What is Wrong with American High Schools?
What is Wrong with American High Schools?
James C. Wilson, Ed.D.
The American High School is a wonderful conduit for the thirty percent of youth who go on to graduate from college. It provides preparation to get into and survive a university education for this elite thirty percent. However, for the remaining supermajority seventy percent, this bastion of American education is a disaster. This nasty reality is demonstrated in nine different aspects of today’s high schools.
The first and overwhelming thing wrong with America’s high schools is the college prep curriculum. It has become the only high school curriculum. We must come to a clear understanding that this curriculum is not for all students. It is not appropriate for the supermajority of students. A university education is by its very academic nature, an elitist program of study. Therefore, it purposely eliminates the majority of students. It seems obvious, but must be reiterated, the great majority of high school students are not capable of succeeding in college prep courses. We have come to think of high school college preparation as some sort of egalitarian program where if it is offered to all students, all students can rise up and achieve. They cannot. Most academicians agree that only about the top third of high school students are capable of completing a college degree.
There are unintended consequences to forcing all high school students through this college prep wringer. The second thing wrong with the American high school is related to the first and that is the dropout rate. This college prep curriculum is too difficult for the majority of students resulting in a thirty percent dropout rate and forty percent in urban high schools in America. Because this curriculum is inappropriate for the supermajority of students, it causes the third thing wrong with high schools—the low attendance rate. Low achieving students figure out that the school really doesn’t offer them anything and frequently don’t come to high school.
The fourth thing that is wrong with American high schools is very few students complete a four-year sequence of career technical education courses. Students are forced into attempting this college prep curriculum and when they flunk a course, they are forced to try to take it over. The effect of this process is that they seldom have the time in their schedule for career technical education. Thus, few students learn technical employment skills whenever they leave high school.
The fifth thing wrong with American high schools is their lack of life preparation. Many years ago, the federal government met with business representatives to develop a set of what have become known as soft employability skills. These are variably defined as getting to work on time, using proper hygiene, working well with others, tolerance of diverse groups of people, and now, the proper use of cell phones and computers in the workplace. These are real skills and many American youth do not have them. In addition, I would group parenting, nutrition, and consumer finance skills in this same bucket. The lack of skills in life preparation of our youth unfortunately shows up on the news every day.
The effort by some to use test scores to evaluate teachers is wrong on many levels too numerous to enumerate here. However, the sixth thing wrong about American high school is the elitist attitude of teachers, counselors, and principals. If students are not on track to go to a university, they are not valued by the American high school. Only twenty percent of students are auditory learners, yet teachers drone on and on in boring lectures. This antiquated approach to learning turns off the great majority of youth. These teachers see the world through their own life histories of college success and believe all students should do the same. The reality is that teachers do not value the non-college bound youngster. This negative attitude pervades the American high school.
The seventh thing that is wrong about American high schools is insensitivity to students with disabilities or limited English. By far, the great majority of students with disabilities are learning disabled. Something like ninety percent of the learning disabled students have above average intelligence. With appropriate help, these students can do almost anything. Second language kids also have potential that must not be dismissed. Both of these groups of students should have after school, Saturday and summer school remediation to give them a chance at succeeding in high school. Sadly, many drop out of high school with few academic or occupational skills.
The eighth thing that is wrong with American high schools is the training for school administrators is inadequate. Typically, training is provided in diploma mills with little learning. And new administrators are rarely mentored or evaluated in internships to help them become proficient. Thus, on top of the first seven issues, the leadership that might be hoped for to ameliorate the first seven, of high schools is a disaster as well.
The ninth thing wrong with American high schools is a fear of parents. Parents are frequently unrealistic in their aspirations for their children. In response, high schools typically attempt to push students through a college prep program even when students are failing. Counselors and principals are afraid to tell parents the truth that their child isn’t cutting it in the very difficult college prep curriculum. Unfortunately, many students fall into this predicament and end up dropping out of high school into gangs, drugs, prostitution, crime, and jail.
Most people do not understand so many serious matters are amiss in American high schools. This lack of understanding means that there is very little effort going on to repair what amounts to an assault on an American institution. There are vested interests in school boards, principals, teachers, community groups, and parents to keep things the way they are. Therefore, the only hope for changing this horrendous system is from governors and mayors who want to put our youth to work, not in prison.
. (Dr. Wilson earned his Doctorate in Education at the University of Southern California, managed Career Technical Education Programs in an urban school district for thirty years and recently authored a book about using career academies to reduce the high school dropout rate and subsequent crime and incarceration, entitled, Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on Amazon and Kindle.)