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School Gets an F

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Message Bret Stephenson
America, I suppose, hates to admit it is ever wrong or that any smaller countries have anything of value to offer.
For me, our school system is best explained in super-teacher John Taylor Gatto’s career, and more specifically, the end of his teaching career. Gatto is allegedly the most decorated teacher in America, the Audie Murphy of the school system. Three-time recipient of NYC Teacher of the Year, twice the New York State Teacher of the Year, and four presidential commendations, I believe. In a fit of ethics, upon receiving his NYC and NY State awards the last time, Gatto resigned. Gatto became famous for his amazing results, and not with prep or private students, but through an inner city junior high school in Harlem.
Why, everyone asked, would our most decorated teacher quit when he finally began to get the (national) attention he deserved? Gatto used his acceptance speeches at both of those awards to resign. He pointed out that now that everyone was aware of his results, now that everyone wanted to find out how he achieved such amazing results, they were going to have to fire him anyway. The reason: he broke all the rules. Fudging daily roll sheets, Gatto had middle school children working for Marvel comics, doing paid internships with engineering firms, and other methods of ‘education’ the System could not envision or put up with. Luckily for all of us, Gatto is now using his 15 minutes of fame to try and re-create the school system in America.
America’s public school system is, on one hand, a dinosaur, designed about a hundred years ago when moms worked at home and families stayed married. On the other hand, in the view of educating our children, the American model is the new kid on the block. Parents have been educating their children for millennia in whatever ways were necessary to ensure the youth’s survival in the upcoming adult world. In the past few decades, most of us have experienced more and more high school graduates that are essentially illiterate. Indeed, every other freshman in the country needs to take either remedial English or math upon entering higher education.

As the counselor who inherits all the kids who cut school or drop out, it has been almost 10 years since I saw even the hardest or laziest kid held back a grade. Once placed in alternative high school settings, they give them high school credits like candy to help them catch up. The ill-fated approach of moving them forward in spite of not earning it has backfired, creating a couple of generations of youth who are not only ill prepared for real life, but don’t know it. This false sense of self-esteem, makes them feel good even if they don’t deserve it, has set up countless youth to fail in the adult world. I find that criminal, especially when so many know it is not working.

We tell these youth that they have other options, like the GED or other “equivalency” programs they can pursue if they can’t or won’t hang in the classroom. The problem is, GED’s really don’t work in the real world. People hate it when I say that, but here’s why: the person who usually hires you finished high school and often college. He or she made it through four (often tedious) years of high school the hard way. They typically look at a GED-type of kid as someone who goofed around in classes, smoked pot in the parking lot, and so on. Then, at the last minute, the slacker studies for a couple months and gets an “equivalent” piece of paper, but the employer doesn’t see it as equivalent. They know the GED is a wanna-be. Those of us who teach classes to resistant youth typically try to show them how much more money in life they’ll make with more education. The more you go to school, the more money you make. The creation of a consumer culture runs deep, and we are basically telling kids that money is the top goal in a lifetime of work. The American Dream continues to be expensive.

Part of the problem is while America is still largely a blue-collar society, the System seems determined to groom everyone for a white-collar career. Most high schools grade themselves largely by how many graduates they achieve and then by how many youth they get into college. At that point, they wash their hands of the student and pat themselves on the back for their placement statistics. The problem is America has traditionally had a 50% freshman drop out rate in the first semester. Half the kids who enroll in college quit by Christmas. A few years later, only 20% have graduated. With only one-fifth of Americans having a Bachelor’s degree, this implies an 80% failure rate. But when was America ever concerned with minorities?

As an adolescent counselor, I get all the kids who don’t like school. Largely I find they want to quit school and work. They’re ready to become carpenters, mechanics, roofers, or other trade workers. In essence, they are telling us they want to become adults. No, say the schools, you can do so much better if you go to college. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of Americans will not complete college; we want to stroke ourselves for how many we say we got enrolled.

America has successfully dismantled any type of apprenticeship model for teens, convinced that more education is the answer. What I want to know is if every kid goes to college and gets a degree, who will fix my Subaru, who will re-roof my house or remodel my bathroom?

