High Schools Fail to Engage Students
May 12, 2005

Just in: American high schools stink. Why we need studies to figure these things out, I just don't know. Monday's USA Today reports on the failure of high schools to engage students:

A majority of high school students in the USA spend three hours or less a week preparing for classes yet still manage to get good grades, according to a study being released today by researchers who surveyed more than 90,000 high school students in 26 states.

The team at Indiana University in Bloomington calls the findings "troubling." The first large study to explore how engaged high school students are in their work, it adds to a growing body of evidence that many students are not challenged in the classroom.

Just 56% of students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43% said they work harder than they expected to. The study says 55% of students devote no more than three hours a week to class preparation, but 65% of these report getting A's or B's.

Because I spent my life in private school, high school was homework-heavy. We usually averaged between 5-6 hours of homework a night. To make it without drowning, we skimmed through readings and wrote essays on books we never read. It was busywork but nothing profound.

America's educational systems are all about regurgitation. "Memorize what we teach you and then spit it back out on the test...So long as you get the answers right, we'll pass you." That's why the Indiana University study isn't shocking. The average high school student has mastered regurgitation. I know I did. I could cram the night before a test and spit stuff out Modern European history verbatim. Too bad I can't remember squat about the topic now. Unfortunately, high schools (and many colleges) aren't teaching students how to think. I learned this most valuable skill from my parents.

God Bless 'em.

It's my belief that state educational standards keep high school curriculum too broad. I'd like to see more specialized study. I find it ridiculous that the average kid leaves high school without so much as an inkling as to what they wish to do in life. Then again, I'm probably an education radical.

It seems parents aren't much help either. You'll recall last summer, some Baltimore County parents rebelled over their kids being assigned homework over the summer. What's worse, they blamed conservatives for pushing year-round school.

If I could re-do high school and tailor it to my liking (a feat which will never happen, not even if you offered me one million dollars after taxes), I'd change everything. American high schools, private and public aren't challenging our generational genius. The genius is there, but it doesn't come out until we're 40. That must change.

Debra England recently wrote a good article on understanding the benefits of charter schools. At this point, I'm game for anything. We've got very little lose. If things don't change, I'm homeschooling my kids....Maybe. Baby steps Ambra. Husband first.

Posted by Ambra at May 12, 2005 12:34 AM in Education
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I went to public school, and I never studied. Especially if the teacher was a lecturer. If 90% of the test was from in-class notes, I could ace any test from memory.

I had to learn how to do this studying thing in the first few weeks of college. Boy was that a shocker.

I was in the same boat as Alex. Except for my calculus class, I never really had to study in high school. Hence, my lousy grades early in college until I realized that (gasp!) dozing through class wasn't enough effort to pass, much less get A or B grades.

Public school isn't even about regurgitation any more. Rather, it's about "self esteem", "equality of outcomes" and keeping parents happy, kids under control, and the state and federal government off the principals' backs.

I know that feeling, Alex. College kicked my butt.
This lack of work ethic starts in grammar school. While sending 8-year-olds home with backpacks so full of homework that they can't even lift them is totally ridiculous, there must be some reasonable level of work that keeps everyone sharp. One math worksheet and one spelling exercise per night with no homework on Fridays or long weekends just doesn't cut it. With such low expectations from the start, no wonder everyone's just getting by (or worse) when they get to high school.

Year-round school has produced good results where it's been tried so why doesn't it have more supporters? Oh, I forgot. Public school isn't actually interested in what's good for kids; they only want to protect their own jobs.

Public education in the US is a crap shoot, that largely depends on what part of this country you live in. It's great in one place and abysmal in another. Conservatives talk about the dumbing down of the curriculum, but the new accountability system that places all the emphasis on testing is exactly a step in the wrong direction. These days reading writing and rithmetic (the three R's) just ain't cutting it. You might be able to compete with the average Mexican migrant worker with these skills, but not in the modern job market. Long ago we should have been teaching kids how to think, as opposed to rote. Unfortunately the current administration seems happy with creating a zombielike workforce that is all but useless for anything other than manual labor and retail.

