The transition from middle school to high school is a big one, perhaps bigger than appears at first blush: Not only do students’ academic workloads increase, but simultaneously, so does their independence and responsibility.

For some kids, the leap to the responsibilities of high school from what they were doing just a few months before — lining up for the cafeteria, or having parents sign their report cards — is overwhelming, especially when factoring in added freedoms and new opportunities to be social.

In the case of many Chicago 14-year-olds leaving their small, familiar K-8 schools, moving up to high school can feel like entering “the Wild, Wild West,” according to University of Chicago Urban Education Institute researcher Camille Farrington.

“The Chicago K-8 schools tend to be little-kid places,” she said. “Everyone knows you and your family, all the kids are lined up, the schools tend to be small. Then they move into high school, and it’s totally different: Doors open to the outside all over the place, boys and girls interested in each other.”

For some students, disproportionately poor and minority, the transition to ninth grade is difficult, and fraught with implications for whether or not they will graduate. And even though, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, American students are graduating at a higher rate than ever before — 81 percent of high school seniors received their diploma in 2012-2013 — for those who didn’t make it to graduation, their troubles most likely began long before senior year, in ninth grade.

Farrington said that in 2005, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research published the report “The On-Track Indicator as a Predictor of High School Graduation.” The researchers found ninth-grade status to be the single-best determinant of whether or not a student would graduate:

“This indicator identifies students as on-track if they earn at least five full-year course credits and no more than one semester F in a core course in their first year of high school. On-track students are more than three and one-half times more likely to graduate from high school in four years than off-track students. The indicator is a more accurate predictor of graduation than students’ previous achievement test scores or their background characteristics.”

In her research, Farrington explores both the systematic and psychological reasons why there seems to be a connection between ninth-grade failures and not graduating, detailing the results in her book, “Failing at School.” She addresses the roadblocks in the current system, which is basically the same model used when the high school was created more than 100 years ago.

During her doctorate study, Farrington began studying the history of high school and said she soon realized that the first high schools were designed on purpose to weed out those who couldn’t cut it.

“What became really clear, what I didn’t realize, was that high schools early on were not meant for the masses. Even public high schools were very competitive, high stakes and intense. Taxpayers had never paid for high schools before, and they were very much interested in keeping lazy or uninterested kids out of high school,” Farrington said. “All the systems put in place were to weed out kids that struggle.”

But the entire paradigm of education has changed. Now having a high school diploma is needed to get any kind of job, and a college education is crucial to staying out of poverty. Yet the structures of that antiquated system meant for only the academically strong are still in place today, including the high school credit system and cumulative grading.

Farrington said one of her favorite quotes is, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” If we want all kids to graduate from high school, she said, then we will need to redesign the system with that goal in mind.

What kind of school do we need to have to make sure the majority of kids graduate? That’s the question Farrington was thinking about when she decided to interview and study a group of students who had failed classes in ninth grade. Even though Farrington knew that, due to their failures, these students had only a 16 percent chance of ever graduating, she said they didn’t know that, and many were hoping to make a change and get back on track.

Early in their ninth-grade year, many students she observed got into what Farrington called “perfectly immature 14-year-old behavior,” like testing limits and not completing their homework, which led to slip-ups. For some students, it was the first time they’d ever received a failing grade on a progress report. While student responses to the failures varied, some felt bad and weren’t happy with themselves, and resolved to do better.

“But even those who vowed to buckle down and try hard, they found that even if they kept apace from then forward, the fact that they had these zeros kept getting averaged in,” she said. “They weren’t able to shake the past failures, and it became impossible to dig themselves out of the hole.”

Students then began to internalize the hopeless feeling of working hard but not getting anywhere, starting to turn on themselves (“What’s wrong with me?”) and the system, too. This leads to disengagement and the sneaking feeling that the system is rigged against them, which in turn saps the students’ motivation to keep working hard. From there, it’s easy to envision where the disengagement is headed.

