American High Schools’ Self-Determination Problem

I was reading an article the other day about student motivation, and a thought came to mind. It seems to me that an enormous amount of ink is spilled in the educational research community about inculcating a sense of intrinsic motivation in our students and avoiding a behaviorist, reward-and-punish approach. There’s been a lot of different research on student motivation over the last 33 years or so (conveniently the breadth of my lifetime), and it seems we’re coming to a broad consensus: those students that do the best generally are intrinsically motivated and oriented towards mastery–or, in other words, their main driver is honing their skills at the task at hand, whatever it may be. Most other motivators, be they acquisition of some reward or earning regard from peers and teachers, tend to be fleeting at best and damaging to student achievement at worst.

Luckily for us educators, there’s a similarly broad consensus about the types of environments that encourage intrinsic motivation. According to self-determination theory, the environments that encourage intrinsic motivation allow for a lot of autonomy, allow students to do things that are challenging but not impossible, and also connect whatever task at hand to something broader that is also actually important.

I suppose you could imagine a sort of idealized workplace: one in which everyone is on board for the company’s broader mission, where people are allowed to choose what they work on and how, and where everyone is optimally challenged. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, of course it does. I think that just about anyone who envisions their ideal workplace envisions something like this: doing something you love while surrounded by people you love working with and setting your own schedule. I’m sure you’d also get paid a lot, too.

If one imagines an educational system that best fits the above description, I think you’d see that whatever it is would look nothing like the educational system we presently have. On almost every single one of the main three points for developing intrinsic motivation, the American education system is doing exactly the wrong thing. On almost every level, autonomy in education is completely lacking; at least until college. Students show up at a specific time, go to specific classes, the vast bulk of which are required for graduation, have no hand in guiding the lesson and then get assigned homework that they get punished if they don’t complete.

The competence question is a bit more thorny, as some students find themselves adequately challenged the entire way through high school. Well, some do. But most students fit into one extreme or the other: either they find themselves consistently presented with work that is way too easy, or they find themselves completely lost in a class that consistently moves forward without them. Combine both of these states with the lack of autonomy in choosing one’s course load and the path through any single course, and you can imagine why so many students decide that school isn’t for them in the long run.

Relevance is also an extraordinary challenge in the American High School classroom. While I think any good teacher will make an effort to make their subject relevant to their students and connected to something in the real world, many of these efforts inevitably fall flat. We try to make math seem relevant by connecting it to the “real world,” whatever that is, but when it comes down to it either you think math is relevant or you don’t, and it’s hard to imagine that graphing a system of equations using “dollars” and “time” as your variables will seem at all interesting to you if you find “x” and “y” appallingly boring. If the connection isn’t authentic, it’s pointless–and in much of what we teach in high school the connection to the broader world is tenuous at best.

So, how can we fix this? Well, there are lots of ways. Here’s one.

First, we need to start offering more school choice. And by this I don’t mean that students should be allowed to attend schools that don’t teach evolution on the public dime. Rather, I think we should take a cue from the European system and start offering educational tracks. In the first track would be students who are definitely college-bound and hoping to be college professors or other highly-degreed professionals; in the second, students who may or may not be college bound; in the third, students who will receive vocational training of some kind. In Europe, of course, students test into these tracks–if you don’t pass a certain achievement test in 8th grade, the elite track is closed to you for the rest of your life.

Now, as an educator I strongly disagree with this sort of determination-by-testing, especially for 8th graders. But I do strongly believe that students need to be divided by commitment–if you don’t care that much about education as a whole, you should be in a classroom with other students who feel the way you do, if only so your apathy doesn’t rub off on someone else and negatively impact their future prospects. You should then be given the opportunity to learn a skill-set that will be undeniably valuable for whatever real-world career you see yourself pursuing in the future.

The problem with this is of course that parents will all be clamoring to get their children into the elite track. The way around this of course is simply to make the cost of the elite track extremely high in terms of student time. Students will quickly find out whether they have the kind of commitment it takes to stay at that level, and those who find they don’t have it should be given the opportunity to go somewhere else without wasting more time pursuing a fruitless course.

In this situation, I would propose that the bare minimum high school graduation be stripped to its true bare minimum. Rather than forcing every American student to acquire four years of history, English, math, arts, and language, we should really think about the things we truly want everybody to know and then teach those. I’d suggest that math shouldn’t be required past Algebra I, one year of American History should be required, and every student should be literate in English and have some basic understanding of the scientific method. Everything beyond that should be gravy–taken as electives by students on the third track, mostly required for students on the second, and entirely required for students on the first.

I recognize that this proposal is both radical and in many ways offensive to our American notion of Education-as-Ticket-to-Upward-Mobility. I would argue that, in the current state of education, it is no ticket to upward mobility at all (just compare an East Austin High School, any of them, with West Lake and you’ll see what I mean), but fine. Let’s say we take away the tracking; surely we could still agree on stripping away a number of the requirements in our graduation plan and allowing students more autonomy. The Texas High School Graduation Plan has students taking required courses almost all the way through their senior year, and taking standardized tests almost every year to ensure that they’ve learned the specific things that they were supposed to learn in that course. What if we could take away some of those and make them optional?

Of course, the problem that we’ve had in American public schools is that things have gone in precisely the opposite direction over the past ten years. In all the mania for school reform since No Child Left Behind, we’ve been working hard to ensure that every student ends up in that first, most elite track regardless of inclination or ability. While I definitely understand the sentiment of wanting to close achievement gap and giving everyone equal opportunity, I think it’s important to note that people are different from one another and demanding identical outcomes from every student is a fruitless endeavor. Our response to failing schools hasn’t ever been to take a look at what’s going on with the students in those schools and work on offering them more choice and opportunities, but rather to raise the bar higher. As such, I would expect to find that our students demonstrate less and less intrinsic motivation with each passing year in our education system, having to be bribed with ever more appealing rewards at each stage of the game.

If only it weren’t thus!

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