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 4 of 4)

Adolescent Concerns

During the interviews and discussions, students were asked to talk about the problems and concerns that face adolescents today. Responses differed widely according to socioeconomic status and age. Younger students and those from more affluent backgrounds were more likely to speak of immediate personal and interpersonal concerns, such as academic pressure and relationships. Older students describe concerns that focus on negative peer pressure, drug use, and teen pregnancy. Those in more impoverished neighborhoods spoke of a broader range of social concerns that have an impact on their day-to-day lives: gangs, fear for personal safety, family violence, drug use, and hunger. Few students at any level talked about concerns at the national or global level. Many talked about the future, but in some cases this was as narrow a concern as which college one might attend. In others it involved facing the possibility that they might not have a future.

Parents, too, mirrored the economic situations in their neighborhoods as they reflected on student concerns in their children's schools. Two mothers, both parents of middle school children, gave these contrasting portraits of the worries children in their communities shared:

My daughter worries about getting A's . . . . And I think there is always the feeling, is my kid behind? Boys out here, if you want to play hockey, you really have to start skating when you are five or six. My boy, when I started him skating it was too early, he did not like it and did not want to go back. By the time he was interested again, he felt he was already so far behind he could not compete. So then he considered karate, and he said to me, I would really like to do karate but I think I am too old . . . . The parental perspective (in this community) is push, push, they've got to do it. If they are going to play an instrument or play hockey they have to start early in the first grade and keep going in order to be good enough to compete. (Mother, Vanderbilt Middle school)

Just a short distance away, in the inner city, another mother talked about the worries of children in her community:

Kids who live in the area here, if you were to ask them, their daily worries are drugs . . . . and there's night — and gunfire . . . . A lot of them worry where are we going to get our next meal, what will we go home to find. Will mom be there, will mom not be there? (Mother, Metropolitan School)

Personal and Interpersonal Concerns

Academic pressure and the stress it places on individuals was mentioned by many students, but more often by those in the middle school years than by those in high school. A student at King Junior High School said that "Homework is the most stressful thing for me, but it's mostly about when I'll get it done on time and when I'll find time to do it." Another said that "I'm in the honors lab and our teachers give us a lot of work there and sometimes they give us the whole lab project at one time and it's hard to stay ahead. But somehow I do it." Some middle school students also worried openly about where they would attend high school, a concern expressed even more often by their parents. In Metro City, students can attend their neighborhood school or apply to specialized schools or academies. In the suburbs, private schools were more likely to be mentioned as an option. Within the city, some described the possibility of relocating in order to attend better high schools, or at least those perceived as safer.

Compared to middle school students, high school students were more likely to worry about their future:

I guess it's just an undecided mentality. Like, you do not know what you are going to be doing. Just a worry about the future, whether you are going to have a stable job, just what is ahead for the future . . . . It is like you are coming to the end of an era. So it is kind of scary. (Eleventh-grade male, Springdale)

A Hamilton student spoke of the pressure to excel not only now, but also in the future:

I had a teacher say, `You are all the cream of the crop. You are going to be running the country in 10 years, and if you do not go to these colleges and do this, then you are all just failures.' This is a horrible mindset.

Peer acceptance is very important to early adolescents, especially during the transition to new schools. Two first-year high school students at Hamilton said that the primary concern for students their age was "to fit in and be accepted by their peers. Students worry about being liked, about having friends, about building relationships." As they get older, this concern may focus, for many, on relationships with the opposite sex. As a 15-year-old male noted, "A lot of kids get very caught up in the social things. `She called me this or that', or `my boyfriend dumped me' or whatever — that kind of stuff." Some students talked about these interests overshadowing academic goals. A Hispanic female at Uptown said:

From what I've seen a lot of girls' grades go down when they have a boyfriend. You want to talk to him and be with him and if he is really good, you know, cute and faithful and can fight, then he is more important than grades.

Students also worry about being pressured by friends. As early as middle school, students said that the biggest problem was "hanging around the wrong people, and letting other people bring them down." A female student in her first year of high school at Uptown said that the primary problem student's deal with is "negative peer pressure. Your friends might say, `Let's not go to biology, let's go to lunch.' " A Hispanic sophomore at the same school said she thought the main problem was "peer pressure to smoke weed or skip class. I don't do it but many do, because they are trying to be popular, because the ones who cut (class) are the most popular in school."

Adolescent Social Problems

The majority of problems students mentioned are those that could be more broadly defined as social problems faced by their communities and the country as a whole.

Safety issues, violence, and gangs. Some children mention that they welcome going to school, because it is the only place they feel safe. Others do not feel safe even at school, a perception confirmed by national statistics. In a recent national survey on violence and crime in schools, the most frequently cited problems were stealing, cited by 38 percent of students as a "major" problem, and pushing, shoving, or grabbing cited by 33 percent of students. Threats to students, threatening with knives or guns, and using knives or firing guns were cited as major problems by 23 percent, 20 percent, and 19 percent of students, respectively (USDE 1995).

Metal detectors and security guards are a standard presence in inner-city schools, along with omnipresent IDs worn on chains around students' necks, but students still know which hallways are most feared. During our observations we saw a fight erupt during the change of classes in a hall monitored by only one teacher, remote from the central office. Four large males had surrounded one female student and were banging her head into a locker, as they shouted obscenities. As a teacher commented: "Overall, I think it's a safety thing. The gangs, the weapons, the drugs, all of this has taken over to the point where this isn't a teaching environment." Even in one of the suburban schools, a shooting had recently taken place, shattering students' sense of security:

We were in the cafeteria and a student had a gun in his backpack. Some way it got jostled and the gun discharged and hit another student in the back. The bullet is still in him because it was so close to his spine they did not want to remove it because it might paralyze him.

Just a short cab ride north in a wealthy white suburb, middle school students acknowledged their relatively secure position and the privilege of attending a school where personal safety can be assumed.

