The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 4 - The Role of School
in United States Adolescents' Lives
(Part 3 of 4)

Perceptions of School and Education

Role of School

With all that the average student manages to do in a week, what role does school play? How important is it and how central a concern? One common view, that school is the expected focus at this time in life, was summarized by a middle school student at King:

Well it basically is my life during school days, cause in the summer I have a job to earn money for clothes and stuff. School is like important cause we have to go and attend and pass and that's how we get jobs and stuff, education, and that's basically what I do. Even if I'm not at school, I'm basically being at school because I'm doing homework and studying for school. So it plays a big role.

Students such as this accept school as an important part of their lives and appear not to question its centrality and its purpose. Accepting its importance, however, does not always mean putting school first. A 16-year-old male, who had described a rich pattern of academic involvement, good grades, and an orientation toward college, when asked "how much of your life revolves around school?" responded "I would say a lot. About 50-60 percent."

The roles most discussed by students as competing for time and attention were friends and athletics:

I think with high school kids, their first priority is friends. They might be into school and everything, but I guess they are more into friends. School would probably come second. And sports . . . . A lot of them are more into sports than into school. (Eleventh-grade male, West High School)

Those seriously focused on athletics may perform a complex juggling act and may make decisions about whether to focus more attention on academics or sports. A 17-year-old gymnast notes that student athletes differ in the emphasis they place on academics, suggesting that this varies along several dimensions:

(It varies by sport) and different sizes of teams too. The football team is really big, so they are going to have more people that are better students and more people that are not really good. The gymnastics team only has 16 people, so there are fewer extremes. I would say overall that the smaller the opportunities for doing the sport later as a career, like professional baseball or football, then the better the students. When you are younger and you play softball and stuff, there is always the thought that you could make it your job, and that is like a dream. Gymnastics, even if you go as far as you can with the Olympics and stuff, your career is over when you are 25 and you do not make any money from it. So you have to be ready to do something else when you are done.

A large number of students simply are not engaged in school. As one high school junior at Springdale described it:

For some people I know (academics) are a major part of their life. And they go home and study. But for most people, they just do the homework, they study, they do what they need to do, but would almost prefer not to.

A high school teacher in Metro City responded to a question about the role of school in students' lives:

I don't think that they see it playing a very big role. I think they see that they have to go there and so they go. They don't see where school is going to lead.

Many teachers struggled to interpret why some students appear to view school as a low priority. A high school teacher commented that the students who are doing well

. . . . are the ones with the incentive. Many students don't have that incentive, because you have to feel good about yourselves first. I think that a number of students don't feel good about themselves, because nobody has taught them. No one has said, "You are so special, you are extraordinary, or look in the mirror — you are so pretty!" No one gives them a hug, but I do. We are not supposed to touch them, but you almost can't get around it, you have to give people a pat on the back. (Business teacher, Uptown)

Some students discussed having been alerted by parents as to the central priorities. A junior high student at King said:

I think about my friends a lot. And I want to hang out with them a lot, but my mom and dad always give me sermons. You have to sit down and set your morals . . . . like, your friends won't always be there, but your education will. You will need your education to move further in life so that's basically the most important thing to come to school for, not your friends.

Few students approach this as a dichotomous choice, however. For some, school may compete for attention with other interests, but for most of those interviewed, school was a place to meet multiple goals, perhaps simultaneously. As one Springdale parent described the priorities in her children's lives:

If I had to give it an order, for my kids, I would say school one, friends two. With the exception of (one of the children) — it might be school, gymnastics, friends. And I do not even want to say one, two, and three, because school and friends are really tied into one another . . . . Family is also another big main focus, but I do not think that they think of it as such. It is just taken for granted. Which is OK. I want them to feel that this is the place where they do not have to think of it as any particular priority, or number. It is just there for them all the time.

An administrator at Hamilton, noting the range of involvement in school, commented that "some kids' needs are answered here and others are not." Others described the drawing power of money:

I think most, especially our boys, are interested in making money. They're not into education the way that I think they should be. They come to school at various times, when school begins at 8 a.m. . . . Those that work, that is their responsibility — they may be trying to help mom with the little ones, because welfare is not enough to make ends meet. It takes a lot away from the kids. I'd much rather see them in school than trying to take on the role of adults. It is taking a toll on the kids. Money is such a priority — sometimes they just like to have money in their pocket. And drugs — you can make a lot of money. I had one student tell me that he makes between $500 and $1,000 a night. (Parent volunteer, South Central)

One student at Hamilton commented that the range of involvement in schooling varied because:

Some people's focuses are placed in schooling from the time they were very young. Other kids grew up with lives where, you know, you do not really need school, it is just something you have to do. Different experiences make you focus on different things.

