Youth Today: Back to School Shopping

By Karen Pittman, September 2000

It’s back to school time. Reform is in the air. Increasingly, students and families are being offered more choices: Magnet schools, charter schools, CBO schools, small schools, schools-within-schools. But many students are walking into the dinosaur of comprehensive high schools that lack character, focus and connections with their students or their communities. These are the schools where few youths actively choose to be; they are assigned. In the suburbs and affluent neighborhoods, these schools will serve as places to mark time for the college-bound.

Students browse through a dizzying menu of classes like they browse through shopping malls, picking up enough items to make up the ensemble of credits needed for college. Only a small minority will be inspired during these years, but few will drop out.

In the inner cities, however, these schools are places that mark failure. Too many students step into half-empty strip malls of education filled with poorly stocked stores offering cheap, irrelevant goods. Not seeing college in their futures, they respond by tuning out, stepping out, flunking out or dropping out. But they and their families don’t revolt.

Why not? Why, with the average per-pupil expenditure at more than $4,000 a year, do U.S. students walk away from thousands of dollars of free education without either demanding relevance or asking for a rain check? Perhaps because they don’t see that money as theirs to spend toward their own learning.

Let’s make it theirs. I’m not talking about school vouchers. I’m talking about options brokering inside the comprehensive school.

Every student should have the equivalent of a Neiman-Marcus quality personal shopping associate who gets to know their tastes and interests, helps them develop a learning plan, then works with them and their families to find the best items — classes, internships, online courses, community-based programs — that fit their budget. If those items are available in-house, great. If they are available at another branch, make arrangements. If they are not in the system but can be found in the broader environs, the associate should have enough contacts and clout to broker deals including recommending that new lines be stocked in the school. The bottom line is, students and families have a learning account that they can understand and control.

Who are these associates? The faculty are currently teaching classes that inspire neither themselves nor their students. What would convince teachers that this could work? Being given the resources and responsibility to create learning opportunities (with their fellow teachers, community volunteers and professionals) that engage students and teachers in meaningful, relevant, rigorous work. Being paired with at least one other adult who can help them broker and think. Being given bottom-line responsibility for working with a randomly assigned group of 20 students to make this happen. Being given the time and resources to build relationships with the students who, in the end, will be convinced by the magnitude of their energy and entrepreneurship. If resources and responsibilities are deployed appropriately, the chance for rewards — for teachers and students — should energize the transformation process and deliver results that meet realistic standards.

In short, we need to give teachers the opportunity and the motivation that many youth workers have — to build community, provide supports, and broker opportunities for meaningful learning, work and contribution. We can’t make education voluntary. But we can make student outreach rewarding. Teachers, like personal shopping associates, could work on commission (based on more than just test scores).

The take-it-or-leave-it attitude that pervades much of secondary public education has to change. Dropping out and tuning out can no longer be interpreted as individual acts of student defiance. They have to be seen as individual examples of systemic deficiency. That means individual teachers, teams and schools must be held accountable for each student departure or student failure — and, concomitantly, have to be rewarded for each student arrival and student success. But it also means that students and teachers would be truly motivated
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Pittman, K. (2000, September). "Back to School Shopping." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
September 1, 2000
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