Summit Aims To School Educators On Reaching Teens:
Balto. Co. Event To Focus On High School Reform

May 1, 2005 | By Sara Neufeld

Teenagers these days crave approval, get along with their parents and like working in teams. Most of them lead highly structured lives and have their futures mapped out.

So says Neil Howe, a historian, demographer and economist who will present his take on today’s typical high school student at a huge brainstorming session Tuesday in Baltimore County, hoping it will help teachers reach students.

The county school system’s first “high school summit” is expected to draw about 500 community activists, business leaders and educators, including more than half of Maryland’s public school superintendents, to the Martin’s West banquet hall.

Looking for ways to help prepare students for college and the work force, they’ll attend workshops and hear from an expert on preparing teens to enter the global economy.

And they’ll look to gain insight from Howe, who says educators have a tendency to think, “I’ve figured kids out 20 years ago, and I don’t have to figure them out anymore. …I’ve seen all these problems before.”

The goal is to spark a conversation that might change the face of secondary education in Maryland.

“It’s a chance to say, ‘What can we do and what kind of future do we want to create?’” said Lyle R. Patzkowsky, principal of Dulaney High School in Timonium and one of the summit’s organizers.

Such conversations are cropping up around the nation, as President Bush plans to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability requirements into high schools, and states require students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma. Passing Maryland’s High School Assessments will be mandatory starting with the Class of 2009.

In Baltimore County, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has spent the past few years focusing on middle school reform.

A report released last month on the state of minority student achievement in the county shows African-American children in elementary and middle schools on track to meet federal performance goals but those in high school projected to fall short.

Now Hairston is turning his attention to high schools.

“We still have far too many children who are dropping out, far too many who are not motivated and disengaged,” he said.

To change that, Hairston said, educators must “forge a better connection with kids.” He hopes Howe can help.

Howe, who is also scheduled to lead a workshop for Baltimore County principals next month, refers to children born since 1982 as the “Millennial” generation. They are often “hugely protected,” averse to risks, and have very little free time. They are going to college closer to home and more likely to move back with their parents after college.

These traits differ sharply from those of Generation X, whose members, according to Howe, generally grew up more cynical about big institutions and distanced from family life.

The percentage of children who report having “no problem with any family member” has increased from 48 percent in 1974 to 82 percent today, Howe said. “Millennials” are responsible for a reduction in serious crime and the lowest teen pregnancy rates in history.

And on the bright side for schools: “This is a generation that likes to achieve. They think it’s cool to be smart,” Howe said.

Once educators understand who they’re dealing with, the question is how to educate them. For that, Hairston looks to William R. Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Daggett argues that American high schools “are not failing, but they were never designed to do what we’re now asking them to do, which is to get all kids to [meet] high standards.”

High schools were designed in the late 1800s to “select and sort kids,” that is, to identify the 15 to 20 percent who would run business, government and education, and prepare the rest for less-demanding work, according to Daggett.

Today, he said, technology does much of that work, while the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other political developments have enabled the people of Eastern Europe, India and China—about half the world’s population—to begin participating in the global economy. Yet the structure of high schools has largely remained unchanged.

As American schools try to become more competitive, “what we’ve ended up with is too long of a list of things we want to do in 180 days a year, 5 1/2 hours a day,” Daggett said. “We get the teachers feeling like they’re on a treadmill, and it just keeps turning faster and faster.”

His suggestion, to Baltimore County and school districts everywhere: “We need to decide as much what we need to take off the plate as what we need to put on, because the plate is full and overflowing. …They need to get parents and the business community and the general public really engaged in a discussion about what is essential versus what is nice to know versus what is not necessary.”

Hence the high school summit.

Hairston has already tried to heed Daggett’s advice by eliminating the easiest courses in high schools while expanding programs to support students taking on a challenge.

But much work remains, particularly to meet the needs of the district’s growing minority population. Only 19 percent of African-American sophomores passed a standardized test in geometry last year.

Daggett has specific ideas about how to change those numbers, reforms he said are working in the high schools that are trying them.

One is to let students take the bulk of their electives in ninth grade instead of 12th, then use their interests to teach them other things, by incorporating math into an art class, for example.

The approach also enables schools to keep senior year rigorous, Daggett said. “An awful lot of kids end up [creating] bad habits in 12th grade. Then they go to college, and they’ve had this year of having a good time, and that carries over into college and your dropout rate goes sky high.”

Ninth grade, meanwhile, sets the tone for the rest of high school, he said, so it is critical for children to have a positive experience.

“We need to capture those kids,” he said, “before we lose them.”