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How Schools Fail: Lost Kids and a "Race to Nowhere"

Something is rotten in our education systems - on either side of the pond. 87 percent of all young people in the US want to go on to college after high school and yet one in three drop out of school. Reasons include the need to earn money, early pregnancy, having to care for a relative, and in some cases academic challenges that seem insurmountable; 69 percent of drop outs state that they are "not motivated or inspired to work hard". Drop out rates are highest among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, where one in two children do not finish high school. (Data from this PBS Newshour report and from The Silent Epidemic - Perspectives of High School Dropouts, a report prepared for the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2006.)

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are pushed to give their all, usually white or Asian kids. A recent documentary about this group of students, Race to Nowhere, talks about the pressure these children face and often cannot hold up to. It shows how these students are driven to achieve top grades in their middle school years so they may get into the best high schools from where, if they work hard, they might move on to one of the top colleges which might land them a well paid job and - according to some people - will make them happy.

Since high schools and colleges favor well rounded applicants students add a host of extracurricular activities to their schedule: sports, music lessons, drama classes, community service, Scouting. In many cases the pressure gets too much and leads to symptoms of burn out: headaches, inexplicable stomach pains, eating disorders, depression, and sometimes even suicide.

The movie got me thinking about one of the differences between the US and the neck of Europe I come from. The distinction is even touched on in Race to Nowhere's subtitle, The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture. America is a fast paced, competitive society. Those who work harder are promised a bigger slice of the cake, at least on the levels of money and prestige. Whether the promises always come true or not - in the US the race is always on. Like in any race there are many who get left behind, either because they don't have the energy, motivation, or monetary means to keep up or because they overexert themselves early on and wear out before the finish line.

Austria is different. To begin with it has a dual education system. At the age of 14 those who do not want to go to college later can start on a path where they will receive educational schooling alongside vocational training or an apprenticeship. It is the route nurses, hair stylists, mechanics, bakers, and other professionals take. Those who do finish high school basically all get the same chances: colleges in Austria are public and free; right now there are only one or two fields where universities cannot accommodate all applicants; a degree from one Austrian university carries as much prestige as a degree from another, so why race?

I long for the middle ground, a place where - to begin with - happiness does not have to be synonymous with more money and prestige; a place where (like in Austria) students who would drop out of school if the path is too narrow are not lost and where (like in the US) those who want to enter the race for a well paid job get a better chance if they work harder than others. Hard to find, I'm sure.


debi said…

I love your new cover picture.

I agree with your last paragraph. I like the middle ground, also. Fortunately, my kids found that middle ground through vocational type schools. They're not 100% happy 100% of the time, but they're content with their choice of careers, and they have no school debt.

I believe that parents make the largest impression in the child's life choices. I've seen friends of my kids that were pressured to achieve so much that they suffer the symptoms you listed - that's unfair to the child. I've also seen the opposite - parents that don't care - they won't spend the energy. Raising kids (if you do it right) is the hardest thing you will ever do.

There's plenty to be improved in the education system, but in my opinion the American family needs to be the first priority of change. But, how do we make that happen? other than taking care of our own.

Excellent post,

Thank you for your kind words and for staying with Across the Pond through three weeks of silence. The picture shows a slice of La Jolla beach in San Diego. I took it years ago.

I agree with you that change ideally starts in the family, but I worry for kids whose parents don't get the message and are simply not up to the task. Is it fair that these children should be left behind?
Lorraine Seal said…
It's been my impression that in Europe student who are not aiming for a university education in general get more well-rounded and comprehensive education than their US counterparts. In part, I'd guess, it has to do with the national curriculum and testing in secondary schools. Unless a student is planning to take the ACT or SAT, US students don't face a universal test in order to leave school.

My husband completed his secondary education in Ireland a little over 30 years ago. He didn't go on to a university, but his level of knowledge seemed comparable with those in the US who had completed the first two years of college-level education in the US. It seemed the secondary education was more rigorous and taken more seriously than in the US. Here in Austria my neighbour is an English and French teacher in a secondary school. Not all of her students are university-bound, but their English language skills are impressive. I doubt you'd find that level of instruction for non-university bound students in the US.

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