The university system as well is little more than a factory for turning out people with degrees. The problem definitely lies in primary education which does little to spark peoples interest, so that by the time they reach college they're so worn out from the years of repetition, it's easy to become disillusioned, especially when you're doing the same thing you did in high school, at least for the first two years. If young people were being properly encouraged, upon reaching college-level courses they would be self-motivated, seeking out those things that interest them to study. Instead we have a system whose primary motivation is fear. Fear of doing poorly on tests and being relegated to the back of the bus after you've been classified as subpar. In truth some of the most gifted students get pushed to the side, along with those who are struggling.

Ambra, apparently you had a similar experience in private school. There are some great models out there, but few people ever talk about emulating them on a large-scale. Here's an excellent example I ran across in New York, http://www.newvisions.org/schoolsuccess/practices/duallanguage/ShuangWenBest.shtml

Unfortunately charter schools have not proved themselves to be a real solution. While some are excellent, again it depends on where you live in this country. I've moved my daughter from public school to charter schools and back again. The first charter school her mother placed her in was literally a scam. They had completely unqualified people teaching children, including former security guards and school aides with absolutely no credentials.

The problem with the charter school system is the complete lack of accountability. While a bad school may close down after one year, that's one year behind your kid falls if they're stuck in such plays. The best school she attended was in Ohio, an excellent public school.

Many of the commenters are correct. High School isn't about learning to think. High School is about meeting minimum standards. College, suprisingly, is about the same thing.

If a person is lucky in their lifetime they will get two or three teachers who help them to think.

I credit my parents for instilling in me a desire to learn. Mom read to me all the time and dad always asked me "what's that?" going down the street and I would have to find out the answer for later if I didn't know. Both of them were very tolerant of me bringing home the latest pet (alive or dead) and encouraged me in every academic attempt I made.

If any of you need a book for your nightstand - (well it won't sit there long), I read it in one night, I highly recommend Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto (public school teacher in New York for over 30 years).

His writings expose the purpose of compulsory education and why it can't be "fixed".

We are absolutely trying to teach our kids what to think, instead of how to think.

Hours of homework is not necesary, lots of prep work for classes is not necessary. When we go to school we lose our ability to think creatively, at a much younger age.

How many of us remember what we learned in school? We retain that which we are interested in. How about letting our children's interest lead their education? How about providing them the resources and experiences tailored to that which they are interested in, instead of cramming all kinds of information in their brains for 12 years? We could accomplish a lot more in a lot less time, I'm convinced. But, that would take one parent being home. I don't think America is ready for that. Two incomes today only bring in about 10% more money than did one income 50 years ago.

Yes, Ambra, husband first... but yes, file away that thought on homeschooling where it is easily accessible when the time comes. I homeschool, and if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it different. I'd provide more resources and less structure.

Nobody really wants to "teach kids to think". What we really want is to teach kids to go along with the program and not make waves. That, unfortunately, is how you survive in AmeriKa. What would a kid who knows how to think think of his school? Not much, I'm afraid.

How do you teach people to think? Classes in logic and rhetoric went out the door years ago. Math is about the only thing left that actually trains the mind to work in a logical fashion.

I'm not sure I agree with Aaron's statement that "the three R's" won't equip a person to compete in the modern economy (though I think he's right-on about most everything else). *IF* the student is thoroughly grounded in those subjects, he should thus be equipped to quickly learn such other skills as his particular employer wants him to have. From the employer surveys I've seen and heard about, lack of the three R's IS a problem with the work force: employers find that they can't teach the use of a spread sheet or accounting program if the employee can't do basic arithmetic, and the most sophisticated word processors are wasted on employees who can't write a coherent sentence.

The problem is that we DON'T teach the three R's anymore, but rather throw the course material at the kids and hope that they pick up enough to get by. I don't like standardized testing, but unfortunately it's about all we've got left to ensure that the kids are meeting some basic level of academic achievement before they get tossed out into the job market or go to college.