We read books in this school that have to do with the inner city. On the news there is just so much which is really upsetting. I feel great to be here . . . . I know that in this school no problems are going to happen that are going to be tragic. (Eighth-grade female)

Violence on the street is a more threatening intrusion in young lives. In some schools, most students seem to know someone who was shot and many have witnessed it. Fears of being victimized by random violence are common. A question such as "Do you ever worry about the future, that you won't be able to achieve your goals?" was answered by an African-American female student at South Central:

Yeah, you don't ever know what's going to happen. You may get shot, anything can happen. You can be an innocent bystander. I be scared sometimes . . . . Sometimes I think that I can make it though, if I just stay in the house, but I can be walking to the store for my mother and get shot.

Her friend echoed the concern:

I know people who have been shot. My brother got shot. We had just walked into the building and a boy had a (gun) and dropped it and the next thing, my brother was shot. So you don't ever know what's going to happen . . . . You can get shot in the house. My brother's girlfriend who he got kids by, her sister got shot in the head, and the bullet come through the house, come through the wall and hit her.

Much of the violence is attributed to gangs, a predominately male phenomenon, and a source of fear for many of these students. None of the students we were assigned to interview, not surprisingly, professed to being gang members themselves, but many knew of others who were or were aware of the presence of gang members in their schools. One student had recently moved to the city because her brother had been in a gang where they lived before, and her parents hoped that moving him to a new environment would end his affiliation with gangs. It had not, according to the sister. A principal in one of the inner-city high schools talked about within-city relocations negotiated by principals when students (or their parents) were attempting to end gang membership. A teacher at South Central thought the primary cause of truancy at the school was "gang intimidation. The kids may miss school to miss the guy who is threatening him."

At the middle school level in West City, a 13-year-old Mexican female talked about the destruction gangs had brought to her school. "They rip out the pages of the books and mess up the desk and they mess up the school." Her brother noted that these kids were "wannabes," not yet old enough for gangs in this community where adult gangs also exist. "Parents might be in gangs too. You see a lot of adults in gangs — people in their 40's and 50's." A teacher at Metropolitan, a K-8 school, thought that children as young as fourth grade were aware of gangs and the violence that was "a reality of life in this particular area of the city. And that's unfortunate, because children are not allowed to be children, to have those careless or free moments of play and be able to grow up."

Drugs, alcohol, and tobacco use. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use is pervasive and begins early, a fact that has been confirmed by national studies, but which is all the more powerful when seen in its effects on individual lives throughout this study. One eighth-grader estimated that "60 percent of the boys and girls around here my age smoke. You know, you just have to stay away from it. If you stay around it, they're just going to try to impress you into smoking." Students gave similar and sometimes higher estimates for the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs in the high schools.

National studies indicate that although drug use among American teenagers during the 1980's declined from the high rates observed in the late 1970's, drug use has been increasing in the 1990's. For the third year in a row, the percentage of high school seniors who reported using illicit drugs rose in 1995 (University of Michigan, News and Information Services 1995). In 1995, 39 percent of high school seniors reported using some kind of illicit drug once in the previous year, and 23.8 percent responded that they had used an illicit drug at least once in the previous month.

There has been only a modest increase, however, in the rate of adolescent drinking (University of Michigan, News and Information Services 1995). More than one quarter of high school seniors surveyed, 29.8 percent, responded that they had had 5 or more drinks in a row during the 2 weeks preceding the survey. This was up from 28.2 percent and 27.5 percent in 1994 and 1993, respectively.

The use of cigarettes among American teenagers has increased slightly in recent years (University of Michigan, News and Information Services 1995). In 1993, 19 percent of high school seniors reported using cigarettes daily. This rose to 19.4 percent in 1994 and 21.4 percent in 1995.

A student at a suburban high school commented on the prevalence of drug use among various groups. He thought the primary pressure the wealthy students faced was:

Drugs and alcohol. It is pretty pitiful at our school. It is pretty bad. Not only alcohol and dope, but also acid . . . . You can be rich and this does not mean that you do not have problems. They are under pressure to perform. Their problems go deeper and these problems are covered by money. And the heavy rocker group, they are into the drugs too, but for different reasons than the rich kids. They really like to get into it. They are into it for the fun and experience of it, rather than for escaping like the rich kids. And then there are the black kids who are really into weed . . . . Personally, I think every kid has his drug . . . . Some kids may use it to cover up their problems, others may use it just to take risks and get wild.

The school librarian at Metropolitan talked about drug involvement that began as early as fifth grade, as students became "involved in the drug trade either as look-outs, messengers, or delivery people." She reported having observed from the window of the school regular drug activity in front of a nearby apartment building where many of the newly arrived immigrant students lived with their families.

Drug use within students' families was another concern. Asked to identify the biggest problem teenager's face, a South Central student said,

Their mother or father being on drugs. And child abuse. And how they gonna eat tonight. And whether or not their father or mother sold something out of their house for drugs. Drugs make people do that.

Teenage pregnancy. Especially among minority students in the inner city, many said that the biggest problem facing girls is pregnancy, with all the ensuing problems that the birth of a child would represent: social changes, responsibilities of parenting, financial burdens, and whether to continue schooling. The same situation, however, may bring heightened male status. A Hispanic student at Uptown said that "A lot of girls get pregnant and when they do they get less respect from guys. They think that they are whorish or easy. The guys get respect though, because they got a girl pregnant."

Although teen birth rates have declined in recent years, they remain high. In 1994, the birth rate among 15-17-year-olds was 37.6 per 1,000, down 1 percent from the previous year (NCHS 1994). Despite this decline, the 1994 rate was still higher than any year between 1974 and 1989. In 1990, 10 percent of women between the ages of 15-19 became pregnant and either gave birth or had an abortion (MMWR 1995).

At South Central students spoke of sexual activity beginning young. Female students reported that girls "start having sex around 11 and 12, in sixth and seventh grade." A teacher at Metropolitan reported:

Within the last couple years we've had girls graduating (from the eighth grade) either a bit pregnant or who have had a baby . . . . I walked into a classroom and walk up to a new girl and I notice she has a band on her arm. It's a hospital band, an ID, and I say . . . . were you sick? And she said no, I just had a baby. Now this is a seventh-grader having a baby . . . . How is a 12- or a 13-year-old to raise a child? We're seeing too much of that . . . . Yes, pregnancy is definitely an issue in the area.

