May 8, 2011

Why Life in High School Is More Absurd Than Ever

New York City high schools have been crazy for the 22 years of my employment as a school social worker. But recently, the convergence of No Child Left Behind, the continuing economic meltdown and “managerial fetishism” have plunged them to new depths of absurdity, despair and destruction of human potential. (Being open-mined and un-doctrinaire, I picked up the term “managerial fetishism” from an op ed by John Podhoretz in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which is happily provided free at school to enrich everyone’s intellectual development.)

My own post for the past nine years is a small high school in the Bronx —the borough which, except for a few counties on the Texas/Mexico border, is the poorest large county in the U.S. The school is art-themed, so stipulate that for us, the admissions process doesn’t select the book-ish, academically inclined kid but rather the spacey one who likes to doodle or graffiti, and our proportion of teens with special needs is high, around 25%. Over the years, guided by dedicated teachers, our students have produced some excellent art, a few graduates develop real passion and skill and annually go on to art colleges with full scholarships. However, we also have to cover the standard New York state curriculum and as the emphasis on test scores has ratcheted up, student engagement has plummeted.

Over-Testing and Disengagement

For many working class and poor students of color in NYC, disengagement begins with the third grade citywide tests. Children learn that these arbitrary exercises are something they will be judged on and that success on them is, in fact, the whole point of school. Most conclude after a couple of rounds that this is not a game they can win.

So by the time they get to high school, it’s already a recovery mission to interest and motivate them. Many students tell me, “I don’t do homework” and/or “I don’t study.” With study, they’ve concluded that they don’t remember the material anyway when the test comes, so why bother? With homework, they don’t see the return on it, they’re sick of school by 2:30 and don’t want to go home and think about school.

Besides, once puberty hits, their own world of interpersonal drama is so intense that nothing can compete with it—except possibly something that would lead to a job, an income and a future. Parents are often at work, if they have jobs, and overwhelmed and depressed if they don’t. A fair number have failed at school themselves, so don’t enforce homework completion.

Despair About Earning a Living

If the U.S. economy is improving, it sure hasn’t reached the Bronx yet. The effects of this are predictable but nonetheless tragic—and mainstream discourse never seems to draw a link to how young people perform (or don’t) in schools. Students tell me about relatives who had stable jobs, lost them from 2008 onward, and haven’t found another job since. One student reported of his mother, “She hasn’t found a job since she finished college.” More people are losing houses that the family once owned, or apartments that they rent, doubling up, becoming homeless. It’s been well documented that increases in parental income and financial stability positively affect student academic performance, so I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that decline in parental income and stability might have the opposite effect.

Just in the past couple of months, more students are reporting deaths of friends, usually 16- and 17-year-old young men, in gang violence, as paths to prosperity, achievement and social acceptance are extinguished. These are small and very locally based crews, not the nationally known ones, with shocking levels of violence—like taking a young man’s body out of the casket, in church, and shooting it up again.

A few years ago, when I’d ask students what kind of jobs they saw themselves doing as adults, I’d often hear stuff like veterinarian, forensic pathologist (obviously CSI, NCIS, Bones etc. are big), lawyer, architect--jobs that were not perhaps the most realistic possibilities for teens with low grades and reading levels. But at least they represented aspirations, and an opening for discussion, and one could get other jobs in those fields. Now I hear a sullen “I don’t know,” “ I never thought about it.” Making it more concrete, asking “Is there anybody you know, like in your family or friends, who have a job that you could see yourself doing,” I get “No.” Colleagues in other schools report similar conversations. In freshmen advisories, when teachers raise questions of college or careers, students now often say: “What’s the point of even getting a diploma? There’s no jobs out there.”

Terrorized Teachers

If students are not doing school work (because they don’t see school success leading to jobs), their teachers are working like maniacs-- because teachers have jobs and don’t want to lose them. Beyond their daily extra hours of planning lessons and grading papers, teachers are constantly bombarded with data (usually scores on various tests) that they are supposed to be reading on all of the 32 students they have in most classes. This is supposed to enable them to “differentiate instruction” for kids with various learning disabilities, and widely divergent reading levels etc.