When I was in grad school, I taught sections of freshman chemistry lab. I had students who couldn't do fairly basic arithmetic problems EVEN WITH THE AID OF A CALCULATOR. When I was grading lab reports, I had to tell students (among other things) to capitalize the first letters of sentences. The professor had to take three class sessions instead of the normal two to explain the ideal gas equation because he had to spend a day teaching remedial algebra. I also tutored high school kids on the side and found that they had to count on their fingers to do math problems, didn't know the multiplication tables, and hadn't the faintest clue how to do long division without a calculator. I could go on...

I believe that the public schools face two major problems:

1. They've become awash in touchy-feely, politically correct, "soft" courses that give the kids a shot at an easy A but don't really teach them anything, and;

2. They are so focused on building the kids' self-esteem (and avoiding lawsuits) that they don't dare set high standards.

We're going to wind up with a nation of morons either living on the dole or else doing menial jobs for foreign-born bosses.

Well, I've been through my share of schools: K-8, Lutheran School, 9-12, Public H.S., community college for three years and lastly, Lutheran college for my last two years of college.

K-8: best education I ever received in my life. Not only did we have great teachers, but we were challenged. In 7th grade, we had 5 hours of homework a night and it was HARD.

Public H.S.: I was so far ahead in 9th grade it was a joke. Teachers were still going over basics like formatting an essay and how to outline.

Community college: great professors, but most of the students didn't care about their education. I spent three years because I worked full time to support myself. On a scale of 1-10, a 7.

Lutheran college: Still, so ahead of most students. Profs. still going over how to format an essay. On a scale of 1-10, a 5.

So, I guess it depends on location, chance, desire, discipline and motivation.

But my parents were the ones who really taught me everything I know. How to be mannered, even-tempered, honest, hardworking and dedicated.

We had a lesson every night with my father. Could have been U.S. Presidents, State Capitals, you name it.

Yes, we had a blackboard in our house:)


Nice points, especially when you praise me. The point I'm trying to make and I think which is highlighted in the school I mentioned is that kids these days are ready to master all the basic tools necessary in those first few years of school, they just need the proper stimulation. Those kids at ShuangWen who are studying Mandarin Chinese along with all the other classes, wind up scoring off the charts by the time they're in third grade, and this is across-the-board with their students. Seven and eight-year-olds that are, in some cases, doing pre-college-level work. And most of these are local neighborhood kids. That's amazing and a little frightening, as well as being a sad commentary.


I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to teachers and instructors. I'll take one good teacher over any system yet devised. I always tell people who are entering college, seek out the best professors, talk to the juniors and seniors about professors at the school. It doesn't even matter what they're teaching, it's a privilege to learn from the best. The maverick that I am, I threw away the charted curriculum when I went to college and I was all the better for it. I actually got an education, not just a sheepskin. Unfortunately our system doesn't seem to put much value in great teachers, even at the university level.

Pawpaw wrote: "Many of the commenters are correct. High School isn't about learning to think. High School is about meeting minimum standards. College, suprisingly, is about the same thing."

True indeed.

Here's the thing...I went to private school..one of the top schools in the country...Bill Gates' alma mater in fact, and I don't think I got a shabby education. I mean, I'm no Ken Jennings, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself dumb. SATs, ACTs, essays....it can all be learned and duplicated. Private school education teaches you how to master the system. By the time I got to college, learning was a cinch because I figured out the formula. While some here have commented about struggling through the first year of college, I can't identify because I sat back and let college prep school mode kick in. Freshman year was painless (with the exception of that whole disliking school part).

In any case, teaching students to think doesn't mean offering classes on thinking, rhetoric, and theory. It means engaging students' minds beyond telling them how they ought to think about any given subject. America's educational system is Greek. Students sit in a room while a teacher talks at them. That's not going to fly anymore. Teaching students to think means actively engaging them in the learning process, giving them the tools to be critical, weigh theories, and arrive at conclusion. Most of all it also means helping to pull out the creative and original thought (not that self-esteem garbage) that's inside of every student. Esteem will flow once purpose is realized.

Schools teach the 3 R's? Wouldn't know it by the homework I see my kids assigned. The entire system needs to be redone.

