Escape from nowhere: more reasons for community-centered schools

Higher IQs but lower test scores? What’s going on?

From World War II until now the average American IQ rose by more than 15 points. That’s a startling change. “The average child in 2010 would have been exceptional in 1950,” said Marc Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things in “The troubling trend of cultural IQ.”

Kids are smarter now but they can’t read as well (as they did in 1950).

What’s even more startling is that as those historic gains were occurring, school performance as measured by standardized tests plummeted. Both college professors and employers are struck by how many students and younger workers are “terribly deficient” in basic knowledge and skills. Although test scores have been quite static since 1980 (despite massive commotion due to a series of “reform” initiatives beginning in 1983), from 1962 to 1980 scores on the SAT verbal exam dropped a shocking fifty-four points. That loss has never been made up.

The number of incoming college freshmen who need remediation has kept climbing, and the numbers are now 10% at selective schools, 30% at typical colleges and 60% at two-year schools. The National Assessment of Educational Project (NAEP), our best benchmark for educational improvement or decline, has shown small gains in basic reading skills by young children but these do not result in measurable gains by high schoolers trying to read adult literature. Bauerlein said this is because “the reading tests include passages with diction exceeding the gains made in elementary school.”

So why haven’t large gains in IQ led to any improvement in academic performance? Bauerlein said this is easily understood by drilling down into the IQ data. The IQ tests consist of several subtests that measure different mental functions, such as memory or attention or spatial reasoning. Over the years, changes in various subtests have varied dramatically. What is crucial to understand in relation to academic proficiency is that students’ performance on the subtests for arithmetic and vocabulary have been essentially flat. This is consistent with what the NAEP shows. From 1972 to 2002 general information knowledge scores showed no improvement and vocabulary moved only minimally. Students today are no more capable of comprehending difficult texts than they were before decades “school reform.” Most are not ready for either college or the modern workplace.

What the school reform movement has made clear—after the initiatives and the remedial classes and the revised curriculums and the literacy coaches—is that there are no magic bullets or quick fixes. We should think harder and commit more deeply, maybe, because that verbal reasoning that fell in the 1960s and 1970s is vital for civic engagement in any setting amid the marketplace of ideas, including universities and the professional and managerial workplace. As things stand now, those higher IQ scores are not helping people to evaluate the rhetoric of a Barrack Obama or a Donald Trump or to perceive the veiled bias of a news story or to comprehend the moral distance between the competing claims of pop culture movements. They aren’t helping mothers and fathers find wisdom amid the sea of blarney that washes over citizens in the information age.

Youth culture can isolate adolescents from adult voices.

Another interesting fact that Bauerlein points out is that adults have shown gains in knowledge and vocabulary as measured by the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale(WAIS). This is most likely because many of them have attended college and took classes in such core subjects as literature, history, psychology, economics, and science. This raises the obvious question why then haven’t their children shown gains? We would expect larger vocabularies and more knowledge to affect both the reading and the conversation of adults, which should create a richer intellectual context in the home for their children. So we would expect rising rather than flat test scores for their children.

Why hasn’t this happened? One interesting possibility is that high schools themselves isolate teenagers from the adult intelligence that might otherwise surround them. According to New Zealand social scientist James R. Flynn (whose studies brought widespread attention to the rising IQ scores), since the 1950s a teenage subculture has developed that insulates young people from “adult speak.” Adolescents hang out together, adopting their own idiom, fashions, mores, movies, and music—creating what the great education researcher James Coleman called “the adolescent society.” An uncharitable observation would be that our teenagers are failing to learn very much because they are cooped up in high schools all day.

In 1909, fewer than 9% of Americans graduated from high school, the rest moving quickly into an adult-centered society. But by 1960, about 70% of teenagers stayed in high school all four years. They saw each other all day in classes, in the halls, at the cafeteria, and they made after-school plans. A youth subculture formed and the authority of adult voices waned. This matters because the lingo of youth culture is less sophisticated than adult conversation, less rich in the content knowledge grownups use to make sense of their world. Teens immersed in youth culture tend to have dawdling vocabularies and thin knowledge of art, politics, economics, history, religion, science and philosophy. The language and the facts such young people most need to act intelligently in the world (not to mention to score well on standardized tests) is not often present in the company that dominates in their world.