This all intensified a few years as principals agreed to be judged on statistical indicators such as number of courses passed and four-year graduation rates, and transmitted that performance pressure to teachers. The managerial fetishism comes in with rising numbers of principals and even heads of school systems who have no prior experience working in public schools, based on the notion that a good manager can manage anything. A bunch of retired NYC teachers summed up the absurdity of that when they showed up at Hearst Publications to apply for the job vacated by Bloomberg’s chancellor appointee, Cathie Black (now, happily, resigned).

Note that I haven’t mentioned superintendents, the previous leaders of school districts in NYC. One reform under Chancellor Joel Klein was to separate the functions of supporting school development (i.e. professional development for staff at all levels) from monitoring/accountability, which are now based primarily on performance measures. So the presence of superintendents is not very evident and it’s not clear to most staff what they do. Principals complain that there’s no one organizing gatherings of principals to share best practices, and therefore principals are more isolated than ever. I heard of one principal saying to his secretary, upon hearing that his superintendent was on the line, “Take her name and number and tell her I’ll get back to her.”

Demoralized and Passive Students

Incidents of principals pressing teachers to raise Regents scores, or teachers giving test answers to students, have been documented. But what’s not well known is the perverse effect that the pressure on teachers and administrators has on students. Sensing that the staff are doing the worrying about whether they pass, students seem less motivated than ever. This is understandable on a human level, since there are few positive consequences (like job prospects) attached to doing well in school and, for students who are already used to school failure, no real negative ones. I was told by a 9th grader who received special education serves and had failed several classes: “I failed three classes but then I had credit recovery after school and the success academy at the end of the semester. I never thought high school would be so easy.”

This culture of declining student effort is also fed by the increased presence of 18- and 19-year old super-seniors who have actually given up on school, but often can’t admit this to themselves. In a better job market, they would have dropped out of school and gotten some kind of job. Now, they come to school but don’t go to most classes, get their free meals and Metrocard, hang out in hallways and bathrooms, and generally model bad behavior. They spend the day socializing with their friends. It sure beats hunting for non-existent jobs every day, or sitting around home getting yelled at by parents to go out and get a job.

What Is to Be Done?

It’s hard to talk about solutions for all this stuff, because they go way beyond the school system. I don’t believe that most public school officials and reformers have consciously elitist intentions. But structurally, in a hierarchical society, school failure serves to justify or legitimize why some people are jobless, or relegated to wage levels that nobody can actually live on. The almost universally acknowledged growth of inequality in income, wealth and life chances is a problem that pervades US society and permeates schools. Only in Lake Woebegone can all the children be above average.

So meaningful school reform, for the average urban student of color with whom I work, has to be tied to creating more jobs at a living wage. It’s unrealistic to expect 14-year-olds who have long turned off to school to become motivated to acquire knowledge for its own sake. School work has to have some connection to a future job and income. Creating those living wage jobs will require self-organization and mobilizing on the part of students, parents, communities--all of us.


Joy said...

Great descriptive article. I will pass it on. joy

Anonymous said...

Great article Juliet. So much rings true to me and is similar to what I have been feeling teaching Biology in an urban high school in Boston. We no longer can create curriculum that might motivate students to learn how to use science to understand the world...not just the biological world. Success is only being measured by their ability to pass a standardized test that values memorization of facts over actually understanding the practice of science. The budget ensures my obedience to this test prep as it was $0 for science supplies this year. As students rebel the only way they know how...with disconnection...the schools only response is periodic sweeps to get rid of kids who are caught without passes in the hall. I wish I had an answer. I know that students should be fighting back...but too often their anger is so great they fight each other. I will pass this article along.

Juliet said...