Purpose of School

Students were most likely to see the purpose of education in pragmatic, generalized terms. They believe the diploma is necessary for a job or that doing well in school will ensure admission to college. It was common to hear students say that "If you want a job, you need an education" or "You got to have a high school diploma to get jobs," but rare to hear any degree of detail about what they thought they were learning that might prepare them for any particular type of work. Similarly, those headed for college described broad outcomes and purposes: "Education, prep for college, social things . . . . life skills, education."

Others saw school as a place to build life skills or to become more broadly educated. A 14-year-old African-American female at Uptown described a good education as "You learn to be responsible, to handle your money well, be well organized and well rounded. "A high school student in West City, the child of immigrants, spoke of the opportunity to "prepare ourselves for the future. Not really to prepare so that we can have a job in the future, but to develop your mind and to have better choices." His younger sister, a middle school student, described preparation for "a better tomorrow, a better future." Another male student at Springdale spoke of more general skill development:

I am not learning a whole lot on one subject. Because I know I'm not going into math, I am not going into any sciences, not going into English, being an English teacher or having anything to do with that. I am getting more responsibility, teamwork, just little fundamental skills, working with people.

Such students often do not see a direct connection between coursework and their occupational goals. Even students hoping to enter the legal field described their English classes as useless in "real life." Students spoke infrequently of any discipline — specific purposes or outcomes, except in the area of mathematics, though they often criticized their actual preparation. One student, who had been accepted into a prestigious university in her region, said that she thought the high school diploma "ought to mean something" and that

You should have what you need as an adult. I know how to take the integral of this and that, but last summer I got a checking account, and I had no idea how to balance it. We need a lot more practical stuff. My parents don't remember what they had in high school. My dad has to relearn it to help me. (Twelfth-grade female, East City)

In a group interview with high school students at Springdale, one male student commented that he had "learned enough to get by in math. I have learned enough to do my taxes and that is enough." Another in the group responded that "Ask me if I could graph trig functions for you now (and I could do it). But ask me next year, and I will not have a clue. We learn it, we remember it for a while, and then it is gone."

Not all students look ahead when thinking about the purposes of schooling. At the most basic level, there were students we interviewed who see school as an alternative to crime, unemployment, and a life on the streets:

If there wasn't any school, like in the summer, then all kids do is just hang around the streets. Then when somebody asks them to hold this and they start selling drugs and things like that. School is keeping you out of trouble. (Eighth-grade male, Metropolitan)

Another student at the same school remarked:

You don't necessarily got to go to school to learn. There are lots of people who don't go to school and are just as smart as me. (But) at my age . . . . can't get a job or nothing, so might as well go to school. (Eighth-grade female, Metropolitan)

Teachers are aware of the purposes of schooling from a vantage point different from that of students. A common concern of those we interviewed is that schools attempt to fill many purposes, only one of which is academic. As one high school counselor noted:

The schools today, I think, try to fill more needs than they have ever tried to fill before. You're trying to fill social needs — educate the kids on all the social things — alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, conflict resolution, multicultural diversity. You are teaching so many things that used to be taught in the home. All this along with the expectation that you're going to educate them too. (Counselor, Hamilton)

Another teacher made similar comments:

We as teachers are forced to be educators, parents, also counselors — I mean absolutely everything. With my own children, their teachers do not have to take them aside and say `Y'know you really shouldn't be . . . . and "Where have you been?" You know, dealing with social problems that belong at home. And I find that you have to do that. They expect from the time that you bring them in school here at 9:30 a.m. until they leave at 2:30 p.m., you will teach them manners, you will teach them respect, you will also teach them how to be responsible people, and to follow up on something. (Science teacher, Metropolitan)

Responses to School

Student responses to school covered both general responses as well as comments that described specific aspects of school, such as teachers, classes, and school rules. We were particularly interested in the role that math and science plays in adolescents' lives and sought their responses to this aspect of the curriculum. There were also some differences noted in students' perceptions of school based on academic track, race, and gender.

It is not surprising that not all students find their needs met at school and that some are happier with their lives at school than others. Few students were openly negative about school, but many gave lukewarm answers, such as "It's all right, you know, you got to do it to graduate" or talked about friends who were disaffected. For the most part, students in this study had both good and bad things to say about the schools they attended.

Students often spoke of the overall nature of their specific school. Students at the elite high schools are generally aware of the reputation of their school and talked about the high expectations that are set for them accordingly. As one said, "I know that people see the name of Hamilton and think that it is a good school." Another at Springdale said that "In general, I am very happy with this school. I have to stop myself, because I take it for granted. This is one of the best high schools in the area. We really have everything. Everything that I could ever want." Others are aware that they have been systematically shortchanged; a student from South Central, a high school in the same community, said that "This school doesn't have many activities . . . . If they did, like volleyball, football, homecoming, more students would want to come to school and this school would be better."

The interviews also revealed the perception that one's attitude toward school may be influenced by peer judgments. In an interview with a group of junior high students, one said:

I think that a lot of people that I know say they don't like school at all, but I think most of the time they are really doing it for what other people want to hear and sometimes it may be really what they think, but you should know that school should be really important for you. School could be better, but we all have to manage it.

