Teens in Crisis

I am delighted that Richard Rothstein acknowledges the ways in which cultural influences undermine teen learning and that “it is reasonable to speculate that our high school organization is flawed.” Analyses of American education that fail to acknowledge that we have an especially severe problem at the secondary level strike me as surreal. For some time TIMSS international comparisons have shown that our performance is mediocre in 4th grade, worse in 8th grade, and worse yet in 12th grade — and it is striking that this pattern of relative decline as one goes up the grade levels holds true both in the NAEP longitudinal trends that Rothstein originally cited as well as in TIMSS international comparisons.

We can’t make any significant progress in secondary education until we acknowledge that teen culture in the United States has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, and that this change has mostly been deleterious both to trends in adolescent learning and adolescent public health. By almost every measure public health in the United States has improved in the past fifty years, with adolescent well-being being the one major exception. Relative to the 1970s there have been some upward trends, but from a parent’s perspective the possibility of a catastrophe is still very real. One out of seven 9th grade girls attempts suicide. More than a third of high school aged girls reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks. Depression is tied to risky teen sex and drug and alcohol use. Accidents, homicide, and suicide are the leading causes of death for 15-19 year olds.

William Damon, one of the leading scholars in the “positive youth development movement,” points out that resiliency in adolescents is associated with “persistence, hardiness, achievement motivation, hopefulness, a sense of purpose, and more.” When I pointed out to him that it is easier to provide young people with these factors of resiliency in charter or private schools than in government-managed schools, he agreed.

In this context, it is not surprising that charter high schools disproportionately attract at-risk students. So while we are all in a hurry to raise test scores, it is worth noting that the first cohorts of young people to leave government schools to attend charter schools might well be those who are profoundly unhappy at their previous school. The research on this aspect of charter schools has only barely begun.[1] Last year Scott Imberman published results from examining individual student records in a large urban district. He discovered that students at non-conversion charter schools (i.e. those that were not merely converted from existing public schools) had better attendance and disciplinary records when they attended charter schools, but that these behavioral improvements vanished when the students went back to public schools. This is helpful empirical evidence to validate the far more common survey evidence that students and parents like charter schools better. Maybe it is important to go to a school where one is somewhat happier and less likely to skip school, misbehave, be depressed, or attempt suicide.

For a parent whose child is miserable, checking out the test scores of prospective educational alternatives is the last thing they are apt to worry about. From time to time I run across condescending comments from educational policy analysts about how parents can’t be trusted to choose their child’s school because criteria such as the child’s happiness often count more highly for parents than do academic criteria. The assumption often seems to be that flighty adolescents are switching schools based on school colors or cafeteria food. In states with caps on the numbers of charter schools, thousands of parents are on waiting lists to get their children into charter schools. While the academic results of charter schools are still coming in, the levels of satisfaction are unambiguously higher. For young people in crisis, and their parents, this is worth something.

I’m skeptical that Rothstein’s proposed social and economic reforms would do much to improve adolescent learning or well-being. In the meantime, there are reasons to believe that allowing parents and students more freedom to choose their educational communities does lead to positive outcomes for those students who escape a system that is damaging to them. We should be united in working to create unlimited charter school expansion in every state. Chains like KIPP and Green Dot will grow, new chains better than the existing generation will come into being, both large charter school chains and more professional boutique charter school chains will serve an ever increasing percentage of the population, and if all students have a choice between these new options and their local government school, then only those government schools that meet the needs of the students will survive.

Once we have a national market in education, with competing chains vying for market share (ideally both for-profit and non-profit national chains would exist), we will gradually see larger scale improvements in adolescent well-being, and as rates of drug and alcohol use, risky sex, depression, suicide, homocide, and accidents decline, we will also see more interest in academics and greater improvements in test scores. If we eliminate NCLB and all requirements for teacher certification, the large chains will develop their own teacher training programs, which will be vastly superior to existing teacher training (key to KIPP’s success is a year-long in-house principal training program, again the tip of an iceberg).

Rothstein is concerned about “tolerating” the less than excellent existing charter schools. But at present fourteen urban districts have graduation rates less than 50%; Detroit’s is less than 25%. Is Rothstein equally concerned about “tolerating” the less than excellent urban districts? Bad charter schools close, whereas bad districts keep going and going and going. Despite smaller per-student budgets and various legislative provisions deliberately intended to hobble charter schools, the charter school movement has spawned a few organizations that have proven their capacity to bring quality education to scale.

Twenty years from now, a higher percentage of the U.S. student population will be attending charter schools, and those charter schools will outperform the present generation of charter schools. Twenty years from now, in those states that allow unlimited charter school growth, a smaller percentage of the U.S. student population will be attending urban districts. In states that do limit charter schools (and which do not pass other larges-cale school-choice options), those districts will, on average, be no better than are the same urban districts today. If Rothstein or anyone else is interesting in wagering against these predictions, I’d be happy to work out formal benchmarks for evaluating these claims.

If my predictions are correct, then I can see no morally justifiable excuse for continuing to provide political cover for these failed dinosaurs. Children’s lives are being ruined, at great cost to the public, through institutions that, despite the occasional heroic leader, cannot be fixed. We already know how to allow for the creation of better alternatives. I believe that increasing educational freedom will provide profound benefits to our economy and, more importantly, to the happiness and well-being of those at every level of our society. But because most people are not ready to believe in the most positive outcomes, I’m content to argue to allow for consensus on the elimination of charter school caps. As more and more parents and students escape, more and more will want to escape. And those who have supported their tormenters will increasingly experience remorse not having supported more educational freedom sooner.


[1] Though it is not focused on charter schools, Les Gallay and Suet-Ling Pong, “School Climate and Students’ Invervention Strategies,” Paper presented at the Society for Prevention Research Annual Meeting, Quebec City, May 2004, presents evidence that when “school climate” is good, adolescents tend to intervene with their peers to prevent risk behaviors. They acknowledge that very little research had been done on school climate’s impact on behavioral issues.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”