Failings of American High Schools

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Most discussions of high school reform focus, not surprisingly, on schools and teachers. They typically call for changes in the curriculum, in instructional methods, or in the selection, training, or compensation of teachers. I think this focus on what takes place inside the classroom is myopic. And it is why our efforts to improve high schools in America have largely failed. We haven’t done anything to improve adolescents’ noncognitive skills.

Nearly twenty years ago, in Beyond the Classroom (Steinberg, 1996), I argued that no school-reform effort would have any impact, though, if students didn’t come to school ready and able to learn. I continue to believe that this is true. The fundamental problem with American high-school achievement is not our schools or, for that matter, our teachers. If parents don’t raise their children in ways that enable them to maintain interest in what their teachers are teaching, it doesn’t much matter who the teachers are, how they teach, what they teach, or how much they’re paid. Without changing the culture of student achievement, changes in instructors or instruction won’t, and can’t, make a difference. In order to do this successfully, we need to start with families.