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High school is boring

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About half our kids find school boring.

This news flash comes courtesy of an annual study conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Every year, researchers ask tens of thousands of high school students to share their "thoughts, beliefs and perceptions" about school. The 2009 survey covered 103 schools in 27 states.

According to a press release distributed by IU, the numbers between 2006 and 2009 have consistently shown what's called a "troubling trend."

A lot of kids find school boring.

"About 49 percent of the kids are bored every day, 17 percent every class," says Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, the survey's project director.

Some of the 2009 survey's other findings: 41 percent of students said they go to school because of what they learn in classes; 23 percent said they go because of their teachers; about a third said they go because they actually enjoyed being in school.

It's been a long time since I went to high school, but I have to say that, based on my experience, these numbers aren't that surprising. Boredom was part of what going to school was all about. In this, going to school was, in fact, preparation for life in the working world. We can't all be undersea explorers or bomb disposal specialists. Coping with boredom, indeed, rising above it, is something most people have to be able to do for a large share of their working lives. School was a useful preview.

Only two percent of the students said they were never bored in school. These kids were either obsessive-compulsive brown-nosers, or they don't have lives, which roughly amounts to the same thing.

I would say that 41 percent of the kids saying they went to school because of their classes is actually pretty good. There's a lot of learning that takes place in high school that has nothing to do with academics. One reason I went to high school was to meet girls. Another was to hang out with my friends. Although I was, on a couple of occasions, required to report to the Principal about ensuing misadventures with these fellow classmates, I was never tested on these subjects. That was good, because the effects of these experiences were incalculable.

An off-putting aspect of the survey is its tendency to make school sound like a retail proposition. I didn't choose to spend my days in school. I went because I had to. My parents wouldn't have it any other way.

Parents are never mentioned in the survey findings released by IU. The press release makes it seem as if school is just one of many options kids have (which, given increasingly high drop-out rates, is turning out to be true in too many cases). Therefore it's up to schools to find ways to make themselves more attractive, to compete for kids' attention. Or, in the words of the survey, enhance "student engagement."

But student engagement begins at home. Parents provide the sense of purpose necessary to enable a kid to make it through the frustration and, yes, boredom, of diagramming sentences and algebra. Without this parental bedrock, kids are on their own, left to make what pass for decisions based on little more than an appetite for consumption.

Disconnects between parents and kids are why so many efforts at school reform – attempts, that is, to compensate for dysfunctional parenting — don't work. From voucher experiments and charter schools to a quadrupling of per-pupil spending in the United States between 1960 and 2005, nothing has been proven to consistently improve student performance. The refrain that our schools are failing, accompanied by chest-thumping percussion courtesy of the state and national poobahs charged with turning things around, has become a kind of national elevator music.

Yazzie-Mintz says: "Many students would be more engaged in school if they were intellectually challenged by their work." He cites discussion and debate as two effective forms of teaching, adding that technology projects, art and drama projects also score high on kids' lists of things to do.

But then we've known these things for generations. Art and drama projects helped rescue my high school experience. But these are the types of programs that are being cut as school curriculums are squeezed and test scores are made the be-all and end-all of how we evaluate our schools and the people who teach.

Schools aren't substitutes for conscientious parenting. Nor can they expect to lay a full and dynamic claim to the attention of the sleep-deprived, hormone-busting kids who walk through their doors.

What schools can do is provide an education. The trouble is that in all our attempts at reforming systems, we have never come to grips with what an education should be. Is it job training? Or a more general preparation for handling the slings, arrows – and boring patches -- of citizenship in an unpredictable world? Until we reach a working agreement about this, our schools will be worse than boring. They'll be pointless. 
 
 
 


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