Some schools mimic the liturgy of rock concerts in their design of assemblies.

Many schools no longer offer much resistance to youth culture. Visiting a school will make it clear to which schools are more shaped and formed by pop culture than they are to whatever academic communities survive in our universities. Many schools are adopting a marketing approach, trying to offer whatever “sells” in the youth market. This makes perfect sense to anyone whose main intellectual context is pop culture. Some administrators have begun to mimic the liturgical form of the rock concert for school assemblies. The lobbies are full of propaganda, somewhat resembling the Capitol in the Hunger Games films.

In response to a widely perceived sorry state of affairs, the goal of the Common Core State Standards, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative, was to prepare low- and middle-income students for the rigors of a college education. Predictably, it crashed upon the reality that a college curriculum is presented in language beyond the reach of many students. Slogans such as “every child can learn” and “no child left behind” have no effect on the fact that the College Board sets college readiness at a score of 1180 on the SAT but we’ve only managed to get 10% of seventeen-year-olds reading at that level.

We push college for everyone, so now more students than ever begin college, but graduation rates have been stuck in the low thirties, suggesting an intellectual barrier we have learned no way to breach. So large numbers of first-year students pay college-level fees for remedial courses but cannot stick it out till graduation, leaving without diplomas but with unconscionable levels of debt.

Is hope justified?

Is there a solution? Bauerlein doesn’t offer one. He observed that “parents and mentors need to spend more time conversing with youths, reading the newspapers together, going on cultural outings. . . and adding grownup affairs to the menu of adolescence.” But he recognizes that saying such things isn’t a solution. “The parents and mentors inclined to heed our exhortations probably already recognize the problem and strive to restrain it—they don’t need our advice—while the others haven’t the space to listen or the disposition to act.”

American society has operated for decades now on flawed understandings of is best for adolescents. “Few things in this world,” he said, “have stronger momentum than cultural mores and values that settle into people’s heads as the way reality operates.”

The great need, to the extent that Bauerlein is right, is for teens to spend more time talking with adults about grownup matters. I’m at least as skeptical as Bauerlein is that we are going to get to such a society—where high schoolers performance is a match for their IQs—anytime soon. I’m quite sure that yet another argument with reasons and statistics is not going to have much influence on schools. The trouble, if that’s what it is, arises in the culture from which today’s Americans get their notions of what is worth wanting, what is worthy of effort and what the point of all our striving might be. A rock star influences pop culture, and thus school climate, more by intoning “We don’t need no education” than a professor publishing the latest article in Educational Leadership.

My personal experience

Students in St. Ignatius, Montana, interview Hermann Detert in his home as part of an oral history project.

I’ve earned my skepticism through hard work and money spent. Over a dozen years I spent more than $8 million promoting a different vision for schooling. Working with the Library of Congress and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, I directed the Heritage Project, enlisting 34 Montana high schools to reconnect high schoolers with the people in the community who were doing the adult work of building and sustaining communities. The heart of the project was having those adults assist students with collaborative research on real concerns in real places. The way forward was to escape from nowhere—the abstract curriculum and impersonal teaching championed by people from away, sitting at a big table in the convention center.

I wrote a book based on that experience. At that time, I talked about “community-centered” teaching practices (which were a form of pushback at the “student-centered” teaching that dominated professional training at the time). The romantic urge to cater to the fast-moving attention of high schoolers was very strong among teachers and administrators, and in many discussions about how to advance the game I encountered little discussion about including students in the circle of grownups talking about larger and more enduring concerns. We have too many adults trying to join the conversations in youth culture rather than trying to bring teenagers into adult conversations. Eudora Welty wisely observed that “To cater to is not to serve, and it’s not to love very well either.”

