From 16 to 20, Student Development Demands a Different Kind of Schooling

“The school was structurally incapable of taking me seriously,” one student at a well regarded suburban high school said.

Schools often dismally fail the developmental needs of young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty, concluded a year-long study just completed by the Coalition of Essential Schools. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and led by Kathy Simon, CES’s Director of Research and Professional Development, the “Sixteen to Twenty Project” looked critically at current educational practice in late high school and early college, and came up with provocative suggestions and “design principles” for how it should change in five broad areas: college admissions, standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and institutional size.

Even high schools and colleges with good reputations, the report concluded, rarely offer the intellectual stimulation or the room for social and emotional development that young adults need. Anonymous among thousands of others and rarely known well by even one adult, students have little choice but to sit and listen to class material that has little resonance with their own experience or questions. Graded and ranked against their classmates according to tests that reward cramming more than deep thought, they are sorted and stratified ostensibly by ability, but most often by race and class. A significant portion drop out virtually unnoticed.

Yet throughout the early 1990’s, approximately 65 percent of all high school seniors held jobs for pay; the majority of these students worked at these jobs more than 20 hours a week. More than 4 percent of young women from 15 to 19 give birth every year, and approximately 13 percent of young people between 14 and 24 are arrested. Fragile and dependent these young adults are not, yet few receive from their schools the respect and responsibility that could inspire discipline and ambition rather than lethargy and apathy. “The school was structurally incapable of taking me seriously,” said one student of her well-regarded, wealthy suburban high school.

What would help? The problem lies in school design and policy, this report asserted. In particular:

  • School structures should allow close, personal, regular contact between young adults and older mentors. This step most effectively achieved by creating smaller schools will have academic as well as social and emotional effects. “Students become motivated to achieve high standards when trusted adults in their lives deem them important,” the report concluded. “It is virtually inconceivable that students would do high quality work in the absence of close-in, caring coaches to provide regular encouragement, guidance, and feedback.” Truly high standards and strict accountability come about not through legal mandates, it argued, but through respectful human relationships. When schools are small enough to know their students well, teaching and learning improve and institutions better provide the supports and services students need.
  • The work students do at this age should have a place in the world, feeding their idealistic sense that they can have an impact on real problems and answer real needs. In combination with an intellectually rigorous curriculum, “real world” work is crucial to the intellectual and social development of young adults. And because so many students have jobs outside school, the report noted, those jobs simply must nurture their intellectual and social growth. School should provide a place where students may come back and reflect on their experiences in the world.
  • In school and out, students at this age should work with people both older and younger than themselves. “We typically warehouse 2,000 fourteen to eighteen year olds together, away from adults, then wonder why they are so susceptible to peer pressure,” noted one contributor to the report. Yet adolescents act at once more adult responsible, diligent, considerate and more childlike??curious, enthusiastic, jovial when kept “out of packs.” And they rise to the occasion when positioned to act as mentors to youngsters, colleagues of adults, or sources of support to the elderly.
  • Rigid age-grading must go. If standards are to guide student promotion, schools and colleges must seriously rethink the current age-graded system, establishing more fluid and contextual boundaries within and between institutions. Students might receive college credit for working in their family business; high schools might provide close tutoring support to the 20-year-old student who needs that environment; high school students might take college courses during their junior and senior years.
  • College admissions criteria should clearly promote performance-based assessments and learning that takes place outside the conventional classroom. Current systems reward memorization, not exploring ideas or making connections between information, ideas, and actions outside school; tests and grades pit classmates against one another with very high stakes. And though expeditionary learning, apprenticeships, and other “real world” experiences profoundly influence the growth of young adults, they rarely appear on traditional transcripts. If college admissions offices made clear to high schools and their students that demonstrating their learning through performance, not tests, carried important weight, they could have important effects on secondary schools’ structures and classroom practices.