the value of high school

Compulsory high school education began in the Interim period in the US. There were high schools before that, paid for by public funds, but they were mostly only used by the wealthy and those who valued education. Only a small fraction of the population could afford to have their teenagers spend their days learning rather than trying to help support the family. In this way, they ended up in two different tracks in society. Of course, there were many who never went to high school but did some amazing things in their lifetimes and there were plenty who went to high school who didn’t do very much. But the class system was there.

Today, every child has access to high school paid for by public funds. Of course, the irony is that there is still a complete class system. Those who have money and those who are willing to go into debt because they believe in education send their kids to private schools. I’ve been looking at high schools that cost $28K+. ::gasp:: In places like Santa Monica, there are 22 private schools and 1 (yes one) public one. Needless to say, Samo services a very different segment of the population than the private schools.

Have we equalized the system? Not even close. Then you have No Child Left Behind which regulates the public schools (but not the private ones). Interestingly, most elected officials send their kids to private schools so they don’t even feel the effects of this. Accidentally, as a part of my research, i’ve been watching what all of these standards do to our kids. They are not learning to write because standards only test things that can be measured in checkboxes. A lot of what they learn assumes they are middle class and heading to college and most of it is set up by college professors who have an unrealistic understanding of what non-college-bound youth need. Teachers have no time to actually dive deeply and help kids learn to think – they have to force data down their throats. It’s so depressing and we’re going to be worse off in the long run because of it.

Of course, we all like to kid ourselves into thinking that high school is about education. For the non-college bound, it doesn’t prepare them at all for the service jobs that most of them are going to be stuck doing. What it does measure is that they are able to show up on a schedule and follow rules. A diploma is a stamp of obedience to authority.

Of course, every teacher hopes to help their kids get into college. What about the kids who could never afford it? And frankly, not all students are meant to go to college… or at least, there are not enough jobs that are supposedly gained post-college. And unfortunately, working class notions of success are gone.

Gah, it’s a depressing picture to spend too much time in schools. I’m in awe of the teachers in this country who can maintain hope and dedication in the face of grim realities.

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19 thoughts on “the value of high school

  1. Zac

    As a first year teacher in an low SES urban school, I have lots to say on all of the above. But that will have to come later. For now, I’d just like to point out the outright politicization of certain sets of education standards. Take a look at the California standards for social studies, especially 12th grade government and econ – they are quite obviously designed to direct students towards right-wing viewpoints. And dig a little deeper and you’ll see that they are based on a framework written by that loathsome neocon, Dianne Ravitch… Evil abounds.

  2. Gord

    Your previous posting about your AAAS presentation about MySpace, plus some timely discussion with a good friend dealing with teenage daughter woes, had me thinking a lot about highschool recently. And while in Canada we face slightly different issues, it’s fair to say that secondary education in North America shares many qualities.

    In my discussions with my friend, I happened to ask if she’d ever heard of Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds are Unpopular” essay, in which, amongst other things, he attempts to take a run at the (il)logic of high school. It is in this essay that he equates the function of high school to teenage prisons. She hadn’t and I read the entire essay to her over the phone.

    Agree or disagree with the essay and Graham’s take on the social dynamics of these institutions, it raises the same point as you’ve said in the historical role of teenagers and their integration into the “adult world” or “real world” of supporting their families.

    Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

    Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

    Graham too touches on the obedience theme, something he abhorred and rightfully so.

    A good read and what I thought to be quite relevant.

  3. Mary

    I’ve always wondered why kids in high school aren’t being given the option of blue collar occupations. Do they even have vocational training in schools anymore? I wrote an essay about this for a college English class and half the class was upset because they believed my attitude was middle class and against the promotion of minorities in higher education. But I see blue collar work (trained electricians, plumbers, auto repair, heating/air condition repair, etc.) to be GOOD work with good pay. If an individual (gender and/or race should matter) doesn’t want to go to college, why should he or she be forced into it? In California, it makes for a state-run college system that basically is just grades 13 – 16, high school part II, with a bunch of kids running around who graduate still not knowing what they want to do with their lives.

    I know people who are working class and who make good livings, own homes, live in my neighborhood (San Mateo). If that doesn’t define success, I don’t know what does.

  4. B

    We had this discussion for the past thirty years or so in my contry; I am with some amlumni friends in the board of a large private high school here. The yearly bill is high but hopefully far more reasonnable than anywhere else.

