Institutional Bullying in American High Schools

It undoubtedly comes as a shock to learn that America’s high schools purposely bully low achieving students. The reason most people don’t understand this widespread educational practice is because it has been slowly and quietly implemented over the past thirty years. Almost no one presently in the educational field remembers the high school curriculum of thirty years ago. What has occurred over this long time period is a transformation from American comprehensive high schools to exclusively college prep high schools. High schools no longer value low achieving students. Much of America’s once proud and extensive vocational education program, now called career technical education, is gone.

Since only thirty percent of today’s high school students go on to graduate from college, this elitist approach to education constitutes bullying the remaining seventy percent. The reality is half the population of high school students is below average intelligence and they do not perform well in algebra, geometry, algebra II, chemistry, foreign language, or biology. This poor performance is easily predictable by anyone who understands kids, education, or statistics. However, when students perform badly in these courses, the high schools treat them like second-class people. Teachers, counselors, vice-principals, and principals treat them with contempt. Somehow, their rationale is that kids just don’t try hard enough. Coaches join in and tell the kids they aren’t eligible for sports, because of their poor grades in these elitist courses. The top achieving thirty percent students look down on them as well. This school-wide condescending attitude is a nasty form of institutionalized bullying. Educators are central authority figures to young people and they treat lower achieving students with disdain.

There are consequences for bullying these students. Young people’s self-esteem is damaged—perhaps permanently. They quickly understand that they are not valued by the high school as an institution. They very well may generalize this devaluation to American society as a whole. We see their anger in their participation in gangs, prostitution, drugs, crime, and incarceration. They are angry and see no way out of poverty.

We tend to blame families for these negative behaviors. This is too simplistic of a diagnosis of the problem. If the American high school had offered a more appropriate education preparing low achieving students for employment, our youth never would have become involved in negative behaviors. The high school never should have tried to force them through the college prep curriculum. The real issue here is appropriateness. What is an appropriate education for the lower achieving seventy percent? The truth is that this thirty-year reign of college prep insanity is the direct cause of this negative youth activity in America. This elitism in America’s high school is nonsense and always has been. The lives of college preppers are not inherently worth more than non-college bound students.

Somewhere along the years, educators lost their way. They have lost an understanding that the high school needs to serve all of our youth regardless of their academic achievement levels. Well-meaning politicians have foisted a misperception of values upon our high schools. These politicians were ignorant when they foisted this elitist transformation process onto the American high school and they are still ignorant today of the consequences of their predecessor’s actions.

The highly respected institutions that should have rejected this elitism are America’s schools of education in our prestigious universities. Where are Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford Schools of Education? Why aren’t there a multitude of books decrying this bastardization of America’s high schools? It is because they are elitists themselves and they think everyone should look like them. They are exclusively focused on test scores and comparing American test results with Europe and Asia.

Our schools of education have missed the forest for the trees. It may be heresy, but test scores are an inappropriate measure of success for the majority of high school students. What is truly significant to the students and society is what happens to the students after they leave high school. We have as many kids dropping out of high school as go on to graduate from college. These almost million dropouts per year are largely doomed to lives in gangs, using and selling drugs, prostitution, crime, and incarceration. This trajectory doesn’t have to be their lives.

It is the impact of the high school educational treatment that really matters. The seventy percent who don’t graduate from college don’t need any of the aforementioned college prep courses. They do need career technical education skills that prepare them for lives of employment. This is the really important point. The high school has the power to create positive career pathways for American young people. Instead of beating them down, career academies elevate all students and make them feel good about themselves. We know that young people are highly motivated by career preparation. Career academies use this motivation to develop an appropriate high school education. There are many students who don’t do well on tests, but are great carpenters, electricians, computer repairers, nurse assistants, medical assistants, electronic technicians, and many more occupations. These occupations are honorable ways to make a living in America.

The key to turning this elitism back to common sense education is to change the evaluation criteria of American high schools. Criteria such as completing a four-year sequence of career technical education courses and employment after graduation are far more important than test scores. When you get rid of the completely unnecessary college prep courses, there is plenty of room for career technical education. There would also be room for a succession of computer courses, consumer math courses, nutrition courses, and a parenting course. This approach would match up well with the student population and actually fulfill the role student’s need and society expects from high schools.

Institutional bullying is a crime against children. There is no nice way of saying it. And it is all that much worse in that the population being abused has no one to speak for them. The ignorance of politicians and school boards, as well as the silence of superintendents, principals, and our schools of education cannot stand. This bullying is un-American. It is fundamentally wrong. It must change.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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