The end of high school is usually considered the end of childhood. If this is still true, students on the cusp of adulthood have to be ready to take on its responsibilities, including a readiness to work hard, even for those going on to the very pleasurable experience of college. The end of high school should focus less on the hasty gathering of bits of information and more on the skills and attitudes which are needed in those who want to be of use to others. Adults need insight and empathy, in order to know what is important to others; they need logical thinking, as developed by writing and math problems; and they must be able to plan, to set important personal goals and then control themselves enough to achieve them. The culture of the end of high school, however, has developed into a combination of fact-obsession (in response to testing), self-promotion (much of it dishonest) and party-time (“to forget how stressed we are.”) The result, too often, is regression rather than a careful, deliberate process of growing up. I used to blame individual seniors for not being able to resist the culture’s more damaging aspects. In fact, the processing of any experience I still fundamentally feel it is up to the individual, but I now believe that there is more that adults can do to reshape the experience which they are offering to their nearly adult young.
Yet the focus on the senior year is a wise one. The mission, it seems to me, is to use the anxiety that presently centers on the senior year (for all, not just those in need of remediation) to identify, and work on, larger problems. Three are especially noteworthy, pressing and do-able:
– Wasted Time: Seniors in high school seem to lack much purpose except for getting themselves into the next stage. The resulting lack of challenging academic, experiential or civic work leads to a fallow and unfocused time, with bad habits that too often last into the first two years of college and/or work. For many seniors, the common requirements for graduation have ostensibly been met. They clearly need individualized programs for the last year in high school, but variety in this case has often led to a lack of rigor. The marketing of electives has too often cheapened them. The experience of transition is misunderstood and painful and has led to a pervasive culture of slacking, boredom and of “I’m too old for this place.”
– Sorting: High school is a relatively common experience. The imminence of the world after high school – what kind of work, what kind of college – is an important and terrifying “sorter.” Much of the senior’s experience is in confronting the reality of the fact that selection will take place, on both sides, with what feels to them like life long finality. Energy which might be put into real growth is instead put into “playing the game,” of manipulating that selection process. Most do so both honestly and dishonestly, which dispirits the seniors even if they have been successful because they cannot be sure if their being accepted was based on real accomplishment or on the various techniques which they adopted to make themselves look good.
– Ineffective Communication: It would be a great idea to use time well, and to be clear from the beginning of high school what a student needs to know and be able to do by the tune he or she is working in a good job. Lots of advice for high school teachers and their students from college teachers and supervisors in the work-place would be helpful, especially as they describe jobs to be done, and the knowledge, proficiencies and personal qualities which help the worker to succeed. The problem comes when the translation is too automatic (as in “four years of English,” whatever “English” is), or when the question of “teacher turf” grows too sensitive, or when the high school teacher’s own assessments are undervalued as “uninformed” or “too subjective.”
Our schools have been trying to get more students to start thinking now about future careers and in preparing those students to go on to those fields of study. In the past we have done career reports and job shadows, but they have not been as effective as we would like. With the incoming freshmen, we are putting them into focused programs of study or career pathways. In this program, they choose a career that interests them and then they take the classes that we have already categorized as a class that you would take for that specific career field. I think an important issue that we need to consider is attitude. You cannot motivate somebody to learn if they do not want to learn. We need to make the school environment more of a place where they want to go, where they want to learn. I still see many students, even students with excellent grades, who do not want to be in school, they see it as a place where they have to go.
More resources such as technology, well-trained teachers, administrators, and adequate facilities are not a luxury in public education but a necessity as well as a wise investment.