The Paradox of Success

March 1, 2011 at 2:28 PM Leave a comment

How success in urban middle schools has muddied the waters for high school educators

In leadership meetings…“What’s going on? The data looks good, but the kids are a mess. This must be a bad cohort year. And that’s what I thought last year…until I met this group.” In the halls…”What’s wrong with these kids? They’re smart but they’re so spacey. They’ve got no ability to focus or follow the simplest direction. It’s those damned video games.” Or, in the teacher’s lounge…“It’s those charter schools…skimming all the good kids. This is what we’re left to deal with. Can you believe it?” Fault-finding missions may be obscuring early signs of student success, costing us our faith in good programs and the insight to preserve their long-term benefits for students.

Sometimes progress takes strange forms. Suppose…

  • The student who suddenly seems unclear on any concept is merely overwhelmed by emerging abstract thought at an earlier age than we have come to expect.
  • A high-risk student returning to school after heavy absenteeism feels like a fish out of water and is tempted to give the social cachet of rebelliousness or underground cultural experience priority over the challenge of catching up academically.
  • Students who follow others are trying on personas without the insight to back them up. They support the cultural shift at their grade level but are genuinely clueless.
  • Concrete thinkers who are more independent form cliques socially as a defense mechanism, some finding refuge in adult guidance while others spin out of control.

Each of these cohorts responds to a different set of coping strategies, and recognition of their motivation is crucial to successful intervention.

As a special educator, one of my greatest privileges was to witness the convergence of knowledge, maturity, and stamina evident in students with emerging abstract reasoning. It was the surest sign that they were ready to clear one of their toughest hurdles, the high school graduation exam requirement. Often they were juniors or seniors before they finally “grew up.” But what is happening with the children in general education who are arriving at that intellectual age at a younger chronological age?

As urban adolescents begin to catch up with their peers elsewhere, teachers and administrators must make accommodations to stay head. The range of skill levels, especially in ninth and tenth grade classrooms, creates a greater need than ever for differentiated instruction. Students regressing behaviorally as they cope with that giant leap into the world of abstraction need greater academic challenge combined with help getting organized. The returning drop-out needs respectful and private remediation along with leadership opportunities. The concrete thinker benefits from scaffolding to create a bridge to abstract concepts as well as peer tutoring to stay connected with student leaders. Every student needs a chance to share his or her strengths in class.

Beyond the classroom, advisories and activities must offer opportunities for students to reinvent themselves as young adults with positive identities in meaningful communities. Alienation abounds. Students drop out of school not only as a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure, but also to protest their failure to find their voice in the setting. Even the most engaged students need safe ways to challenge authority, assess risk, and test boundaries. There must be rewards for carrying the burden of greater knowledge at a younger age, the chance to apply it in freely chosen ways.

Progress is being made. New management challenges are the price of that success. Many current frustrations in education replace complaints such as, “My students are so concrete they could sink a ship.” Or, “I quit teaching math because I felt like I had to start over each year. The students never remembered anything.” Those were not the good old days.

 We cannot turn our backs on math and literacy basics yet. However, the new model for the urban high school must include a broader range of options for academic content, electives, and extracurricular activities. Talented and well-educated youths need opportunities to grow in multifaceted ways as they explore their interests. They must become leaders for their own cause as they reach for new possibilities in careers and higher education.


Entry filed under: School Transformation. Tags: , .

Student Outcomes – The Macro Picture On cultural change through teacher leadership…

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