Poverty. Many urban schools feel the strain of dealing with children of poverty. The former principal of the high school in West City talked of being a "full-service institution" where 40 percent of the students were in families receiving some form of federal financial assistance provided to low-income families, and many others were financially eligible but were "undocumented." The school provides health services and inoculations, mental health services, social worker services, counseling in cultural adjustment, and alcohol and substance abuse counseling. The former principal also pointed out that the school is

. . . . peopled by teachers who would go the extra mile, so in informal fashion you had teachers bringing in food, bringing clothes, taking kids home, I mean there were stories and stories. I myself had a kid living with us for a year and a half because he was sleeping in a car.

National statistics suggest nearly one in six high school students are living in poverty. For example, 16.3 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds lived in poverty in 1990 (USDE 1995). In another indicator of poverty among middle and high school students, 9 percent of urban, 5 percent of suburban, and 8 percent of rural public secondary school students were eligible for free or reduced priced lunches (USDE 1993b). These numbers are likely an underrepresentation of the total number of eligible students, because many eligible students fail to identify themselves to avoid the stigma attached.

Family problems. With the rise in divorce rates, at any one time a school may have a significant number of students whose family life is in flux. Even where the situation is amicable between parents, there may be an emotional toll on the child. As parents remarry, many students are adjusting to new families and to new routines. In some cases, the problems at home are much more severe, and it may be difficult for students to focus on schoolwork. The problems of other students can also be preoccupying. During observation of a Monday morning honors biology class at Uptown, what appeared to be group work proved to be a heated discussion of the news that a friend had run away over the weekend and reports about the difficulty of his family situation.

In some cases, the situation is much more extreme. Teachers spoke of their horror in dealing with children who had been beaten, raped, or abused in other ways. A student at the vocational school, when asked about adolescent problems, said:

It's the abuse too, physical and sexual, fathers having sex with their kids, that's what I think it is mostly too. I know kids like that. People dealing with a lot, plus dealing with school . . . . Females have to move sometime because their mother moved her boyfriend in the house with them, and he want all the attention or is trying to abuse them or sexually harass them, and stuff like that.

A teacher at Springdale who had been teaching for 21 years looked back over the changes he had seen in students.

The kids come to school with far more problems than they used to. Everything ranging from a very poor home life where they are not being nurtured to sometimes very extreme cases of drug abuse, physical abuse, and psychological problems. It used to be that deans would concern themselves with kids being tardy and just ditching class. Now . . . . kids have very serious problems. Kids who may be suicidal, they are very unhappy. They are very angry because of a rotten home life. And with all this I am supposed to be teaching them all the same things I was teaching kids 20 years ago.

The growing number of adolescent social problems, including violence, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and a range of family problems have all had an influence on schools. Students may be preoccupied with these issues and unable to give full attention to school. Teachers and administrators have found that schools are expected to attend to complex needs, which they may feel ill equipped to address, and they worry about what may be sacrificed in order for schools to take on a broader mission.

Other Influences on Adolescents


One of the defining characteristics of adolescence in the United States is the importance of peers. Individuals come to define their own identity with the broader peer group. Experimentation with identity may occur and the influence of peers rises, generally peaking at about ninth grade. We were interested in how the adolescents we studied were affected by their peers, and in particular, how their perceptions of schooling were influenced by peers.

Friendships. Adolescent friendships were most often described by those we interviewed as originating at school, though some talked about friends from their neighborhood, sports teams, or churches. Friendships in adolescence are fluid and age-stratified. In early adolescence most students identified friends in the same grade or, at times, a year apart. Classes are generally age-segregated, and lunchtime, often the only informal social time in the school day, is typically scheduled by grade. One seventh-grader noted:

I don't consider myself really good friends with any eighth-graders, but I talk to them sometimes, maybe during (activities) or something. I mean, I'm not enemies with them.

This begins to change in high school as classes are more often composed according to ability rather than age, and as school activities and sports create opportunities for friendships across grades. For minority racial and ethnic groups, friendships may be less stratified by school and age and be forged within neighborhoods. Within schools it is also common to see friendships forming along racial and ethnic lines, though there are certainly many exceptions. High school lunchrooms we observed were visibly segregated by race, and both administrators and students indicated this was a source of concern.

Adolescent peer groups. Adolescents often affiliate with those with similar values, and these groups may be readily identifiable to others by such features as their dress, hair, speech, and musical choices. Among those we interviewed, identifiable peer groups do exist, but appear fluid, malleable, and overlapping. Students do not seem preoccupied with these group identities, with the exception of those who are in gangs (the most extreme versions of adolescent groups), but they could easily recite some of the various groupings within their schools.

At the middle school level, students described a few definable groups, including those based on race, athletic interests, musical tastes, and general behavior and values. One student noted that, "I think that mostly the groups are based on how someone acts, but probably people would say it is based on the type of music they would listen to."

At a nearly all-white middle school in a wealthy suburb, the eighth-grade student council president offered her view of group distinctions:

There are people who are really into school and grades who hang out together. There are two other groups. They do not hang out together, but they do the same things. The popular group and the average group. There is definitely one group that is higher than all the rest in status. (We) are not more pretty, but just cooler . . . . We are not mean to anybody else, although we do put the others down sometimes in fun.

Among the large comprehensive high schools we visited, adolescent groups seem a way to find a personal niche and a sense of community. A 10th-grader noted that:

Our school is very, very large, it is public, and it draws different people from very different social classes. We have people who live in $500,000 houses and people who are below the poverty line, all at this school. I think all that together creates a very interesting and dynamic group. You have cliques. You see walking down the hall totally different styles of clothing and behavior.

In these environments, students talked about groups that were further divided into subgroups, and about "fuzzy boundaries" between groups. One high school student at Springdale said that groups were defined by

Activities, lifestyle kind of. There's like alternative, people with long hair or who shave their heads, and then there are preppy people, usually athletes, not necessarily real smart, but like pretty strong academically, and then there are real smart people. They kind of all get along pretty well. Your better friends are usually people that are like you, which seems logical, but you also have friends with all types of people.