Farrington said it became clear to her that it was paramount for high schools to have a “way out” for students who had messed up, seen the error of their ways and decided to work harder. But in order to do that, some big things would have to change.

Redesign the Whole System? Or Just Work With What We Have?

As to “fixing’”high schools, Farrington said she looks at it in two ways: redesigning high school from the ground up with the current goals in mind, or tweaking what’s already there.

“I think there are things we could keep,” from the old-style high school, she said — things like standards, clear sets of education objectives, and a clear but not overly prescriptive set of skills and competencies. But the rest — how and what kids should learn — would need to be brand-new.

“I think there are some great examples [of high schools doing this well], and they all tend to be not ‘regular,’ like Expeditionary Learning schools and High Tech High,” she said.

Both schools champion project-based learning and harness the power of student motivation to produce results.

“They have really rigorous standards for production, top quality, in the concept of things they care about, likewise engaging young people in solving problems in their communities,” she said. “There are no shortage of problems that need to be solved, and we have the potential of young people and the real world right outside. Right now, we don’t let them in on the real world.”

And as for working within the current system, Farrington said she’d like to see improvement in four dimensions: a developmental understanding of where young adolescents are at and what they are naturally interested in; understanding student motivation and giving kids meaningful work they care about; higher academic standards; and perhaps, most importantly, addressing issues created by the structure that’s holding kids back.

“I’d like to see us moving away from grading and credit systems, and instead holding higher standards. Currently, you could get a D in everything and graduate, leave school and know nothing.

“I’d much prefer a system that says, ‘We’re not going to let you go until you’ve demonstrated that you can do these certain things,’ ” she said.

Why Ninth Grade is the Pivotal Year for Dropping Out of High School 30 June,2015Holly Korbey

  • I’d rather have a system that is constantly building on unique student strengths and interests rather than always focusing on deficits based on everybody-should standards.

    • pasammy

      So if I am good at making paper airplanes, I should be able to focus on that? I don’t think so – unless I am focused into engineering which would include the math homework that I used for the paper airplane. Schools do allow students to focus on interests by offering electives and by also offering independent studies. You do need a base line of knowledge. We are competing globally and this is not the time to start a make it your self education system.

      • Kate Pausig

        Maybe we should stop comparing and competing with the world and focus on the students and not where we rank.

        • pasammy

          We are competing with the world. The device that you are using to send this was not made in the US. That country got your kids’ jobs.

          • Another Mother

            When you say the device was not made in the US did you mean to emphasize that its component production was done in China? On an assembly line? The concept of digital computing was conceived in the US at UPenn and the University of Illinois. England (think Alan Turing) and Germany both had created computers for use in the wars. But Germany and England are not who we are afraid of having higher scores than us on international tests. Correct? I suppose I am more for an education system that fosters creativity and project based education to comparing us to countries who do not educate all its citizens and whose products tend to be inexpensive, assembly line offerings.

          • pasammy

            Alan Turing was a genius. Yes there is actually a bell curve and 98% of us will never be at that level. He went to traditional schools as does most of the creative types. You have to master content before creativity.

        • teacher

          Agreed! As a 27-year teacher, I get SO sick of people trying to compare us to educational systems in Europe and Asia. Here is what is being compared. In both European and Asian school systems (I teach on U.S. military bases and have lived for the past 23 years in Germany and Korea), students are given a test in 8th grade. This determines whether they will go to technical school, general high school, or college-bound high school. (This may not be true in ALL European and Asian countries.). This test determines what kids will be doing for the rest of their lives. Do you really want this to happen to a goofy eighth grader? In other words, when you hear how much “worse” our kids are than their kids, you are comparing ALL of our kids to their cream of the crop.
          Furthermore, in Korea, learning is rote. They do not teach creative thinking. They teach memorization for a test they will take in 12th grade that determines which college, if any, they will be allowed to attend–which is why you have so many Korean students coming to American universities–they didn’t make it into the “top” Korean universities–which are limited. Which university they attend determines where they are hired AND how much they are paid for equal jobs in those companies–with women making less money than men. There ya go. Let’s do that.
          I am also so sick of people who don’t have the balls to be teachers, so they become “researchers” and tell everyone else how to do it. So this chick wants to fudge the grades but make the standards higher? Huh? Yeah, that makes sense.
          The SINGLE strongest factor in a child’s success in school is parental involvement. That is a fact. Get off your self-centered butts and parent your kids. Make them take ownership for their own education and quit pampering them and blaming everyone but the kid when he or she fails.