OK, so my next question is if we truly are going to support this path, then why don’t we put the resources into education to be successful. The next ignorant move is to keep the educational structure in America running at poverty level. The wealthiest nation in the world simply will not put its money where its mouth is regarding education (and of course so many other issues). As I’m writing this from California, arguably the wealthiest and most populated state in the union, here is where California compares to the rest of the country in education:

1st in number of students
9th in teacher salaries
18th in collecting state and local revenues per capita
37th in high school graduation rate
41st in per pupil expenditures
47th in revenues for public schools per $1000 personal income
47th in students per computer
50th in students per teacher
50th in students per principal
51st (including Wash. DC) in students per guidance counselor
51st in students per librarian

For example, you may have heard over the years how so many other countries are kicking our behinds in educational output. Our nation ranks at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. The most effective school system in the world according to Gatto, Belgium, actually has the shortest school year, so it’s not about length of time in a classroom. We’ve done so poorly on SAT scores in recent decades that rather than investing time and energy to truly raise the scores, the scoring system itself was changed in the late 90’s so that an old score of 480 would now magically become a 530. Hey, we’re back in the game!

The American school system has seriously failed to adapt to familial changes in our society. With an almost 50% divorce rate, America leads the world in broken homes. While we’ve all pondered the “breakdown of family values” in America, Gatto expressed best how it relates to our educational system, and the fact our kids spend so much time within that system. He asks what the obvious outcome for a culture would be if its children were physically removed from the family for seven hours per day, five days per week, for 12 years. Then he questions the logic of placing these children within a system that does not want to do any parenting, just educating.

American schools do not want to deal with the ever-increasing complexity of our children. Doesn’t matter if almost 60% of American children are living with a single parent, usually the mother, and more than a third of them live in poverty. We lead the world in divorce and child abuse yet expect our kids to leave all these issues at the school’s front door each morning and be open to ingesting algebra and biochemistry that may or may not help them some day.

As America’s children acquire more and more behavior problems, the schools remain remiss in doing anything about it except typical punishment. Rather than work the Cause of the problem, the schools continue to focus on the Symptoms. How does this manifest? Almost 5% of the boys in America are now on Ritalin or other mood-altering drugs. We’re simply drugging them into submission. At our current national rate, by 2010, fully 10% of every school child you ever see will be on some form of medication to control their behavior. Still causing problems? The next simple school cure is to then place and kids who don’t easily confirm in special classes. Sadly, 12% of every child in America is now considered “Learning Disabled,” the politically correct term for Special Ed. Yep, 12% of our kids now apparently need Special Ed services.

The saddest thing about Gatto’s retirement is not that he’s no longer directly teaching students or available to help guide other teachers on a day-to-day basis, except through his brilliant writings and trainings. The saddest thing is that even after the System recognized a brilliant teacher, gave him lots of awards and publicity, they refused to listen to what he really had to say. The school system’s attachment to outcome was bigger than it’s true desire to help youth. The fact Gatto’s performance manifested in spite of the existing school system shows that education administrators don’t really want to perform as Gatto did, but they want to follow their dogma even though it is clear to everyone that American education is declining. America’s school system has become a runaway snowball heading down the slope, growing larger with every revolution. The bigger it becomes, the less likely it is to change direction, even though a better path has been noticed nearby. The school system now avoids Gatto, who apparently failed the loyalty test.

Personally, I’m tired of the shame, judgment and guilt so many kids inherit who do not fit the college stereotype. America is determined to keep its youth out of the workplace until they are 18, and preferably until they complete college. It doesn’t matter that 80% of them won’t make it, we like the picture more than the reality.

© Bret Stephenson 2005

Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who's experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, cross-cultural and universal models that have worked for millennia, he successfully works with at-risk and high-risk teens in a variety of settings. Bret is author of Slaying the Dragon: The Contemporary Struggle of Adolescent Boys-Modern Rules in an Ancient Game. More information can be found at or his nonprofit site at


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Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who\'s experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, (more...)
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