Drug use and musical interests may further divide students. Another high school student said:

You can look at most of the people at this school and say, they smoke pot and they do not. You can see this by the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they act, the music they listen to. Grateful Dead is becoming really big. Fish is really big among certain crowds . . . . The freshman crop this year is a bunch of little grunge puppies. They dress like grunge look, are into the crazy hair.

This same student, however, interviewed with a close-knit group of friends who had formed around school theater productions, was bothered by the stereotypes others formed of his own group and the simplistic assumptions that were made based on their dress and demeanor. This group disliked being stereotyped as "slackers, people who do not do anything" and pointed out that one of their members was in all AP classes, even though "he may look like a long-haired freak . . . . This doesn't mean anything about our grades." These contradictions — the ability to quickly categorize others, but the need to see oneself and ones' own group as more complex and multifaceted — seemed to characterize much of adolescent thinking about groups and cliques.

Many students professed not to be a part of any group, and there seemed to be some pride in being independent enough to resist easy identification as a member of the more dichotomous groupings. As one white male sophomore stated: "Prep — you are very nicely dressed, and grunge, which is trying not to care and trying to be odd, and there is always the people who are not trying too much to identify with a group. I hope I fall into that category."

Peer influence on perceptions of schooling. We were interested in knowing how peers influence perceptions of academic achievement and the attainment of academic potential. We talked with students whose friends support their academic goals, students whose friends do not but who are able to retain their own ideals, and students who feel as though they must choose between the values of their friends and those of the school.

Most students could identify a particular group of students who were highly engaged in academics, but there were frequent acknowledgments that such students could be found in nearly any of the various groups. At one of the large comprehensive high schools with a diverse student body, where 80 percent of the students go on to college, the school librarian talked about the remarkable range of groups she observed — punk rockers, graffiti writers, musicians, athletes, even computer nerds who intermingled with rockers and spent their times on games such as dungeons and dragons. Asked about the "really studious kids," she claimed that "these kids are not part of any particular other group. They are universal. In every group, you can see maybe 10 studious kids."

Students, however, acknowledged that some groups were more supportive of academics than others and that in some social circles an academic focus would bring disdain. They spoke most often of the influence of immediate close friends. Some talked about their awareness of being with friends who shared academic values. A 15-year-old male student at Hamilton said:

My close friends are a lot like me. We want to do something with our lives. We see something beyond here. We are all crazy — funny, you know. We don't hold each other back. If one says, `I have work to do,' we will be like `Okay, that's cool.'

Others spoke of friends who did not share their values, and this was most often heard in the early years of high school, when they began to progress academically and friends from earlier years did not. A ninth-grade female at Hamilton said:

My friends are smart, but they don't work as hard as I do. Their expectations of themselves are not as high as mine, and sometimes when I tell them that I have to go and do homework, they don't understand. They'll ask why, and try to draw me away from it. I don't know why I work harder than they do. I think it was the way I was raised. There is something inside that really makes me want to do good and if I don't do good, I feel let down inside — like I let myself down.

Another ninth-grader spoke of the difficulty of letting go of a friend from middle school years:

I had a best friend from last year and I have seen her slowly slip away. I tried to talk to her. I didn't want to sound like her mother. But once when she did something really stupid, I took her aside and told her `you are getting dumber and dumber.' She started crying . . . . She was trying to fit in, she was louder than usual, and she lied a lot, because she knew that was what people wanted to hear.

Some high-achieving students we interviewed described dual worlds of classes and friendships. Those in honors and accelerated courses frequently made comments such as: "I don't see a lot of (my friends) during the day. I take advanced classes and so I don't see them. I see them before school, after schools — and during lunch is the time that we all come together and meet." A college-bound Hispanic student in West City described a similar life:

Most of my friends that I hang around with, they are not really into school . . . . Sometimes they do not even go (to school) until 10:00 a.m. School is just not so important to them. These are the people I hang out with. But the people I have in my classes are pretty good.

Middle school seemed to be the point where students first feel pressed to make choices about friends and academic values. In a group interview with students at King, one of the female students said:

At school some kids are under pressure to hang out with their friends instead of like getting a really good education, because they think if you don't hang out with them then you're not their friend.

Teachers of students this age expressed worry over these perceptions. A female science teacher at Metropolitan said:

Some kids don't want to show that they're bright, because their peers will look down on them. However it came to that, I have no idea. But it's really a shame.

We also interviewed students who were proud of their academic accomplishments, yet uncertain of the labels they might be accorded by peers. One accelerated high school student, defining the groups in his school, said that "There are academic clubs, like the math and science teams, who are — I don't want to call them nerds, because I am kind of one of them. Scholars, I will call them." The disparaging term "nerd" was seldom generated by students, and generally used only in disclaiming self-reference.

These findings are limited by the fact that students with genuine disdain for the academic environment were less likely to be in our sample than those who are more engaged in schooling. Furthermore, students may have been unlikely to express their lack of engagement to the interviewers, knowing the focus of the study.


Parents play an influential role in their adolescents' lives in a variety of ways. They send messages about the importance of school, reinforce these messages in the home, and either involve themselves directly in their children's education or do not. Many students spoke about their parents' expectations about schooling, both in terms of the role it should play in their lives, as well as expectations about academic performance. As expectations become internalized, students continue to set similar standards for themselves. Whereas in the earlier years of adolescence, students talk about clearly expressed parental expectations, by later adolescence students themselves give voice to these expectations.

A ninth-grade female raised in a single-parent household talked about the importance of living up to the high standards her mother had set:

It hasn't been too hard (to do well in school), and I haven't wanted to let my mom down. If you don't live up to people's expectation, you feel bad, and if you do bad, you know the reason for it, and you say okay, I got to do better next time. When you get to the level that you want to be, you feel a lot better.