Elementary should stick to the basics and highschool split between kids who are going to college and kids seeking a trade. Not everybody wants to go to college.

College should be split between the trades and "egghead" pursuits (philosophy, etc.)

Want to learn how to teach? Read Quintilian. I wonder how many education majors have read ripoffs of his work. It's always best to go to the source, unbastardized and unadulterated.

Most of you parents out there are already explaining the benefits of punishment to your young children, that's Socrates, at least if you're doing it right. Unless of course you just like to wail away without saying anything, you guys are reserved for a special category.

If you don't lay the foundation and understanding of Western thought early in the child's mind, how will they ever understand themselves and others in their culture. They're just forced to figure it out piecemeal.

"Most of you parents out there are already explaining the benefits of punishment to your young children, that's Socrates, at least if you're doing it right."

Forget Socrates...that's BIBLE.


which Bible would that be? Which testament?

So the education argument is faltering and were switching to theology, the old favorite. I'm ready for you baby. So who was it that came along first Jesus or Socrates? I always forget that one.

Come on show me up, what passage is it exactly that explains the benefit of punishment for the offender. I'd like Old Testament, but any testament will do. I'm really such a dope when it comes to this Bible stuff, help me out.

Aaron - so I'm not Ambra - but how about reading New Testament, Hebrews 12, verses 1-12 - God disciplines those he loves.

O.T. Proverbs 23:14


Unfortunately, learning is not prized in our culture. In many TV sitcoms, for example, hard-working industrious students are usually the target of derision and cruel jokes, while the lazy students are portrayed as lovable rascals. Similar attitudes can be seen in pop music and sports.

One result: The halls of high schools are filled with kids wanting to be the next Eminem, 50 Cent, or Paris Hilton. Relatively few dare to dream of being mere doctors, scientists or lawyers.

There have been some great posts by others on this subject, but I believe that the war for better education starts with our kids' minds. Without a change in attitudes towards education, no amounts of money or policy initiatives in the world are going to do much good.


A bit general perhaps, but what the hell, I'm willing to give God the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, I suddenly realize I can never win the internal argument with myself when it comes to Ambra's assertions. If I agree with her, I'm just kissing up to a cute girl. If I disagree with her I'm just desperately trying to prove how I can't be influenced by a pretty face. It's a no-win scenario.

I should know by now that arguing with a woman is the height of futility and in the end, certainly self-defeating. Because from the male perspective, even when you win, you lose. I guess if I learned anything from my baby's Mama, it's when to give yourself over to a higher power... women.

Like Socrates I admit my faults and except my punishment, for I know it is for the betterment of my soul.

So flag a truce, I surrender unconditionally, humble myself at the feet of Ambra. Henceforth I do hereby acknowledge my folly and truly repent my sins of rudeness, presumptuous pride and arrogance as well as any other miscellaneous transgressions........ at least until next time.

So Ambra must I drink the hemlock, or am I forgiven? Choose wisely, my fate is in your hands.

Class size is a big issue in WA. Teachers say that to reduce class sizes to a workable level, we would need to hire 11,600 more teachers.

1) Start a nation-wide grass-roots private donation-supported fund to
2) cash-reward selected (effective & influential) K-12 teachers for
3) quitting the teacher's unions.

My high school was so bad I used to skip class to go to the library and read intelligent books. I don't know how those books got in our library.

My days of school were filled with good memories, but the things I remember learning are the things my mother taught us at the kitchen table. Like telling time with those crazy wind-up clocks, counting money with the five-and-dime materials (now the dollar store) and reading to us, especially from the Bible. It was the investment of LOVE and TIME I remember and value. I homeschool and use the children's museums (Tacoma and Olympia) as a wonderful resource for exploration, imagination and implementation of what's being learned. Also, using every opportunity to teach. Setting the example of the love of learning is infectious. In our modern information age, we have so many things that pull our attention as parents away from our children and that "conncetion" or "bond" can be compromised. Above all PRAY for your children and seek wisdom from God regarding how your child learns. You are your childs best advocate.

Aw man, you missed your chance!
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