Why Life in High School Is More Absurd Than Ever

This piece was originally posted on the blog Fire on the Mountain.

 New York City high schools have been crazy for the 22 years of my employment as a school social worker. But recently, the convergence of No Child Left Behind, the continuing economic meltdown and “managerial fetishism” have plunged them to new depths of absurdity, despair and destruction of human potential. (Being open-mined and un-doctrinaire, I picked up the term “managerial fetishism” from an op ed by John Podhoretz in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which is happily provided free at school to enrich everyone’s intellectual development.)

My own post for the past nine years is a small high school in the Bronx —the borough which, except for a few counties on the Texas/Mexico border, is the poorest large county in the U.S. The school is art-themed, so stipulate that for us, the admissions process doesn’t select the book-ish, academically inclined kid but rather the spacey one who likes to doodle or graffiti, and our proportion of teens with special needs is high, around 25%. Over the years, guided by dedicated teachers, our students have produced some excellent art, a few graduates develop real passion and skill and annually go on to art colleges with full scholarships. However, we also have to cover the standard New York state curriculum and as the emphasis on test scores has ratcheted up, student engagement has plummeted.

Over-Testing and Disengagement

For many working class and poor students of color in NYC, disengagement begins with the third grade citywide tests. Children learn that these arbitrary exercises are something they will be judged on and that success on them is, in fact, the whole point of school. Most conclude after a couple of rounds that this is not a game they can win.

So by the time they get to high school, it’s already a recovery mission to interest and motivate them. Many students tell me, “I don’t do homework” and/or “I don’t study.” With study, they’ve concluded that they don’t remember the material anyway when the test comes, so why bother? With homework, they don’t see the return on it, they’re sick of school by 2:30 and don’t want to go home and think about school.

Besides, once puberty hits, their own world of interpersonal drama is so intense that nothing can compete with it—except possibly something that would lead to a job, an income and a future. Parents are often at work, if they have jobs, and overwhelmed and depressed if they don’t. A fair number have failed at school themselves, so don’t enforce homework completion.

Despair About Earning a Living

If the U.S. economy is improving, it sure hasn’t reached the Bronx yet. The effects of this are predictable but nonetheless tragic—and mainstream discourse never seems to draw a link to how young people perform (or don’t) in schools. Students tell me about relatives who had stable jobs, lost them from 2008 onward, and haven’t found another job since. One student reported of his mother, “She hasn’t found a job since she finished college.” More people are losing houses that the family once owned, or apartments that they rent, doubling up, becoming homeless. It’s been well documented that increases in parental income and financial stability positively affect student academic performance, so I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that decline in parental income and stability might have the opposite effect.

Just in the past couple of months, more students are reporting deaths of friends, usually 16- and 17-year-old young men, in gang violence, as paths to prosperity, achievement and social acceptance are extinguished. These are small and very locally based crews, not the nationally known ones, with shocking levels of violence—like taking a young man’s body out of the casket, in church, and shooting it up again.

A few years ago, when I’d ask students what kind of jobs they saw themselves doing as adults, I’d often hear stuff like veterinarian, forensic pathologist (obviously CSI, NCIS, Bones etc. are big), lawyer, architect–jobs that were not perhaps the most realistic possibilities for teens with low grades and reading levels. But at least they represented aspirations, and an opening for discussion, and one could get other jobs in those fields. Now I hear a sullen “I don’t know,” “ I never thought about it.” Making it more concrete, asking “Is there anybody you know, like in your family or friends, who have a job that you could see yourself doing,” I get “No.” Colleagues in other schools report similar conversations. In freshmen advisories, when teachers raise questions of college or careers, students now often say: “What’s the point of even getting a diploma? There’s no jobs out there.”

Terrorized Teachers

If students are not doing school work (because they don’t see school success leading to jobs), their teachers are working like maniacs– because teachers have jobs and don’t want to lose them. Beyond their daily extra hours of planning lessons and grading papers, teachers are constantly bombarded with data (usually scores on various tests) that they are supposed to be reading on all of the 32 students they have in most classes. This is supposed to enable them to “differentiate instruction” for kids with various learning disabilities, and widely divergent reading levels etc.

This all intensified a few years as principals agreed to be judged on statistical indicators such as number of courses passed and four-year graduation rates, and transmitted that performance pressure to teachers. The managerial fetishism comes in with rising numbers of principals and even heads of school systems who have no prior experience working in public schools, based on the notion that a good manager can manage anything. A bunch of retired NYC teachers summed up the absurdity of that when they showed up at Hearst Publications to apply for the job vacated by Bloomberg’s chancellor appointee, Cathie Black (now, happily, resigned).

Note that I haven’t mentioned superintendents, the previous leaders of school districts in NYC. One reform under Chancellor Joel Klein was to separate the functions of supporting school development (i.e. professional development for staff at all levels) from monitoring/accountability, which are now based primarily on performance measures. So the presence of superintendents is not very evident and it’s not clear to most staff what they do. Principals complain that there’s no one organizing gatherings of principals to share best practices, and therefore principals are more isolated than ever. I heard of one principal saying to his secretary, upon hearing that his superintendent was on the line, “Take her name and number and tell her I’ll get back to her.”

Demoralized and Passive Students

Incidents of principals pressing teachers to raise Regents scores, or teachers giving test answers to students, have been documented. But what’s not well known is the perverse effect that the pressure on teachers and administrators has on students. Sensing that the staff are doing the worrying about whether they pass, students seem less motivated than ever. This is understandable on a human level, since there are few positive consequences (like job prospects) attached to doing well in school and, for students who are already used to school failure, no real negative ones. I was told by a 9th grader who received special education serves and had failed several classes: “I failed three classes but then I had credit recovery after school and the success academy at the end of the semester. I never thought high school would be so easy.”

This culture of declining student effort is also fed by the increased presence of 18- and 19-year old super-seniors who have actually given up on school, but often can’t admit this to themselves. In a better job market, they would have dropped out of school and gotten some kind of job. Now, they come to school but don’t go to most classes, get their free meals and Metrocard, hang out in hallways and bathrooms, and generally model bad behavior. They spend the day socializing with their friends. It sure beats hunting for non-existent jobs every day, or sitting around home getting yelled at by parents to go out and get a job.

What Is to Be Done?

It’s hard to talk about solutions for all this stuff, because they go way beyond the school system. I don’t believe that most public school officials and reformers have consciously elitist intentions. But structurally, in a hierarchical society, school failure serves to justify or legitimize why some people are jobless, or relegated to wage levels that nobody can actually live on. The almost universally acknowledged growth of inequality in income, wealth and life chances is a problem that pervades US society and permeates schools. Only in Lake Woebegone can all the children be above average.

So meaningful school reform, for the average urban student of color with whom I work, has to be tied to creating more jobs at a living wage. It’s unrealistic to expect 14-year-olds who have long turned off to school to become motivated to acquire knowledge for its own sake. School work has to have some connection to a future job and income. Creating those living wage jobs will require self-organization and mobilizing on the part of students, parents, communities–all of us.


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