A 14-year-old male in East City said that his parents "believe very strongly in education. They want me to do well. Basically A or B. They expect that of me and I expect that of myself. I would not appreciate a C or lower." Many of the students interviewed, when they specified performance standards, described academic goals that were more moderate. A Springdale student, for example, said, "My mom is not adamant about perfect grades, but she is adamant about grades that will get me by."

A male student at Hamilton said that he was motivated by his desire to work with kids in the future and that required him to do well in school. He also described the more extrinsic motivation provided by his parents, a common feature in many families. Asked what would happen if he started making bad grades in school, he said, "Well, first the sports would go, then other privileges, until I figured out what I wanted to do. There definitely would be consequences." Other students described responses that were less punitive. Another ninth-grade student at Hamilton, a female, said in response to the same question:

My parents would ask me what is wrong, and they would work with me a lot more. Right now they allow me to be pretty independent in my studies, but if my grades went down they would try to help me understand the material. My parents are very supportive.

In most families, parents relax their supervision over time, allowing for growing independence and internalization of academic standards. A high school junior at Springdale described this transition in his home:

When I was younger they used to say, do your homework and stuff. Now I am on my own. If I do not do it, then I do not do it; it is a personal decision. I think that if it became a problem, and I was not doing it often enough, then they would get firm about it, but as long as it gets done, they kind of let it go.

Future expectations. In many families, the motivation for academic success in adolescence is derived from expectations about the future value of education. For those whose parents attended college, this is the unquestioned and unchallenged path for their children. A female senior in East City, accepted to nursing school for the following fall, said that both her parents had gone to college and that "Going to college is an absolute necessity. There was never a choice. It's expected."

The expectation that students will excel academically in order to attend college is also strong in those households where parents did not have this opportunity for themselves and who have dedicated themselves to providing it for their children. Another East City high school senior, neither of whose parents had attended college and who had just been accepted to a university where she will major in education, commented, "Education is very important. You don't get bad grades. In my family, it's not really an option to slack off." Education is viewed by most adults as the path to upward mobility, and this is a particularly powerful message in many immigrant households:

My mom wants me to have the chance at the things she did not have a chance at. Like now she is going back to college, because she didn't get that chance. She came here from Jamaica when she was 20 and she had to start work immediately. So she got her GED, and now she's going to college. She doesn't want me to go through what she went through and she tells me that `You better get yours now.' (Ninth-grade male, Hamilton)

Students may also be influenced, both negatively and positively, by older siblings and the values they hold about education. One ninth-grade student conveyed the importance this has for her:

Don't tell my stepsister, but I look up to her a lot. She is everything I would want to be. She does everything, she can do hair, but her grade point is like 3.9 or 4.0, and it is like colleges, colleges, colleges. She used to run track, but now she knows that though she is a runner, she isn't the best. She is really into math now, she is taking AP biology and everything like that. So sometimes I stay up and watch her. I try to take everything in, because she'll be leaving to go to college next year.

Parents who did not finish high school themselves may see the attainment of a high school diploma as a primary goal for their children. For example, one mother of an eighth-grader spoke of her own regrets about dropping out when she became pregnant as a teenager and how strongly she felt about her own daughter completing high school. For some parents, this goal has become an end in itself, and little discussion followed about what these students might be able to do with the diploma after graduation.

Multiple messages from parents. Parents in the United States are likely to stress the value of education to their children, but they also communicate other cultural values, particularly those of independence and individuality. One East City high school student offered the information that both her parents had changed majors a couple of times when they were in college and would probably be flexible if she changed her mind about a career. Students also spoke of acceptance of their own choices; for example, a Springdale student said that his parents "like to see me succeed, but if I do not, then it is OK; they are supportive." Parents hope that children will express themselves as individuals and find roles that complement their personal interests and talents. Adults in the United States may also harbor some of the same sentiments they fear exist among adolescents: that the student too focused on academics may be too narrow and less socially acceptable. A parent who described her two daughters' academic accomplishments was quick to point out that they have "always had other pursuits also" such as athletic activities. Perhaps attempting to draw a well-rounded portrait of them, she explained that "they're not in front of the TV all the time, but they're not at their books all the time either."

Parental involvement in school. Parental involvement in schooling is at its strongest in elementary school and declines abruptly in adolescence, with fewer roles for volunteers in the school and less informal communication between parents and teachers. As one Springdale parent noted:

I would say that once the kids get to the junior high level that parents in this community feel more comfortable leaving the child in the hands of the school professionals and kind of backing off. The parental role is not as visible, especially at the high school level.

Most schools do have parent-teacher organizations, and some middle school suburban students, in particular, spoke with pride of the role their parents play. As one explained:

My mom is very active. She'll be up there in a second if I need her for anything. She joins everything that deals with the school and tries to enroll me in everything. Like she gets in the PTO and stuff so she can figure out what's going on with the school and be a part of the school and a part of my life at the school.

Others spoke of similar involvement in organizations as well as parental assistance with field trips. Teachers noted that this has diminished over the years as more mothers entered the work force and that parents seemed to be working longer hours to "keep up or just to make ends meet." In inner-city areas, some parents spoke of serving as volunteer security guards within the schools. At Metropolitan School, where the annual turnover in students is 80 percent, school officials had eliminated the PTO and canceled field trips because of lack of parental involvement. Parents may also take an interest in the political aspects of schools, as noted by a 10th-grader at Springdale who said that his parents "do not know the teachers too well, but they are still very involved with the school, in political organizations. They go to board meetings every once in a while when there is a hot topic."

For most parents, direct contact with schools is often initiated by the school, either in the form of an annual school meeting or a note home when a child is in trouble. Asked what communication was like between his parents and teachers, a sophomore at Springdale replied:

They have one meeting per year and that is it. But communication lines are open. There are written progress reports daily or weekly. Teachers have planning periods where you can call them and the teacher has a phone in each room. Communication lines are very, very open. And they are used occasionally, and I think that some students' parents have more communication with the teachers. My parents hardly ever talk to the teachers.