    Three recomandations:
    – don’t blame the private high school for what they do great: take example, understand what makes a difference, embetter it; I understand having all high-school students driving Porshe to school is great, but I don’t expect University to value that more than having all students being responsible adults;
    – don’t force promissing students to crappy school: instead have some lower background students with supportive parents at better schools, with a grand or at no pay; it is a question of blending: too much of an antisocial type, and you loose the whole school—and parents would do anything to get out; mostly promissing students, and you have a sensitive positive dynamic;
    – try to have the best high school, or the top three, public ones: that is where to put the sons and daughters of politicians, mingled with the sons of local gardeners, wardens, lower-ranking police officiers… It really helps to communicate about public education, and allows the politicians to have a direct link to social classes their job, alas, don’t help them to have.
    (Yeah, I also provide regular educative support to such a public school. But that’s an accident. Sorry. An experience which triggers yet another question: outfits; uniforms might help to avoid the too wealthy to boast nothing but ‘Diesel’ or whatever is the trend branded shirts, but I reckon they have other drawbacks… A strict “No Logo” policy did great in the other private school.)

    This doesn’t solve your point: what to do with ghetto classes? Mingle them with a more numerous group, to outgrow the negative: the middle class. A compulsive 15% of paid-for education might help—not that I expect the present administration to do that. The majority dynamic is essential, and we had extreme difficulty having it accepted here.

  5. Michael

    “Interestingly, most elected officials send their kids to private schools so they don’t even feel the effects of this.”

    Wow. That is much higher than I expected. Does this group include local officials, state officials, national officials or all? By officials, does this mean school board members that are elected or school administrators that are hired? Is there a break down of percentages by level of government? When you say most, does that mean 51% or is it even higher than that?

    Are these stats self-reported by the officials?

    Seattle is in a bit of a public education crisis and I wondered how many teachers send their kids to public schools. It seems like that would be more telling than an official who might “make a statement” by sending their kid to a public school. When you found the numbers of officials sending their kids to private schools, did you run across any numbers for teachers?

    Where did these numbers come from? Sorry so many questions, but this is really interesting. Thanks!

  6. Zac

    Regarding trade schools, working class prep, etc., I can see two reasons why that has been marginalized.

    On the left, there is the fear of self-perpetuating tracks. You have a “trade” track and a “college bound” track, and then all of a sudden, all the white kids are in the college track, and all of the latino and black kids are in the trade track, and it stays that way. Or all of the wealthy kids are in the college track, while all of the poor kids are in the trade track. The solution? Put everyone on the pseudo-college track. It’s seen as a equalizing move, it’s seen as giving *everybody* an opportunity for college and suburbia. Does it work? Hell no. How else could we make these alternative educations available yet still allow for class mobility and avoid the development of a caste system? I don’t know, and nobody else seems to know.

    On the right, what we have is a bit more sinister. The right has helped the push for standards and standardized testing, and they have helped devise both the standards and the tests. They have helped the movement to turn public schools into pseudo college prep schools and nothing else. What is the result of this? Those students who do come from the elite classes do well within the system and are prepared for college. Those who do not come from the elite classes are marginalized, perform poorly, and leave without any skills that can help them to have a “successful life.” The public school system has been coopted by the wealthy elite in order to make the system both more advantageous for their progeny, and disadvantageous for all others. This also helps set up the public school system for official “failure” by the standards. This can, eventually, help the right with it’s push for the privitization of education.

    Bottom line: Those setting up the current “accountability system” may NOT want public schools to succeed. They may in fact want them to fail. And in the meantime, the changes in the system are in fact beneficial to elite classes, and all others be damned.


  7. Zac

    One last word on “working class success.”

    Me? College educated. Grad work. A job in education. $37K a year. Rent an apartment. Can’t even dream of buying a house anywhere near the area where I work ($500K MEDIAN price)

    My brother? College drop-out. Worked in a trade. Gradually promoted. Now making $100K, and will top off at about $150K. Is now on his second house. Made $140K on the sale of the first.

    So yeah, working class success is most definatley “possible.” And I have no shame in directing students towards trade jobs.

  8. zephoria

    Michael – there were numbers a few years ago about House, Senate, federal Secretaries, etc. Basically, the people who are really making the highest level decisions about No Child Left Behind. I don’t know what happens at the local level – i would bet there was more involvement but the standards are set on national and state levels, not on the local levels.

  9. Joel Franusic

    It seems to me that public schools have an important function of giving the appearance of equality. Anybody can go to a public school and receive the same education as everybody else.

    Perhaps in an effort to keep up appearances, we have started to leave real education at the wayside. And now we have what is becoming factory-schooling.

    Is it racist or classist to admit that people learn at different rates, at different ages, and in different ways? What if the reasons for these differances in learning styles is because of socioeconomic reasons?

    Whenever I talk about education, I keep coming back to this question.

  10. nikkiana

    In the article that Gord posted a link to, there was some thing mentioned to the fact that one of the functions of high school is to be a babysitter for teenagers because the skills of teenagers don’t have a whole lot of economic worth to adults.

    This is off on a severe tangent but one of the things I’ve been wondering recently is how far does this “they’re worthless” attitude from the adult population last?