          • teacher

            P.S. In both AMERICAN high schools where I have taught for the last 19 years, our graduation rate is 98-100% every year. My students have gone on to Stanford, Princeton, UW, Berkeley, Air Force Academy, West Point, Coast Guard Academy, Annapolis, U. of Michigan, Penn State, just to name a few. And, I’m not talking one kid to each. I’m talking year after year after year. They are motivated, their parents are there for them (even when some are deployed), and their teachers and administrators make sure they don’t fall by the wayside. And, we don’t have special academies and magnet schools. We have plain, old-fashioned high school.

          • pasammy

            I am also a vet who is familar with DODDS. At first I was wondering where you were going with this but I understand and I am glad that you brought up the parental involvement issue. That is huge. I havw taught for 20+ years and spent time in schools with good involvement and bad. There is a huge difference. However no politician is ever going to admit to that.

          • Robyn

            What was the socio-economic level of your students? We’re they Title 1 schools? What percentage of your students were English language learners?

          • AnnieMo

            that sounds like the ‘Regents’ test they used to have in N.Y. Don’t know if they still have that or not, but it was given before starting high school, for the same reasons.

          • Lisa

            Thank you! My children went to a DoDDS school for eleven years! My daughter from Sure-start to seventh and my son from first through eleventh. Alas we had to return Stateside and I would LOVE to make it back to DoDDS so that my daughter could have the caliber high school teachers that my son did – he loved his experience so much that we were able to transfer his Senior credits back to his school and went back so he could walk with the WT Sampson Class of 2015. Keep taking care of our military kids and the kids of the civilians that support them.

      • Guy Donno

        I don’t think the original comment rules out some base line, and he only exaggerates a little when he uses the word, “always.” By appealing to global competition, I think you tacitly give in to the relative few who make the game’s rules. If we had a more nearly democratic world, I’d be more inclined to agree that our focus should be on the skills that competition demands.

    • Guy Donno

      ^This. Those of means who’ve taken it upon themselves to reform our education system want to impose their vision of success on students. (By ^this, I meant the original comment).

  • Education Associates

    Job skills training and exploring career interests might bode better for kids who are not college-bound.

    • wolfe

      Exploring career interests would benefit any student. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who spent 10s of thousands of dollars on a college education to a get a job that they ended up hating, because they really had no idea what it entailed.

      • pasammy

        The problem with college is that it was never intended for solely career purposes. It was used as a growing/academic time for families with lots of money. It was a place where students not only learned but also networked with future business partners and investors. We have turned a basic social club into an institution and now we want everyone to be able to play student. The problem is that in order to play student you need money and you need to be able to get in. We solved the money issue by granting too many loans. We solved the entrance problem by creating degree programs that are easy to enter into but virtually worthless for employment purposes. Take for instance some business degree programs. Some are geared to produce secretaries aka administrative assistants. Secretarial schools were trade schools that were a year or maybe 2. Kids went to these schools and came out with jobs and no or little loans. Not only have these programs been stretched out to college, many students take as long as 5 years to finish. In addition, many careers such as education only required a two year degree from a “normal” schools (old term for teacher college). Normal schools were incorporated into state colleges and the programs were expanded to 4 years and now many wannabe teachers hang on for 1 to 2 years and get a MAT (masters of arts in teaching). As someone who has been teaching for 21 years, I can say that many MAT teachers are no better than the 4 year degree program. Let’s not get started on educational doctorates. They are beyond the point of useless……

  • wolfe

    I have never understood why every freshmen isn’t expected to a course in study skills & time management first semester. How to take notes in class, how to orgnaize your binder, how to read for content, and take notes from reading. How to organize your time & resources for a longterm or group project. These are really useful things to know and so few schools teach them effectively or at all.