I began with a lot of optimism. “Montana’s future is being decided right now in its 176 public high schools,” I said. “They are foundational institutions. If they fail, none of our economic or cultural developments will succeed.” My optimism grew in part from an “integrating vision” that I observed growing in the nation—one that both Democrats and Republicans supported. I thought I saw a grassroots movement spreading through America, going by many names: character education, civic education, service learning, and place-based instruction. I tried to unify these various movements under the phrase “community-centered teaching.” At the heart of these various approaches was a simple and unifying insight: we cannot separate education from the community (a corollary was that community development and school improvement are two sides of the same coin).

It seemed to me that various strands of this insight led to an equally simple conclusion: we can revitalize our high schools by making the study of community their central organizing principle. This would mean offering classes that study our civic institutions as they have developed in time and as they are practiced in the real world of our particular communities. It would mean studying history and ecology by including local illustrations. It would mean providing every student opportunities to study ways the local community interacts with its ecological, geographical, business, and historical contexts. Every subject could inject real life into its curriculum by considering what the community had to teach–either by good example or bad. It’s a truism that the only place the universe can actually be studied is locally. There need be nothing narrow or parochial about local studies (though the danger of failing to link local findings to the larger issues is real).

Such studies could go beyond textbook abstractions into detailed examinations of such topics as the role of forests in local economies and in watersheds or the engineering constraints for local water and sewer systems. Working with state and local agencies, students might conduct feasibility studies for businesses or sociological comparisons of varying cultural practices and their impacts on health. They might study historical effects of immigration or infrastructure  projects on particular people.

It was hardly a secret that such approaches had been called for repeatedly by leading educational researchers. High school students are at the developmental stage when they are beginning to form communities, which is why they tend to be so cliquish. The most important educational need of adolescents is to be guided into intelligent explorations of community in all its aspects. One great risk of youth in today’s America is intellectual and spiritual capture by one of the unintelligent communities, real or virtuous, that surround young people and compete for their allegiance. Gangs are only the worst example. Young people are hard-wired to join, and if intelligent communities are unavailable or unattractive then stupid ones will do.

Furthermore, we know that classroom instruction unrelated to real situations often does not lead to understanding or the ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the world. It was my faith, confirmed by the work of many excellent teachers, that when young people use academic skills to analyze real issues in the world they know, they move from dull abstractions to deep learning.

They also create social capital. Through the 1950s, one teacher in Pennsylvania connected his high school seniors with local officials to research aspects of the local community. Thirty years later researchers tracked down these students to see whether the experience had measurable long-term effects. The results were stunning. Students who had been involved in local studies in high school were four times more likely than other students to have joined voluntary associations.
By tackling the real issues in their communities alongside committed adults, those students felt a part of the community. They learned to find meaning in shared work. They developed a commitment to civic engagement that lasted throughout their lives. “Imagine the impact on Montana’s future if every student in every high school had similar opportunities,” I said.

I thought of it as a beginning. As schools became more community-centered, communities would become more education-centered. All our agencies, public and private, could have parts to play. Television stations, artists, newspapers, tribal elders, museums, parks, clubs, businesses, chambers of commerce, grandparents, and cowboys could re-examine their roles, seeing what resources they could contribute to the work of engaging our youth in understanding the world in which we make our place. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch: lots of agencies have already figured out they can’t fulfill their missions without educating the public.

What we needed, I thought, was leadership in building suitable frameworks for collaboration. The phrase “citizen science” wasn’t common now, but today I would point to Cornell’s fabulous eBird project, which is channeling the data provided by an army of nonscientists birders into huge computers that are forming a much more complex and fluid picture of our world that has been available before. We need more such projects, with support for high school teachers. I suggested that university researchers could guide rigorous research projects into local communities and ecosystems, using high school classes in a variety of ways. This would involve training teachers, but also guiding local projects and sending graduate students into the field to help students gather, organize, preserve and interpret their field data.

Scientists with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network had used students to assist with cutting-edge scientific problems. In one project, classes at a high school in Seattle and at one in Tuscaloosa took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, total dissolved solids, total bacteria counts and net primary production while a group of scientists measured the same variables at a pristine site in Antarctica. This allowed researchers both to follow what was happening at each site and to make cross-site comparisons.

