The transition from middle school to high school is a big one, perhaps bigger than appears at first blush: Not only do students’ academic workloads increase, but simultaneously, so does their independence and responsibility.
For some kids, the leap to the responsibilities of high school from what they were doing just a few months before -- lining up for the cafeteria, or having parents sign their report cards -- is overwhelming, especially when factoring in added freedoms and new opportunities to be social.
In the case of many Chicago 14-year-olds leaving their small, familiar K-8 schools, moving up to high school can feel like entering “the Wild, Wild West,” according to University of Chicago Urban Education Institute researcher Camille Farrington.
“The Chicago K-8 schools tend to be little-kid places,” she said. “Everyone knows you and your family, all the kids are lined up, the schools tend to be small. Then they move into high school, and it’s totally different: Doors open to the outside all over the place, boys and girls interested in each other.”
For some students, disproportionately poor and minority, the transition to ninth grade is difficult, and fraught with implications for whether or not they will graduate. And even though, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, American students are graduating at a higher rate than ever before -- 81 percent of high school seniors received their diploma in 2012-2013 -- for those who didn’t make it to graduation, their troubles most likely began long before senior year, in ninth grade.
“This indicator identifies students as on-track if they earn at least five full-year course credits and no more than one semester F in a core course in their first year of high school. On-track students are more than three and one-half times more likely to graduate from high school in four years than off-track students. The indicator is a more accurate predictor of graduation than students’ previous achievement test scores or their background characteristics.”
In her research, Farrington explores both the systematic and psychological reasons why there seems to be a connection between ninth-grade failures and not graduating, detailing the results in her book, "Failing at School." She addresses the roadblocks in the current system, which is basically the same model used when the high school was created more than 100 years ago.
During her doctorate study, Farrington began studying the history of high school and said she soon realized that the first high schools were designed on purpose to weed out those who couldn’t cut it.
“What became really clear, what I didn’t realize, was that high schools early on were not meant for the masses. Even public high schools were very competitive, high stakes and intense. Taxpayers had never paid for high schools before, and they were very much interested in keeping lazy or uninterested kids out of high school,” Farrington said. “All the systems put in place were to weed out kids that struggle.”
But the entire paradigm of education has changed. Now having a high school diploma is needed to get any kind of job, and a college education is crucial to staying out of poverty. Yet the structures of that antiquated system meant for only the academically strong are still in place today, including the high school credit system and cumulative grading.
Farrington said one of her favorite quotes is, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” If we want all kids to graduate from high school, she said, then we will need to redesign the system with that goal in mind.
What kind of school do we need to have to make sure the majority of kids graduate? That’s the question Farrington was thinking about when she decided to interview and study a group of students who had failed classes in ninth grade. Even though Farrington knew that, due to their failures, these students had only a 16 percent chance of ever graduating, she said they didn’t know that, and many were hoping to make a change and get back on track.
Early in their ninth-grade year, many students she observed got into what Farrington called “perfectly immature 14-year-old behavior,” like testing limits and not completing their homework, which led to slip-ups. For some students, it was the first time they’d ever received a failing grade on a progress report. While student responses to the failures varied, some felt bad and weren’t happy with themselves, and resolved to do better.
“But even those who vowed to buckle down and try hard, they found that even if they kept apace from then forward, the fact that they had these zeros kept getting averaged in,” she said. “They weren’t able to shake the past failures, and it became impossible to dig themselves out of the hole.”
Students then began to internalize the hopeless feeling of working hard but not getting anywhere, starting to turn on themselves (“What’s wrong with me?”) and the system, too. This leads to disengagement and the sneaking feeling that the system is rigged against them, which in turn saps the students’ motivation to keep working hard. From there, it’s easy to envision where the disengagement is headed.
Farrington said it became clear to her that it was paramount for high schools to have a “way out” for students who had messed up, seen the error of their ways and decided to work harder. But in order to do that, some big things would have to change.
Redesign the Whole System? Or Just Work With What We Have?
As to "fixing’"high schools, Farrington said she looks at it in two ways: redesigning high school from the ground up with the current goals in mind, or tweaking what’s already there.
“I think there are things we could keep,” from the old-style high school, she said -- things like standards, clear sets of education objectives, and a clear but not overly prescriptive set of skills and competencies. But the rest -- how and what kids should learn -- would need to be brand-new.
Both schools champion project-based learning and harness the power of student motivation to produce results.
“They have really rigorous standards for production, top quality, in the concept of things they care about, likewise engaging young people in solving problems in their communities," she said. "There are no shortage of problems that need to be solved, and we have the potential of young people and the real world right outside. Right now, we don’t let them in on the real world.”
And as for working within the current system, Farrington said she’d like to see improvement in four dimensions: a developmental understanding of where young adolescents are at and what they are naturally interested in; understanding student motivation and giving kids meaningful work they care about; higher academic standards; and perhaps, most importantly, addressing issues created by the structure that’s holding kids back.
“I’d like to see us moving away from grading and credit systems, and instead holding higher standards. Currently, you could get a D in everything and graduate, leave school and know nothing.
“I’d much prefer a system that says, ‘We’re not going to let you go until you’ve demonstrated that you can do these certain things,’ ” she said.
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