Your point about students fighting each other is a really important one.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Same exact stuff going on here in Chicago, where last fall they laid off 18% of teachers from the public school district.

I don't know how we are going to create more living wage jobs though. In my dream world, school reform reduces class size to 10 kids in elementary school, and innovative teaching gives children a real understanding of science and math so they can compete in innovation and technology. Of course, that will not happen since the goal of the powerful is to do away with public education altogether, not improve our students' ability to get jobs that matter and pay.

I wish I saw some way out of all this.

Thanks for writing this.

Unknown said...


Everything you have written here speaks to my own experience teaching for the last decade in NYC. In the past two years I have seen a sharp decline in student engagement in school and the administrative response to that has been exactly the opposite of what is needed, imo. In my school they recently switched the schedule to shorten each class period so they could include an extra class in the school day. They did this to address credit accumulation problems, but it hasn't helped at all. In fact, ith as just been the opposite--without addressing the reasons why students aren't passing classes, they have just added more classes to fail. In addition, in order to make room in teachers' schedules for additional classes they moved advisory classes out of our instructional days and have made it our professional period. Teachers were opposed to this because with the extra class we knew we weren't going to be able to provide the same emotional, social and academic support to students through the advisory program that we had been. We've been trying to fight these changes through the union and also by working with community groups but we've been making little headway. Something has to give and soon.

Jessica Klonsky

bonnie said...

Required reading for anyone who has ever questioned the need for living wage jobs, limits on executive pay, and--most importantly-- a tax structure that allows us to pay for effectively educating all of our children--not just ones who have parents who can fund raise or write a check for the right kind of education.

Anonymous said...


Calling all teachers to participate in a NON-UNION sponsored sick-out to protest:

-->federal meddling in public education
-->public education profiteering
-->excessive testing
-->scripted and narrowed curricula
-->gutting of arts, vocational education, science, and history
-->wasteful bureaucracy
-->incompetent and antagonistic administrators

We demand local control and accountability for public education!


3rseduc / handsinthesoil said...

I have too many comments, all positive towards you (but some negative towards the education system) too post here. My blog explores them, at But...I see my students, with 90% on free/reduced lunch (was only 70% 2 yrs ago) without...hope. The schools just teach to the test. My school (a charter) attracts the students who failed in the regular system. Sadly, by high school so many are disenfranchised, it is hard to "save" them.

james boutin said...

Thanks for writing this. It make me think of a lot of questions. Perhaps you could help shape my thinking.

You say there are a lot of studies showing that as the economy improves student achievement does also (or something to that effect). I've wondered for a long time whether research on that correlation existed. Are there any studies you could cite for me?

I really like what you said about students seeing teachers doing all of the work and, as a result, sort of just coasting. I see that at my school A LOT.

My students do, however, still have big aspirations. However, they're all recently arrived Latin American immigrants. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

Lastly, I LOVE LOVE LOVE your penultimate paragraph. I agree in thinking that most corporate school reformers probably don't have consciously elitist intentions. It is, however, an unfortunate reality that they're policies do little but reinforce the very powerful extant social hierarchy.

Once again. Thanks for writing this. I facebooked it, tweeted it, and emailed it. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

But as we have heard
in every media outlet
for years's all
the teacher's fault.
All of it, laws, budgets,
no jobs... it is all the
teacher's fault.
And Obama said become a
teacher to make a difference.
I tell everyone how teaching
was fun. We had a great district
office, we met with teachers
from neighbouring schools. It
was a big happy family.
How I wish to go back to
those wonderful days.
Education has been destroyed
by our presidents and billionaires and
mayoral control and illegal
3 term mayor for life
who knows NOTHING about
education. What a horrible
time of education in a
once great America.

Anonymous said...

To the economy, let's add the grim curriculum now inflicted on students in low performing tracks/schools: test prep for months, drilling on minutiae, benchmark tests taking much of school time. Ug. I don't know how many kids look to the "deferred gratification" of post-graduation jobs, but I do know that most kids can see that this is incredibly boring and certainly not "real world."

annwgael said...