The Library of Congress through my work gained experience using high school students to collect oral histories of veterans throughout the nation. Their experiences with the Heritage Project led them to create the ongoing Veterans History Project, modeled on the work we did in Montana. High schools and other community organizations are invited to conduct historical research and document contemporary aspects of community life for the Library’s permanent collections. At that time, I said that “Our educational leaders should be talking in earnest about what research can be undertaken in collaboration with high schools, and our communities should be talking in earnest about what informational infrastructure they need to build, starting with the schools.”

The vision entertained the possibility that when most high schools in Montana were involved in linked, statewide research projects through the universities, our libraries and museums and other cultural institutions as well as our land management agencies, our students’ educations would get a powerful boost at the same time we would all get useful information in an accessible form. Most information in the information age is local because we need detailed local knowledge for our own purposes. Foresters prepare prescriptions for specific sites, based on careful study and historical data. Entrepreneurs conduct original research that closely examines possibilities at particular locations. I know what roses grow well in that spot just north of the two blue spruce trees.

“Montana, and every community in Montana, needs to study itself extensively if it is to thrive,” I said. “No one else will do it for us.”

It’s how we survive and thrive

To a great degree, the issue is bigger than what we usually mean by “education.” The global economy doesn’t—can’t—care what happens here, though it’s become a habit to associate education with the global economy—mainly because the people who benefit most from globalization also tend to be manipulating our laws and institutions for their own benefit. We need to remember that the global economy is never going to have a place for all of us. This will become more and more the case as the robotics revolution proceeds. The global economy needs to be augmented by robust local economies, and it is in the interactions of local economies that we develop our social connections, find the dignified and important roles that make our lives matter, decrease our vulnerability to the restructurings that are routine in global markets, and make it more likely that we will be able to find fresh vegetables and plumbers.

“Most of Montana’s economy will always be local,” I said. “More than anything, Montana needs a generation of educated young people who understand the places they live and want to stay, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence, and commitment to finding new ways to live well. To develop a thriving local economy, we need to develop a thriving local culture of people who are self-aware, committed to mutual support, and prepared to inquire and learn.

“By organizing our high schools around local studies, we can create what we need.” I still think that’s true. And more than ever, I think saying so is unlikely to make much difference. But then, some things take time.

Lessons Learned

My experiences have suggested several insights: none of them earth-shaking:

A student visits with philanthropist Art Ortenberg at a Youth Heritage Festival in the state capitol. The active participation of Art, and his wife Liz Claiborne, was helpful for getting the state’s major cultural institutions on board, including the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and the Montana Arts Council.

1. The imprimatur of prestigious institutions such as the Library of Congress affects school administrators in ways that tightly reasoned professional publications with footnotes and everything do not. School-level leaders adopt programs more readily when doing so involves meeting famous people or hearing that they may find opportunities for professional advancement. Schools are more often led by careerists than by scholars (though the two categories are rarely mutually exclusive).

2. Prestigious institutions are hard to enlist in education initiatives but are not so hard to bribe with promises of foundation money and “public/private partnerships.” Art Ortenberg suggested approaching recalcitrant officials by using “the force of money.”

3. Students believe things are important more readily when prestigious leaders say they are important. They will work harder for recognition (and the chance to travel) than they will to raise their SAT scores. Great things happen when they are invited to do something that matters, supported as they work at it, and then recognized far and wide for what they accomplish.

4. It’s best to work with only with teachers who have voluntarily joined. Teachers who are only pretending to be on board (a routine schoolish tactic) are like sludge in the machinery. They use up scarce resources (mostly time) to no real purpose.

5. Teachers respond to leadership from beyond the school best when they are led to form enduring teams with considerable control over ways to incorporate the principles espoused by the outside agency. Regular face-to-face meetings with the other team members is a necessary part of the work.

6. Developing the vision and learning how to collaborate are the “secrets” to accomplishing enduring change. They remain secrets in spite of being broadcast from rooftops because both are hard to do well. Everything worth doing is difficult, at first and for a while.

7. High schools aren’t actually necessary for the real work. It’s just that right now that’s where the young people are. This is helpful to keep in mind now that there are signs that they are dissolving.


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