    I’ve heard countless friends of mine (who are in their 20s) who are now graduated with either batchelors or masters degrees complaining that they either A. can’t find a job in their field because everything they can find requires X number of years of experience that they don’t have or B. have been hired and are now facing abuse from someone in their mid-40s to late-50s constantly griping about how the college educated 20-something is inexperienced and can’t do work as efficiently as a seasoned worker in their 40s or 50s, etc.

    If it’s true that high schools are just institutions to babysit teenager (and try to fake giving an education to make us all feel better) I’m half wondering that the attitude toward a given teenage generation follows them as they grow up, go to college and enter the workforce.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m seeing a lot of people who are tired of being treated like they’re useless from an older generation…

  11. Hollie

    “Bottom line: Those setting up the current “accountability system” may NOT want public schools to succeed. They may in fact want them to fail. And in the meantime, the changes in the system are in fact beneficial to elite classes, and all others be damned.”

    Thank you Zac. I completely agree, and I’m so tired of politicians telling us teachers that we are lazy, and that we don’t know how to do our jobs. 95% of the teachers I work with are extremely dedicated and do everything possible to try to reach kids. However, the people “in power” say nothing about the parents who are ignoring their children, beating them, abusing them mentally and emotionally, or who just are so busy making ends meet that they can’t even be home. One of my students recently wrote an essay stating her dream is to be accepted into a local, private boarding school for disadvangted kids. (it’s a fantastic, tuition free program, and she did end up going). She wanted to go because there she could be a kid- at home she had to cook, clean, take care of her siblings, and do other “adult” jobs. Secondly, as a teacher of a “special” subject, I’m quickly seeing my program and curriculem disintigrate as testing becomes the priority. Next year, I will be expected to support the literacy and math standards in my music classroom. While I agree that music is related to both reading and math, why do I have to subject my elementary children to “teaching music to the test”? Why can’t we just use music to play, which is more beneficial to their development?

  12. Chuck McKinnon

    I see somebody already linked to John Gatto. You’re busy, so I’ll just recommend his book Dumbing Us Down as one containing great insights, though I don’t agree with all of it.

    Oh, and +1 on Paul Graham’s “Nerds” essay, too.

  13. Ayla

    All of this focus on a college education has created a stereotype in our society; that you won’t suceed or be anything without the college degree. It’s a stereotype that crosses all human differances. “It doesn’t matter what you are. If you don’t have a college degree you’re useless.”

    I have people frustrated at me enough for not applying to anything more than a community college, my counselor included. I’m a bit trepid at how people are going to react when I let them know that I’m going to trade school instead.

  14. Lilian

    Stereotype or not I just feel great difference communicating with people who don’ have a college degree. They are unaware of a lot of simple things and are narrow-minded.

  15. Ayla

    “Stereotype or not I just feel great difference communicating with people who don’ have a college degree. They are unaware of a lot of simple things and are narrow-minded.”

    Yet what you have just said, in itself, is extremely narrow-minded. Ignorance and idiocy are everywhere, the amount of formal education that people recieve doesn’t change anything. Especially if one never learns new ways of thinking and looking at the world.

    According to national statistics, only around 30% of college graduates are deemed proficiently literate. Proficient is defined in the study as being able to compare the opinions of two editorials, and calculate the cost per ounce of food items. If the majority of college graduates haven’t learned that, then how can anyone expect them to be open minded as compared to their non college graduate counter parts?

  16. Tyler

    So if college graduates can have degrees in any field they want, what is the purpose of their degree if they can’t even understand the viewpoins of a collumn in the newpaper? I’m not bashing education either i FULLY agree with higher education; but why aren’t college students also learning how to live on their own too? Also in defence of Ayla’s point, I believe the stereotype of “if you don’t go to college your not worth anything” is narrow-minded. I believe Ayla was referring to the point of the college stereo type, people aren’t worthless just because they didn’t go to college. If I had told my parents that I wasn’t going to college they would have disowned me.

  17. Laura

    “Stereotype or not I just [a] feel great difference communicating with people who don'[t] have a college degree. They are unaware of a lot of simple things and are narrow-minded.”

    If you’re going to say this, you should at least check your spelling and grammar. Proper spelling and grammar does not require a college degree.

  18. Jared

    Im in high school ( 12th grade ) and what i have come to relize is truly all that high school is, is one big social event. There is no really fliping point to it and to be real i wish i had skiped the hole thing and gone strait to collage considering the only true reason to get your high school deploma is to get into collage and that it not only teaches you the same thing but better, goes deeper into different subjects and takes the same amount of time. When your son/daughter gets into high school all it is, is one more class room which quickly turns into one more party, to one more girl friend and one more good time. People have no idea how easy it is to slide through high school with amazing grades and theb moving on to the next issue forgetting everything you learn. I belive in actuality high school should only last for 3 years giving kids a small amount of time to grow up, chop off the usless classes that can be taught in collage and as well change the whole system to atleast make it worth are time

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