I have always known that the poorest counties in the US are in Indian Country (North and South Dakota). The poorest six out of the poorest seven are in those states. The situation of Native American students is of the MOST dire. That doesn't take away from the situation of students in the New York Metropolitan area, which is extremely serious. I'm just saying that for contrast, there are people who are much worse off.

Cirze said...

Impressive essay.

May I blogroll you?


Anonymous said...

As this is a nationwide war against public schools and our children (and the teachers that are the main protectors of both), there needs to be a nationwide response. The AFT and NEA really must move aside from the politicians and declare a joint campaign to stop this murder of our public schools.
Kipp Dawson, middle school teacher,
Pittsburgh Public Schools,
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers

Ceilon Aspensen said...

The poorest county in America is by far Zeibach County, South Dakota, home of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. For a long time it was the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Shannon County, South Dakota. Outside of that factual error, I couldn't agree with you more about the state of high school education at the moment.

Chalk Duster said...

This is a really great post! I learned so much, thank you!

I am a 6th grade ELA teacher in The Bronx, and I agree that aside from the standardized testing, the most pressing issue that impacts my students' learning is poverty. It affects them on so many levels. Aside from coming to school hungry, many of my students worry about money. Over half of them come home to an empty apartment and care for younger siblings every day.

I only disagree on one point in the whole article, I DO think that the Ed Deformers have an elistist mentality. I think our inner-city kids are purposefully being set up for failure by the system. The proof is in the flawed tests themselves and the inequitable funding for "low-performing" schools. One would have to be REALLY stupid to implement such a backwards system and actually expect our students to be successful. To me, this is no simple err in judgement. It's a money-making scheme so that multi-billion dollar testing corporations can get richer and richer. If legislation requires standardized testing for all publinc schools, then taxpayer dollars go right into the pockets of these corporations. Greedy CEOs are continuing to buy private jets and renewing their memberships to fancy golf clubs at the intellectual expense of students, and the professional expense of teachers. They are running quite a racket, it seems.

Thanks again. It is interesting to hear the perspective of a high school teacher. When you have a moment, check out mine:

Sandy Munnell said...

Have you ever read Larry Cuban's blog? If not, you should. He's a retired Stanford professor of education, former superintendent, principal, teacher. His clear thinking about the issues you describe are sympatico.

Ariah said...

Question: do you work at an ISA school? Or know anything about them?

Juliet said...

Thanks to all for many thoughtful comments--a couple of quick replies.
To the Reflective Educator, I am looking for the specific cites on parental income/children's school performance. A related one is "Rise in Income Improves Children's Behavior," NY Times, Oct. 21, 2003. On the question of the poorest counties in the US, Native American areas are the poorest overall. But stats also break out "large counties," meaning those with large populations, and for that category, the towns on the Mexico border and the Bronx are the poorest.

Juliet said...

Ariah, I don't work at or know about ISA schools. What are they?

Anonymous said...

From an ESL teacher in the SoBrx - everything yes, and thanks for writing. I think the jobs and futures issue is huge! If you see no diffrence in your future for staying in or dropping out of high school, what's the point? For my kids with their 1st and 2nd grade reading levels at age 19 ... It's even hard for me to say "no, education is IMPORTANT! it will make or break your future!" with a straight face (god forgive me). Maybe it would ... If, say, the school had a real transition plan, or vocational counselors, if every special ed kid had a social worker charged with finding him a job. But honestly? The school just keeps shouting MAKE HIM PASS HIS REGENTS!!! - and it's like child abuse, and for what? I used to teach in jail and believe it or not that was better, because the students figured they might as well get something out of all their down time. Now I teach a lot of them before they go to jail, and I'm complicit in their failed education.

Love my students, love teaching, really hate being a teacher these days. It's not rewarding, and admin is under so much pressure to walk around kicking teachers in the gut.

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