The High School Obsession
How can we understand the crisis in secondary education? It’s elementary.
By Linda Perlstein, EWA public editor
Even though I worked at the Washington Post for a decade, I didn’t spend much time inside the D.C. Public Schools, aside from volunteer gigs advising a high school newspaper and reading with elementary schoolers. I mostly covered the Maryland suburbs. So a few weeks ago, I asked a friend who works for the city schools to take me on a tour of the worst of the worst.
My friend took me to a high school located in the most neglected neighborhood of a city that even in its best areas has few traditional schools of merit. All the clichés about inner-city high schools—vulgar graffiti, stabbings, stairwell fires—have played in Technicolor in this building. But my visit wasn’t significant for what was going on. What we noticed the most was what was missing.
It was 9:30 in the morning, yet of the school’s 900 students, we saw no more than 15 in class. For every student in a classroom, we saw 10 in the hallway (and it was not passing time). In three of the four rooms with students in them, the kids sat at their desks—filling in worksheets, doing art projects, texting on contraband cell phones—and the teachers sat at theirs. No interaction.
In the fourth room, though, a teacher taught!
“What are the people in the picture wearing?”
“Why do you think they were wearing their dress clothes?”
“Where are they going?”
Granted, the conversation was at about a third-grade level. But such is the state of the school that that bit of instruction, complete with students’ eyes in textbooks, seemed like a minor miracle to us.
The pathetic scene we took in that day comes as no surprise when you look at the school’s performance data: Barely one-fifth of 10th graders scored proficient on the city’s reading test last year, and only one in eight scored proficient in math. Actually, it comes as no surprise if you read anything, in the popular culture or serious media, about the sorry state of the American high school.
Next, my friend and I visited every classroom of a nearby elementary school. It looked like any decent, cheery elementary school you cover. Seats were filled with well-behaved children; walls were plastered with artwork. Pencils, and crayons, met paper.
Many of these children will wind up at that high school. Walking through the building, you have to wonder: How in the world these peanuts go from sweet, seemingly well-educated elementary schoolers to truant, stunted, even violent high schoolers?
Well, the key word is “seemingly.” When we left the elementary school, I told my friend, “If a politician visited, he’d think that was a good school.” But we knew enough to see otherwise.
While a teacher taught a group of third graders, a classmate sat on the floor at the back of the room, unsupervised, paging through a book. The politician might think she was free-reading, but, she told me, she didn’t know how to read. The adult supervising a class of emotionally disturbed children appeared warm, but she was an untrained sub, and the kids had no regular psychological counseling. Anyone could see that several fourth graders were industriously and independently copying from a textbook, but nobody noticed that they were wasting lots of time doing the exercise all wrong. Worksheets, round-robin reading and coloring may look to an outsider like perfectly good uses of class time, but research shows otherwise.
The only visual indicator that the school was an academic disaster was a schoolwide test-score chart in the front hallway. Still, wasted time permeated that building, and it was pretty clear to me how that girl in the back of the room—any of those kids, really—could wind up so poorly educated by the time high school started that she might think it a good idea to tag the hallways, or skip school, or leave altogether. Which gets to my point.
Anyone involved in schools would tell you that if we wait to tackle the problem of inadequate education until children are in high school, it’s too late. Yet a vastly disproportionate amount of policy attention, foundation money, ink and airtime goes to addressing how lousy our high schools are.
I recently analyzed a few weeks of staff-written articles from 15 of our nation’s largest papers, 14 smaller papers and one public radio station. I excluded articles on crime, sports, swine flu and general education topics. In all, 63 percent of articles were about high school, while 37 percent covered preschool through eighth grade. Considering that high schoolers make up only 29 percent of enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the emphasis is especially misplaced.
Why do journalists favor high school? It’s the easiest place to visit, since we are more likely to be allowed to explore freely. We may understand high schoolers best, since that’s the most recent level we experienced firsthand. We often feel comfortable quoting high school students without permission. More than anything, we are reflecting the priorities of reformers and philanthropists, not to mention our culture’s obsession with teenagers.
But if we maintain a narrow focus, we shortchange our readers. To fully show the range of problems and solutions in American education, we need to write about kindergarten preparedness and third-grade math curricula. We need to get to the bottom of the achievement declines ubiquitous in middle schools. Three-hour remediation blocks to get teenagers to pass exit exams come about 10 years too late.
The palpable dysfunction in those D.C. high school halls makes for good copy, no doubt, and it is important to write about. But it has its roots in a quiet, unremarkable elementary school building down the road. Reformers, and journalists, would be wise to pay closer attention.
Linda Perlstein is available to help you. Contact her at 410-539-2464 or email@example.com.