Over the past two weeks I learned that three teens in three different leading independent schools on the East Coast took their own lives. Two of them committed suicide on campus. While we can never fully know the reasons young people make such tragic choices, the evidence is clear that an education system that does not put young people first plays a major role, and the broken system is not confined to our public schools or the underprivileged. For even the most successful teens, high school has become an anxiety-producing machine--and we don't seem able to reprogram it.
With the U.S. House of Representatives' stimulus package committing more than $100 billion for education programs in the K-12 environment, it is clear that education is crucial to business. Maybe it's time to think of it as one and focus our attention on the consumers of that business: the students.
The current win-lose, right-wrong model of education is entirely a model of scarcity. Most all of our recent decisions regarding education are predicated on the idea that if we simply remediate the weaknesses in the system that we will in effect fix the problems. But the problems are not as simple as we contend. What we are dealing with is an outdated model.
The current paradigm has everyone from the most academically talented to the most challenged believing that there is one road to success--and that all the on-ramps to that road are backed up for miles. This is all wrong. You can feel in your gut that is wrong, but more importantly, teens, a consumer representing a major demographic of the education business know it is wrong and while we stand around debating what to do or not do in a system that is fundamentally wrong, they are deciding they are not going to take it any longer. They are not buying into it.
See, it doesn't matter if you agree with me or not--when kids start dropping out in record numbers, and mental health departments at the Ivies are the fastest growing department on campus, and children are taking their own lives, it doesn't matter what the adults are debating. The evidence is clear--the high school as we know it is no longer relevant. And no amount of advanced technology or higher standards is going to create the change we seek. Our education system needs transcendence, not fixing.
The secondary school environment in the United States and throughout the world is flawed because it is focused on achievement over relevant and meaningful learning. Having a 4.0 grade point average or perfect scores on standardized tests doesn't define who a child is or who he is able to become. Children yearn to be more than a list of achievements and scores; they desire relevance. Unfortunately, our schools do not provide them with the things they truly need to discover success in their lives.
The reality is that teens today are able to learn more outside of school than in it. Students no longer need teachers to deliver content to them. Today, students can watch lectures at home if that is what is needed. Sitting in a school, listening to a teacher talk to them all day is, in a word, boring.
The 1992 study The Silent Epidemic, conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, uncovered that many drop-outs are motivated and above average academically. The study cited that the number one reason they are dropping out is boredom. For those who do stay in school, boredom is still a factor. They are simply more adept at playing the game until they get through. But is "getting through" enough?
Our educational system will not deliver results until we meet the consumers where they are and give them what they want; they want to make the world a better place--they want to do this with rich technology that connects them in meaningful ways to work that plays to their strengths. This is the desire of all teens, no matter what their economic or racial background.
Refocusing education will take more than money. It will take a fundamental shift in what we believe to be true about high school. Until this shift is realized, the stimulus package for education will only serve the adults, not the children. The real question the education community should be asking at this time in history is "What do schools do that can't be done by anyone else, anywhere?" When high school teachers and administrators can answer this question, they will take a giant leap toward relevancy for teens.
All the money in the world will not fix a system that is outmoded. The longer we continue to merely discuss our schools as broken and in need of rescue, the more we will see teens rebel. The longer we continue to approach education from a scarcity model the weaker it will get, and young people will continue to leave to pursue other interests. The fact is most teachers still teach like they are in the 20th Century--and teens have transcended this pedagogy. Young people that desire true stimulus don't just want to be bailed out.
Many high school students today want to change the world and they are doing just that in spite of what they spend the day at school learning. You don't believe me? Check out MTV's Think, an online community unconnected with any school where teens are involved in self-initiated nonprofit organizations and activism dealing with a wide range of topics including health, human rights, politics, education, faith and the environment. The tag line of this online community is "Your Cause, Your Effect."
Have a look at idealist.org, a website devoted to getting people involved in causes all around the world. Much of the content on this page is geared toward proving teens with meaningful opportunities to change the world. Young people can focus in on their strengths, pick activities and causes that truly energize them and learn how to make meaningful contributions, all online. Thousands of teens participate in these communities and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
To young people, these places are relevant. Here they are able to choose activities based on their strengths and passions, they can make meaningful contributions that help them learn and build their expertise based on real life. These sites and the dozens like them are not initiated in schools--they are flowing from and funded by corporate America.
While we race toward new solutions to fix a broken machine, young people are transcending our system and creating new ways to learn and feel fulfilled--ways that have nothing to do with school. Until we can figure out how to use the stimulus package to stimulate meaningful learning that young people want to remain a part of, we will not improve our system.
Jenifer Fox is the Author of Your Childs Strengths (Penguin, 2009) and a leader in the Strengths Movement in Schools, a non-profit devoted to joining corporate America with youth in discovering ways to build on strengths for a more prosperous future.
You can contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.