Most schools schedule an annual open house where parents can meet their children's teachers, and attendance at these events varies by neighborhood. Administrators at some schools are more sensitive than others to the needs of working parents and may schedule optional times for those whose schedules may conflict. Parental handbooks and newsletters are other means of reaching families, and these varied widely in their level of information, availability, and accessibility. Nearly all methods of communication with parents presume fluency in the English language, an unrealistic assumption in most major urban areas. A Mexican student in West City said that "My parents used to go to the meetings, but the meetings are all held in English, so it is kind of hard for them." Parents complained about this in the two communities studied where the immigrant population is high, and they praised those schools that had attempted to address the problem.

Parents appreciated schools where they received frequent information and were quickly alerted if problems arose. One middle school mother in East City commented that the teachers "watch the children very closely and, if they see a child not working up to their potential, they are quick to notify the parents. There is a really good line of communication between teachers and parents here at the school."

Teacher perceptions of parental involvement. Teachers expressed concern that parental expectations are often not translated into specific behavioral standards. A high school English teacher commented:

I think that most parents have high expectations for their children, but don't know what to do to support the kids in reaching those expectations. Sure you can say "I want you to graduate from high school." But you have to give the students the materials and support needed to graduate from high school. You have to talk to teachers, make sure that they do their homework, check on their grades, follow up on teacher reports, and see what is going on in the students' lives. You just can't expect every kid to know what it takes. Sometimes I think parents don't know what it takes to have their children do well in school.

A librarian at Metropolitan, however, took another position on the question of parental involvement:

There are parents who do not know how the education system works. However, I'm not sure that it's necessary for them to know how the education system works. We have seen waves of immigrants coming through our country and many of those parents were illiterate, many of those parents did not know how the education systems worked. However, they said to their children, you are going to learn in school, and I had better not hear from your teacher that you're not doing your homework, and let me see your homework. Even though they may not have been able to correct the homework, they demanded that from the child.

This woman, an immigrant of Russian background who had been schooled in Morocco, recalled her own childhood when her father would review her homework in a language he could not speak, enforcing homework time, supervising assignments, insisting that work be done before she could play. She acknowledged similar patterns on the part of some immigrant families in her school, but worried about others where "perhaps survival on the streets is more important than academic excellence. Perhaps as children they were not instilled with the values of having a good education, and therefore they could not pass that on to their children."

Teachers talked about "the breakdown of the family," the large number of children in single-family households and the two-parent households with both parents working. Middle school teachers in particular worried about the emotional toll this took on their students and the impact on academic work. Some teachers seemed overburdened by the demands that changes in family structure may have placed on them in their roles as teachers. Others, such as a business teacher at South Central, seemed to recognize the need to address this change in family structure as an underlying symptom of academic underachievement and to view this as part of the her job as an educator:

A lot of these reasons stem from the students feeling unwanted, not enough time from the family, feeling like they are just aliens floating in space or something. Many of these students don't feel a part of the family. They want to know that they are a part of something and somebody . . . . Once the students know that you care about them, they really respond to that.

Teachers also expressed concern about the two-parent households in which children were likely to have large amounts of solitary, unsupervised time.

Children either go home and there is nobody there, latch-key kids, or we have children going to day care. They sit down in front of a television, they put on the VCR, a CD, or the computer, and they play games and are entertained, but they don't learn anything from the entertainment. It's not like Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers; it's mindless taking up of time." (Math teacher, East City)

In more upper-middle-class schools, teachers expressed some concern about the parents they perceived as placing a higher value on work than on children. In the lower- and middle-class schools, there was more sympathy, and perhaps identification, with the plight of the families in which both parents worked, perhaps at more than one job. "A lot of parents have to work two jobs to pay the bills, put food on the table. When can they nurture? They're so exhausted."

Not all-parental involvement in schooling is welcomed by teachers. At the more elite schools, parent involvement was as likely to be mentioned as a problem as it was an asset. Teachers described parents as overinvested in student achievement. An East City middle school math teacher commented, "I mean, we've got some very pressure-packed parents here. They will fight you tooth and nail for a 98 when you gave the child a 97." At the most elite of the middle schools visited, parental over-involvement was mentioned as the least satisfying aspect of the job. Teachers also criticized parents who overrode teacher judgments regarding course placement and who insisted that their children be placed in higher-level courses. An East City math teacher said that "I sound sarcastic, but the kids can be accelerated as fast as the parents want them accelerated. The parent wants the child in calculus in the ninth grade, the state says `sign him into calculus."'

In other schools, teachers and administrators yearned for more contact with parents. At Metropolitan the administration had even attempted raffles and stipends to draw parents to meetings and lamented the complete absence of parental involvement in some homes. "I mean, we have children whose parents don't pick the report card up from one year to the next." This school had also initiated parent-teacher contracts for students placed in an accelerated program in order to ensure more parental involvement, requiring, for example, that parents monitor homework on a nightly basis. Administrators also worried about the varying involvement of parents based on class and academic background. The associate principal at Springdale noted:

The socially and economically disadvantaged family depends heavily on the system to educate their child. They put their trust, they put their hope, in the school. Not many of them know how to access the system, to come here and be all they can be to help and support their child. And they don't have the money to have a computer, encyclopedias, to help enhance what's going on here at the school. But they do put their trust in the school, whereas your upper echelon, they tend to — I'm not saying they don't trust — but they tend to challenge the system more, to make sure that they get the max out of this school.

Parental involvement in the academic process was seen by all as a critical ingredient in school success and achievement, but schools vary in their ability to nurture and support it. Teachers and administrators at some schools have gained a greater understanding of the reasons for different levels of involvement and attempted to create strategies for parental engagement. For example, in one of the schools in West City where a quarter of the students were enrolled in ESL courses, the former principal had initiated a monthly open house where parents could visit the classrooms and meet with teachers. He noted the importance in this situation that "When you speak to the parents, you have to have people who can speak (their language)."