    • Kate Pausig

      It is because we don’t give a damn. We don’t have the money to fund it. It will be cutting into the time of teaching students how to take a test.

      • Michelle

        That’s unhelpful. Things were this way long before No Child and Common Core. Everything isn’t about scoring political points.

        • Kate Pausig

          Yeah, I know everything isn’t about scoring political points. I have been through this education system of test test test. It the reality of things. People don’t give a damn.

      • pasammy

        No it is because parents should actually use a little bit of common sense and make sure that kids are in a quiet place after school and that they are doing their homework and not playing games or wasting time on cellphones or involved in too many after school activities. Study skills are set by the time a kid is in 4th grade. 9th grade is too late.

      • Larry Dean Moore

        Dont havve the money to pay for it? pshht right… But we can afford to pay all of these delinquents and their 7 kids mortal existence. Get out of here.

    • Robyn Ryan

      Americans are trained, not educated. If we were educated, we wouldn’t be living under the remnants of an imperialistic colonial Empire. And no Bush would ever hold elected office.

      • Kate Pausig


        • pasammy

          Yes good comrade it worked wonders in USSR.

      • AnnieMo

        SO RIGHT>! I read a paper presented by a very knowledgeable, respected professor; it stated that ‘powers that pull the strings’ out of sight (in other words, non-elected very wealthy), were appalled at the number of college students who were involved with the civil rights marches. They decided that the American youth were becoming ‘over educated’ for the masses. THAT should be left to the elite. So, they drew up a plan to slowly creep into our public school system, which would begin the ‘dumbing down’ of the populace. (They didn’t realize that Fox News would do that?) They also decided it was time to slyly begin the path to ‘charter’ schools, where their influence would choose the text books, curriculum and eventually the teachers……..(and how THEY were taught). We have seen that development in the last 8 or more years! (This group was called the Tri-Lateral Commission)..It has now seeped into colleges and universities, state and private. The wealthy, like the Koch brothers, make huge donations with the specification that they become board members, have input on courses taught, text books used-you get the idea. Those of us, who are of a ‘certain’ age, who feel we were taught a less than ‘honest’ history of our country were taught boe-coes more than many kids today. The constant change in how to teach subjects is also a tool used to confuse both teachers and students. I knew people of my father’s generation (those who fought in WW2) who didn’t go past the 7th or 8th grade, who could do math better, were better read, could write a complete sentence correctly, than many high school graduates today. And many worked while going to school and still got their homework and chores at home done every day.

      • kdschu

        Hilarious that you are stuck on Bush(es). Has Obama done anything lately?

    • duffy91

      Those skills are taught in English class, or should be. Plus, parents are responsible for teaching their children first of all those basic skills.

      • Kristen Z

        Many parents do not have the study skills to impart to their children. Another predictor of a child’s likelihood of graduating is whether or not the parent graduated from high school themselves.

      • Robyn

        I wish they were taught in ANY class. And many ADULTS don’t even have executive functioning skills. If we taught executive function skills the students explicitly, then they would be able to teach them to their children when they become parents.

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  • Labyrinthia

    18 weeks has always been a long period of time to keep kids focused. If classes were broken into 4-6 week blocks where you were graded for each block separately and perhaps the lowest grade dropped (so everyone has a second chance), some students would do better.

    • pasammy

      Uh, no. You have a curriculum to cover. You cannot teach Algebra 1 in 4 to six weeks because concepts build upon each other. 4-6 week courses are offered at the graduate level because you require grad students to read entire books in 3 days or less. Kids need to extend attention spans as they get older. That is part of becoming an adult. Do not drop the lowest grade either unless the kid has every homework assignment done. If it does not look as if the kid is putting in effort, then no breaks. They get too many breaks as is now.