Opportunities to be with peers, however, may be what students like most about school. Another student in the same group noted:

A lot of kids say they don't like school and they don't like the work, but most of the kids like it because their friends are here every day and it's a way to see their friends.

Positive aspects of school. Some of the most positive comments about schooling came from those students who are in honors or advanced-placement courses. Our observations indicated that these are typically smaller classes with more challenging materials and instruction, and that these courses attract students who are more likely to be on task in the classroom. One high school sophomore at Springdale spoke of what he finds most interesting about school:

If I am in a class and we are having a discussion, and there is a spark that is there, it really gets me going. Or if we are practicing some scene on stage and we have a moment and the feeling is there and we are really into it, then it is really worth it. I think it happens more in my classes, because I have the honors and AP classes, but I do not think that it happens otherwise too much.

Many urban schools must deal with a large number of nonnative speakers and provide specialized courses for their needs. At Uptown a student replied that the best thing about her school was

An ESL program for about 30 percent of students — English and American culture. And it makes you want to be here and it gives you a good attitude. I also get to meet people from all over. I never thought that I would meet people from Vietnam, Africa, Mexico, everywhere.

Good teachers were praised by students and there were general characteristics that stood out across interviews. Students spoke most enthusiastically about teachers who made learning fun and interesting, who like teaching and like students, who have control of the classroom, and whose instructional repertoire includes more than lecturing. A male student at Springdale talked about the teachers he liked best:

The teachers who are interested in the students. They are teaching because they like teaching and they like working with the kids. And you can tell the teachers who are working there just waiting for their pensions.

A junior at Uptown whose family had immigrated to the United States from the Middle East said:

We have a lot of good teachers. Like my math teacher is one of the best. She is enthusiastic. She knows how to teach. I have had math teachers who write something on the board and then sit down. She teaches more advanced classes and activities.

In a group interview, four junior high students spoke of their favorite subject, math, and their favorite teacher, commenting that "She makes it fun, yet you still learn a lot." "She makes it fun. And it's easier to understand if it's fun to do." "Math is my favorite subject because of the way the teacher teaches it. She gets more respect than most of the other teachers." Another student in the group noted:

I think when it comes to math, how I do is somehow dependent on how a teacher teaches it. Sometimes if a teacher goes too fast and I can't keep up and she doesn't help me, then my grades go down. Sometimes when teachers are really helpful, then I do better.

In some cases, students talked about favorite classes and their choices seemed based on either good teaching or strong personal interest in the subject matter. In the case of the rather limited vocational offerings we observed, utility was also a rationale, as it was for an African-American at South Central, who said his favorite class was electronics: "We make projects and learn about electricity and stuff like that, lights, radios, and stuff. So we know a little bit about fixing stuff around the house."

Math classes were mentioned frequently as favorite classes, primarily by those in accelerated or honors courses. Students seemed pleased to describe the pace at which they were working in comparison to other classes. An 8th-grader, who had been advanced to an accelerated algebra class reserved for fewer than 20 students, spoke with enthusiasm and pride: "We go pretty fast paced. Most of the other classes do only about a half a book a year, a third of a book a year, and we're all the way up there."

In general, positive perceptions of math and science classes were related to an affinity for the teacher, previous personal success in these areas, and interest in the subject matter. A ninth-grader at Hamilton commented that "I like science least because the teacher is kind of dry. I like geometry the most. My geometry teacher is very exciting and makes geometry really interesting. That is the big reason why I like it." Some students acknowledged that their attitudes about math and science had changed over time. One said that:

I used to hate math and I really was bad at it. Now I'm in Scholars' Math and that's like my favorite subject now. My dad taught me, because I used to like basketball, and he would put basketball in a mathematical situation to help me figure it out better, and then I grew to love math. (Tenth-grader, Springdale)

Across the curriculum, students enrolled in honors, accelerated, or advanced-placement classes often spoke positively of their experiences.

I have been in half regular and half honors. And my honors classes are definitely better in the way the students relate to the teacher, and the classes are more challenging and interesting. It is like you want to work to understand. And the regular classes, some of them are good sometimes, but often it seems just like tedious work. Like you are there and you are just working to do the work. It seems pointless. (Eleventh-grade male, Springdale)

Students cited a number of reasons for preferring these courses: more challenging material, more interesting assignments, better teaching, and more highly motivated students. Tracking was a controversial and frequently discussed topic. One honors student who spoke enthusiastically of his courses, who yearned for more demanding work, and who noted that the current system of tracking "was not motivating enough," said that "I would certainly encourage more tracking. And a lot of my colleagues, including teachers, would discourage more tracking."

Shortcomings and suggested changes. Students had many criticisms of their schools and recommendations for change. These criticisms focused on school rules, safety, activities, classes and teachers, and the effects of tracking. These concerns appeared with consistency across the cities and schools.

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[The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives ( Part 2 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 4 of 4)]