The Need for Innovation
Engaging Students Who Have Lost Faith in School
In Annapolis, and at many high schools across the country, there are too many students for whom the work-for-grades exchange is simply not working. Educational policymakers often forget that high school students have agency – they have their own beliefs, goals, and agendas that may or may not align with the educational system’s goals for them. For complex reasons – perhaps a sense that school has nothing to offer them, perhaps a fiercely independent nature, perhaps personal or school-based trauma, perhaps learning style differences – many students see the reward structure as too uncertain and the cost of compliance as too high to justify following the expected path of high school “success.”
Carrots and Sticks…and Resistance
The students we fail to reach are more susceptible than ever to checking out of school altogether - they cruise the hallways, lose themselves in their phones, or sleep through class after class, if they show up for school at all. Many of these students are extremely bright and capable, but they reject the work for grades exchange and simply opt out, doing the absolute minimum to pass or just resigning themselves to summer school and bridge projects to fudge their way through high school. Trying to address this problem within the current structures of high school, teachers threaten and coax, call parents, and modify the work to be easier and easier (and less and less meaningful) so students can pass with minimal effort or fill in make-up worksheets without needing any new learning to complete them. Administrators chase students they don't even know by name around the hallways, issue penalties for tardiness and rewards for showing up, and spend inordinate amounts of time managing the behavior of students who are passively (or actively) resisting control. This approach undermines student agency and trust, wastes learning time, and leaves everyone feeling frustrated and defeated. High school can be a wonderful experience for some students - especially for many advanced scholars and athletes - but can be incredibly frustrating for too many other students who don't see school as meaningful or designed for them.
What Students Need
We already know from extensive bodies of research what can make a difference for underserved or under-motivated students. Students who don’t arrive at school already trusting its value for their future need several conditions to succeed:
Unfortunately, these evidence-based needs are hard to address in traditional high schools. Schools with over 2000 students and teachers with as many as 180 students each semester simply can't meet individual students where they are. There are heroes working in traditional high schools who are able to build strong relationships and engage students in meaningful, relevant work, winning over a few more students each year to academic engagement, but their success is often in spite of the structure of high school, not because of it.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
As Anne Arundel County struggles to confront its opportunity gap and to address equity within its public schools and community life, providing a variety of education solutions for its diverse students is an essential piece of the puzzle. No single approach works for every student. There is important work that can be done to improve the experience of underperforming students within existing schools. However, for some students, a more radical shift in strategy is needed.
Anne Arundel County needs alternatives to the industrial high school model - a fresh twenty-first-century consideration of the diverse pathways to success as citizens and adults in the workplace – not just for students with diagnosed needs in temporary placements or add-on programs, but for ANY student who would thrive spending four years in a relationship-rich setting where they are respected as individuals forging their own path to becoming responsible, contributing adults. Going to school in a learning environment where they are given the opportunity for more choice and voice, more supportive relationships with adults in and outside of school, and more connection between learning and the future they envision for themselves, students are much more likely to thrive in high school, in their communities, and in their future lives in college or career.