Additional Influences

Parents and teachers worry about the influence of the media on adolescents, particularly in regard to overexposure to violence, sexual activity, and material consumption. Students seldom expressed such concern about their own vulnerability to this influence. One teacher offered an explanation for some students' disruptive behavior:

A lot of violence in America, too much violence . . . . From their infancy, parents are setting them in front of the TV set, as a babysitter. And the cartoons are violent . . . . They don't have to go to a show, or an X-rated movie, all they have to do is turn on a TV set. They've seen everything, and what the eyes consume, ok — eventually you act it out.

In the minds of some parents and teachers, the lure of money and the perceived need to acquire material goods seem to loom as a large threat to academic engagement. Not only do they worry that students may be making poor choices that put immediate material gratification ahead of education, but they question parents' roles in this process. One teacher told of a mother "washing clothes in a bucket, she doesn't have money to go to the laundromat, but yet in the same breath, she said to me, `yeah she will get those $110 dollar shoes."' In some of the schools we visited, rules had been instituted prohibiting gold jewelry and leather jackets for multiple reasons, and some had developed dress codes to prevent further social comparison and the threat of violence. A mother of an eighth-grader at Metropolitan was asked why some students might not believe school is important. She responded:

People — kids — can see drug dealers and they can see the gang and they are driving around in a Cadillac and people that work for a living driving around a little junky car . . . . Kids' don't quite understand yet . . . . You've got kids that have either their parents on welfare or food stamps or whatever, they gotta have clothes, have this, and their parents aren't working. So what's the connection between school and a job?

The immediate pressure to have money now, the lack of positive role models in the immediate environment, and the lure of material goods may make it difficult for some to stay focused on school or to believe that schoolwork is worthwhile.

The Transition to Adulthood

How do students view the transition to adulthood that lies ahead, and how do they think their current schooling is related to that transition? Students generally described a limited range of desired careers, and the rationale for their choices was often expressed in terms of personal interest or perceived aptitude, rather than what was feasible for them. Many lack awareness of the steps needed to achieve their goals.

Students most often spoke of becoming doctors and lawyers; other prominent choices included professional athletes, engineers, and actors. For some, it is possible to defer career choices until college. High school students from more comfortable neighborhoods, those who have always assumed they would attend college convey a sense that career plans will be formulated in college after a period of exploration. An African-American senior from a professional family talked about her proposed college major of psychology:

I don't know if that's what I want to do for a career, because that's light years away. With 4 years in college I might find something I really like other than that, so I'm leaving it kind of open. Take it a couple of years at a time.

A male junior at Springdale, all of whose older siblings had attended prestigious colleges, said:

It is like a steppingstone, you go from high school to college, it is kind of like a testing period. You can learn and live on your own. And from there you can decide what you are going to do with your future. High school kind of gives you a little of everything, but it is harder to decide specifically what you want to do. I think that is easier in college, because it is more focused.

There are neighborhoods where middle school students talk openly about their college plans. An eighth-grader at Vanderbilt said, "everybody pretty much has their eye set on a college already, even though we are only in the eighth grade."

Others who wanted to attend college were aware of the financial implications and worried over whether it was an attainable goal. An immigrant from the Middle East said, "Sometimes I think that I won't have enough money. I've seen some people take a job for the money and never go to college. That's why I'm working now." Yet even those for whom it does not appear feasible, either academically or financially, college is still described as a future goal. Students in our interviews did not talk about going straight to work after high school, unless it was to make money to further their education. Even those graduating from vocational training programs had their sights set on attending local technical schools, where they hoped to learn skills that might make them employable. It is not easy for many to know how to fund such schooling, however, or to obtain an accurate picture of just what avenues might be open to them.

Connecting Current Education and Future Plans

Many students have absorbed the message that it is important to attend college and to plan for a profession, but they have little sense of how to make that happen — what courses they need to take and what caliber of academic record is necessary. Alternative scenarios for future employment and success that are culturally acceptable seem nonexistent.

Asked about her future plans, a 10th-grade student said that she was thinking of going to college. Her comments illustrated the gulf between aspirations and achievement that typified many such conversations:

I want to be a doctor, a pediatrician. I always told my mom I wanted to be a doctor or a beautician, because I like nails and hair. My mom tells me to be a doctor, because they make more money and help people, but she tells me it's up to me. It will take a lot of hard work to be a doctor. I know that you have to go to college a long time — I don't know how long. Right now I'm not doing that good in biology. I was talking with my friends all the time and not doing my work . . . . We get our report cards tomorrow and she already told me that I got an F. I asked her to give me a D so my mom won't kill me . . . . I am going to try to do better next grading period. I could bring it up high, because biology is easy. I would just have to study for the tests. The homework and class work is easy.

A female student at South Central, the vocational school described by its principal as a "school of last resort," said that she wanted to be a lawyer. Asked what that might take, she replied:

I know I got to finish high school. And then I'm going to a junior college, and then I go to a 4-year college to take my main courses that I need to be a lawyer.

A graduating senior at the same school, interviewed in the spring, said that he thought he would "set up my own business or be a doctor or lawyer or something like that . . . . Something that is going to make me money, like a laundromat, something like that, you know." Asked if he had taken any business courses, he said, "No, I didn't even know they had one, but when I go to college, I can take business courses there." The vague nature of preparatory career steps was exemplified by a middle school student with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. Asked what this might require in high school, she replied "Decent grades, no D's or F's." As mentioned earlier, many in the inner city aspire to the role of professional athlete and most seem relatively unaware of their very low odds in succeeding at this dream or remain undaunted by them. One student said that in basketball "only 1 out of every 179 makes it," so he thought he should have an education to "fall back on."

We also interviewed also included students from humble circumstances who dreamed big and were on a realistic path to success. A Mexican junior in West City, whose mother was a janitor and whose father worked on an assembly line, was enrolled in two college courses already; was applying to Stanford and MIT, and was planning a career in computer or electrical engineering. The recent Russian immigrant who had excelled at Uptown in both academic and extracurricular activities had been accepted at several colleges and was planning a major in biology and premed and a career as a surgeon. A Vietnamese American student enrolled in honors courses, whose mother worked in a factory and whose father was a mechanic, described her plans for pediatric medicine or dentistry with clear confidence that emanated, in part, from an outstanding academic record.

