not. Most of you would not back down if we were talking about YOUR OWN children - why can't we all advocate for our students in the same manner?

Our state university has a policy of open admission to any HS grad from our state. We get students who are totally unprepared for higher education. Many parents come with their student for advising and still try to run the show. I had one student doze off several times during an advising session and his mother kept poking him and apologizing. She kept telling me what he wanted to take and what he was interested in. He was almost mute and gave me one word answers to my questions.

I agree that parents and society are to blame for many of the problems. But administrators and instructors are also to blame. As noted we've allowed ourselves to be intimidated by parental pressure and political issues. PR concerns have contributed to grade inflation, lowered expectations, teacher burn-out and a lot confusion and finger pointing. At some point we have to demand to be heard and respected as professionals. We have to stand up for what's right and what's best for our students.

Standardized testing and traditional instruction that stresses knowledge acquisition over understanding and application have made knowledge seem disposable to the students. They know that they only have to play the game and retain the info until the next test. If they get by they are satisfied. Then they quickly forget those facts and focus on the next unit, chapter, or topic. They don't see the information as relevant or interesting because we spend so much time stressing the facts and info needed to pass the tests. Motivation comes when they see the skill as personally relevant and engaging. They fit it into their context. Educators sustain the problem when they don't adapt their methods and content to meet the situation and needs. We must get away from one-size-fits-all education. True learning can't be measured by just focusing on test scores as an indicator of higher standards.

My son is entering his senior year and will soon apply to liberal arts colleges, many of which require applicants to submit a graded paper with teacher comments. He had to specifically ask one of his teachers for comments because the amount of feedback he receives is so minimal. No wonder students are losing motivation! Plus he has several classmates with 4.0s who aren't intellectual in the least. They work for the grade, not for the love of learning. Until we can find a way to take the emphasis off of grades and test scores, this will continue.

I wonder if having courses in areas such as emotional intelligence would help bolster student's intrinsic motivation. There seems to be a definite problem with 'laziness'. Personally, I try to avoid calling students lazy, but rather I think of them as efficient - they do the minimal amount of work to get the maximum gain - which is a very respectable, wise characteristic. I think the problem is that many students (and parents, government organizations, etc) assess and prioritize 'gain' with a warped process. Sadly the 'maximum' gain for school is seldom, if ever, learning - it's often getting the grade that will satisfy their parents. Additionally, there are many other 'gains' a student can seek (sports programs, jobs, friendships, etc.) which compete for their effort.

So I think we have to educate our students on the following: 1) the real gain is learning (not grades) 2)the more you short-cut the learning process the less you will actually gain 3) there are long and short term gains and often short term gains should be sacrificed for more important long term gains 4) learning is a long term gain that is very worth their effort - for the future, but also their current enjoyment (that's our job - make learning more fun right now! Model a love of learning.) 5) the greatest enjoyment in life comes from times when you are challenged to your fullest potential, able to succeed, and for most, in a safe, enjoyable social setting (read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).

High school is designed for society not students. It a day care center for teenagers. What needs to be taught and learned can be done in less time than students are required to spend today if students, teachers, administrators, parents, and communities are willing to let go of tradition. Every change that is advocated is in relation to the present schedule of classes and method of acquiring credits. Change it. Why do all students start school at the same time? Why are seniors in school the same amount of time as freshmen? Why do we have freshman and senior labels? Why are they attempting the same amount of credits? Efficiency. Everyone's need is served except the student. When a student says that school does not reflect or prepare him/her for life, the student is correct. Our students do not appreciatedbeing cemetary residents: lined up quietly...., in rows...., at attention. School must be more.

Persons interested in improving the challenge of a high school education might, first, wish to read the primary source for this specific discussion. You may find it on the web at

I limit my contribution in this discussion to a plea for a return to student development of some aspects of critical thought.

One way to help students develop critical thinking skill is to steer them away from "digested" commentary on a research report or article, however well intended, and toward the primary source(s). Next, the methodology of the data collection is reviewed(if provided) or sought through the literature, or requested from author/agency. While this particular survey from Bloomington may be very well done, such may not, always, be the case in the overall field of "surveying".

Students learn to, first, do a general verification that the conclusions are founded on facts or strong inferences from data developed by objective methods and go on to deal with the issues raised by the report. So much of student writing seems to be impassioned advocacy of causes advanced by teachers who may be politicizing children without realizing it that a return to basic research skill building may be in order. Better to produce the skills of cautious skepticism than to count the number of pages of emotional advocacy.

Many students are not prepared for college because they are not prepared for choosing a "life". No one, on a continuous basis and seriously intending to enter into a real discussion and not just small talk, asks these children and young adults "What do you want to be,or do with your life, when you grow up?" These are the questions that need to be asked by parents and teachers and other adults in a child's life from a child's earliest days and then the child's curriculum, from junior high onward designed arround the child's life interests.

Instead we encourage a long drawn out adolescence/ young adulthood when these children remain distracted and disinterested because they have not been encouraged to find a focus to build their lives around. So instead of finding focus in their all-too-generic schoolwork they instead find their focus in afterschool clubs, activities, and sports because these they can actively choose for themselves and thus have meaning.

I agree with Rogers comments: High school is day care or a holding pen for teenagers and life is what is lived after school and on weekends. Children who have a life focus are the ones who do well both in actual learning ,as well as GPA, in high school and are well prepared and focused for college.

Excellent observation by Maria! After reading your comments, above, I returned to the Survey's website(noted in my comment) and could not find any evidence of either: (1) the Survey asking such a line of questions(other than post-secondary ed aspirations) or, (2) the Survey asking students how often their schools had posed such "what have you been thinking about doing with the rest of your life" questions or if such questions came up at all. Presence/absence of such a "Life Focus" in high school is, not examined/reported upon, other than on page 10 of the Survey Report in which a chart reports percentages of students who thought that their schooling was contributing substantially to "Developing career goals", "Learning work-related skills", and "Solving real-world problems".

There are charts in the Survey Report elaborating percentages of students, by gender, planning for undergrad and grad school degrees, but nothing about "why do you want to do all of that?"

Perhaps the Survey should incorporate such a line of questioning in the future.

We can't change society or parents so let's not waste our efforts whining about them. I would challenge educators to focus more intervention than remediation. Too often, when a student presents a learning problem or lack of motivation, the teacher's first move is to either dumb down the content or move the student to a lower level class. Why not do a quick assessment of basic content based skills and do and implement appropriate intervention? Interventions send students the message that we believe AND EXPECT that they can acheive at high levels. Remediation reinforces the idea that they are dumb and can't succeed. Well designed interventions encourage all students in the classroom to succeed.

So much of this question is self fulfilling prophecy. It makes me sad that so many people are playing a blame game and seem to have given up.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Scott / Guidance Counselor: We can't change society or parents so let's not waste read more
  • Retired Sci. Tch.: Excellent observation by Maria! After reading your comments, above, I read more
  • Maria/school board trustee-parent: Many students are not prepared for college because they are read more
  • Retired Sci. Tch.: Persons interested in improving the challenge of a high school read more
  • Rogers - Administrator: High school is designed for society not students. It a read more




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