What’s Wrong With High Schools?

A lot of people are trying to figure out what is wrong with high schools today and why are they failing to educate so many students. Why do kids drop out or fail to pass the state assessments?

First is funding.  Even before the economic meltdown, schools were underfunded.  I know most taxpayers don’t think so, but schools are burdened with hundreds of mandates that they didn’t have 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago.  Schools didn’t provide child care for pregnant teens, counseling for troubled kids, an array of social services for kids from poverty, specialized personalized instruction for students with mental, physical or learning disabilities.  Now, don’t get me wrong – all of these and the many other things schools provide like physical security, technology, career instruction, remediation, tutorials and more are worthy.  Nearly every service that a school provides helps some kid at some time.  How can anyone ever deny the value of it?

But we are quick to deny the price tag.

And with the funding crisis, has come cutbacks.  The federal government cuts back, then the states and finally the local districts.  All that filters down to the campus level with reduced financial support for anything that is not in the state or federally tested curriculum or anything that is not mandated by the state or federal government.

The result of the cutbacks is a loss of the tribes that high school kids thrive on to keep boredom at bay.  I know, because I was one of those kids.  I was a kid who hated school.  I did very poorly in elementary school.  It was nothing but reading, math, books, worksheets, etc.  I do remember those few teachers who tried to make school tolerable.  Ms. Komaniki who showed us in 2nd grade how life and death grew in a cup with a bean seed.  My music teachers who made days tolerable and others.  But mainly elementary school was a struggle with words and numbers.

But life at school changed in the 7th grade, when I took band.  Now, I had something to look forward to each day.  Something fun.  I also had teachers who held us to a very high standard, and yet at the same time drew out the best from us without us even knowing it.  But so many teachers in the arts and electives are losing the heart of their programs.  They can’t attend workshops, conferences or conventions where they can learn to be better teachers and improve and update their skills.  They can’t buy new equipment or make improvements to existing facilities. They can’t provide kids with a rich experience that inspires them to see school as more than just numbers and words.  All they are left with is a pale imitation.

And the loss of a tribe or a place to belong is crushing our kids.  Where do they go when they don’t have a tribe to belong to?  Homes where working parents are absent?  The streets where gangs will be happy to provide them with activities like tagging, theft, vandalism and drug abuse?  Mindless hours spent in front of a TV, video game or computer screen texting via Myspace? Hours to fill with alcohol, drugs or sex?

Kids need a tribe.  They need band, choir, art, drama, debate, yearbook, newspaper, broadcasting, robotics, ROTC, FFA and the many other school organizations that offer them something constructive to do outside of the core curriculum.  If we don’t give them a place to belong, where will they go?  What will they do?  How does this accomplish our mission to educate them if they don’t see the application of the knowledge they gain in the basic curricular classes?

Seth Godin explains the power of a tribe.  We are losing our positive high school tribes.



  1. I agree wholeheartedly, but how do you convince administrators from downtown? “The kids have to know how to read and write and do well on the tests. If they can’t, then we are failing them.” I hear this mantra every single day.

  2. I guess they are part of the problem. They need to get out of their cushy offices and off their butts. They need to be on the campuses and see that arts and electives teach more language, math and science skills than they will ever know. They put a dollar value on programs that they have never seen in action.

    I’m not against kids reading and writing and doing long division – but the best jobs of the 21st Century will be creative jobs, not industrial. And to be creative, students need instruction in arts and other creative pursuits.

    I guess this hearkens back to my favorite teacher movie ever – Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is the scene at the end where he is defending music and art, etc. from the school board member who is pro-budget cuts. And Mr. Holland says to him, “If this is your best, then your best isn’t good enough.”

    If this is the best we can offer our children as a society, then our best isn’t good enough.

  3. […] 2 – What’s Wrong With High Schools? […]

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