The Schools' Role in the Transition

School administrators and counselors appeared to see their roles in this process as providing information about postsecondary training, from technical schools to universities, and to do what they could to assist students in availing themselves of these opportunities. The large comprehensive high schools that funnel a high percentage of students to college offer printed material on college preparation, evening information sessions for parents, and individual assistance, by appointment, to their students. Students at the other high schools n— and their parents — seemed far less knowledgeable about what they needed to do to achieve this goal. Those parents who had attended college themselves were in a position to provide some guidance to their children, but those who hadn't seemed to receive little support and information and were unable to answer our questions about the process. This was particularly true for those with less fluency in English. Nor are the financial aspects of college typically a part of the planning in any of the schools. An administrator at Hamilton High School commented:

Our premise here is that people will (go to college) . . . . The good kids here are sort of on automatic pilot. You have got to go to college. And you know, kids who are least served by this policy are the kids who do not have the money and have never confronted the issue of how they are going to pay for college after the first or second payment uses up family savings.

He also noted that many of the students who had worked hard at achieving during high school would benefit from taking a year off before college, but that "Parents would be apoplectic if their kid came home and said to them that `my counselor suggested to me not to go to college.' They want to hear that their kid is on track, on task, and is going to be a success."

Schools tend to measure their success by the number of students they route toward postsecondary training, and little is done to prepare students directly for work. We did hear of internship programs and vocational courses and we observed one program at Uptown High School that aimed to prepare students directly for employment by linking vocational training to the needs of several industrial employers in the immediate area; however, even graduates of this program aspired to attend the local technical school first. Asked about the 20 percent of Hamilton students who do not continue their education, the "college and career counselor" said that "our postsecondary planning includes the vocational, technical, and business and proprietary type schools as well as 2- and 4-year colleges." She noted that:

We recognize that college is not for everyone and is not necessarily the choice at the end, but, if you prepare towards college prep, the chances for you to have all your options open in 4 years are better than if you don't plan for that.

Accordingly, she commented that the aspirations of students in the school showed little variation. However, she went on to say:

But I do think we have some differences in how we become what we want to be. I think a lot of times students who haven't been exposed to different courses won't know how to get to a certain career goal. Whereas a kid from a higher socioeconomic background might be more familiar with that, because they have more people with different careers and academic experiences in their family.

An administrator at the same school reported that except for a few internship programs:

There is nothing special for the kids that prepares them for the work world . . . . These are the kids that get hit in the face in the end . . . . I think that the American lack of integration between secondary education and the work world is tied to the American ethos of equal opportunity. You say that we will treat everybody the same and it is up to them to make what they will make of it. This is our philosophy, which politically underlies the system. In reality, everybody knows it does not work that way, that the most important predictors of kids' success is parental income.

The schools we observed were all heavily tracked, but it is clear that students are expected to see college as the ideal, regardless of their program of courses.


Adolescents in the United States are expected to succeed in the simultaneous development of competency in several domains. The typical student at schools in middle to upper-class neighborhoods is expected to do well in school, hold a part-time job to make spending money or to save for college, participate in sports, take an active role in-school organizations, and demonstrate interest in other activities (e.g., play a musical instrument). Academic achievement is valued within this context of becoming the "well-rounded" student, one who can succeed at multiple tasks and who can develop a highly individualized profile that will inspire parental pride and attract the attention of college admissions committees. Some adolescents do remarkably well at this, and the full resources of their environment may be marshaled in support of these goals. Others may feel the cards are stacked against them, as the resources needed for such accomplishments are lacking in their school or community, at home, or within themselves.

Given the multiple tasks expected of them, many students we interviewed led weekday lives that were highly scheduled, with activities and sports both before and after the formal school day, often followed by a part-time job. The hours that remained were often spent doing homework not completed during school hours, watching television or listening to music, and spending time with friends and family. For many students, however, there were few structured opportunities for engagement outside of academic classes, either within their schools or their neighborhoods. Considerable variation existed in the degree to which communities and schools provided the facilities and resources to help adolescents make productive use of their time.

The experience of schooling for adolescents differed widely by community, school type, academic track, and the socioeconomic conditions of both the students' families and their neighborhoods. Per capita spending for students varied even within the same urban area and created a range of resources and opportunities for students; how students viewed the purpose of school and its role in their own lives often differed accordingly.

Most students seemed to view school in pragmatic terms, as a necessary step toward either a job or college admission, but they were uncertain about the specific connections between their coursework and their vocational plans. Without exception, the schools we studied seemed to be oriented toward preparing individuals for further education, in spite of the fact that large numbers of students enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

Students expressed appreciation for enthusiastic teachers who made material interesting, demonstrated concern for students, and were not overly reliant on lecturing as their primary mode of teaching. Math classes were frequently mentioned as favorite classes, and students in honors and accelerated classes were most enthusiastic. Tracking was a controversial topic, and both students and teachers expressed particular concern about the correlation between academic tracks and race. Placement into academic tracks varied widely among schools and within schools, and clear-cut guidelines for such placements were rare, often leaving considerable power in the hands of well informed, assertive parents.

Safety was a central concern in urban high schools and students worried about gangs and the potential of violence both in their neighborhoods and within the schools. Poverty, violence, and drug use are major inhibitors of adolescent academic engagement and achievement in urban communities. Teachers' roles have evolved accordingly, and teachers and administrators expressed concern about their ability to meet the complex needs of students who do not arrive at school ready to learn. Parental involvement in education was viewed as an important component of school success, but there was little agreement on what form it might best take for students of different ages, and how the schools can nurture and support it.

Being a student is one of many roles in an adolescent's life in the United States, and academic work is often not the highest priority, nor is academic achievement viewed as the only path to success. Students receive a complex and sometimes conflicting set of messages from the media, their peers, teachers, and family about the value of education in this society. This portrait of diverse opportunities, goals, and purposes may provide some measure of understanding in the interpretation of comparative studies of academic achievement.


[The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 3 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [Teachers and the Teaching Profession in the United States (Part 1 of 3)]