      • Kate Pausig

        I read somewhere in Finland they spend 5 years teaching just per-Algerba why we spend one year on teaching it. Kids need to extend attention spans as they get older, I don’t know many adults that have good attention spans or attention that longer than a 5th grader. As for the attention span thing it not easy to keep an attention span when you are taking 8 classes a day without breaks, why don’t you try it and see how well it turns out for you. They get too many breaks as it is now, where is your proof? It is funny how old people think they know something when they don’t. It is funny to see old people talk about something the have no real understanding about. It funny to see old people open their mouths about the young and acting as if they understand everything. I agree Labyrinthia if we break down the classes 4-6 week it could help a bit.

        • pasammy

          I teach. I get it. I work with kids. I get it. I do not agree with 8 classes but that is where you fit your electives in. Gee productivity is down and out economy sucks. Maybe adults do need longer attention spans. Finland also does not use as much technology as US schools and kids are not distracted. They also do not emphasis athletics as much as we do and they do not send their kids off to work part time jobs to pay for cellphones. Maybe when we get our priorities together, maybe we will do better.

          • Lisa

            I don’t have problems with the eight classes (my children, especially my son, NEED music classes in HS); I much prefer the block schedule – it allows for longer time in a class during each meeting (great for getting into a science experiment and also discussing it), and cuts class changes in half – cutting the number of times for students to ‘sneak out’ in half.

          • Robyn

            Technology? My kids literally use technology maybe 2 hours a week total at school. I make up for that at home. We are incredibly behind in teaching our kids how to use technology in an academic manner. Most of the students I teach do not have access to Internet or computers at home. Yes, they know how to instagram, but they don’t know how to do proper research.

        • pasammy

          It is also awesome to see how younger (I guess anything above 2 is old to you.) can act as if they have any real experience with anything.

        • America isn’t Finland. We have diversity and poverty that they don’t have. We have compulsory education that they don’t have. We have 39 different languages spoken in a single district, parents in jail, kids on drugs, kids in group homes. America is not like a European or Asian country, therefore we cannot educate our children and young adults as if we were.

          • Lisa

            Maybe what we need to do is solve the poverty, jail and drugs issues. That would help with the group homes/CPS system issues. Although we do have so many different languages, there should be one common language that is taught to children as a first language (and at the moment, it looks like English is it). The first goal should be to have the students speaking English so that they can stay on level, or give them a special program. The problem is that NCLB has translated into ‘No Child Allowed To Soar’.

          • English only isn’t the solution. People will teach their children the language they themselves speak. A child needs to learn to read and write in the language they first learn to speak. Integrated foreign language programs are showing remarkable results. Bilingual students test far higher than monolingual students but only if they get instruction in BOTH languages. Fix poverty first. That’s the tide that lifts all boats.

        • AnnieMo

          I think you are right. When I was in school, we went out for recess on the play ground twice a day-we could use playground equipment or play baseball, skip rope, whatever. We were healthier, got the goosies out of our system, and settled down in the classroom much better during the day as a whole. WE were also taught some concepts for algebra in each grade, with concrete examples of how they applied to regular things. My kids never got that.

          • Robyn

            Exactly. Common core includes algebra concepts startin in kindergarten, such as 5+_=10. I believe our kids who are starting CCSS now will be far more algebra ready in 9 years than our current 8th/9th graders are.

      • AnnieMo

        yes, but if you haven’t grasped the concepts in that first 4 to six weeks, you will be lost the rest of the semester! There should be a testing at each level before going on the the next, so that issues of not understanding can be dealt with, and teachers should know more than one way to explain to teach a child having trouble.
        So I agree with Labyrinthia. I know of a girl who flunked Algebra 1 because of this, the school had no tutors listed that could be used……..the next year the school wanted to put her into Algebra 2.!! Her mother had a hard time, had to get almost militant,she said, when she demanded that the girl be put back through Algebra 1, with help from a tutor until she understood it. There was a lot of rangling-no room in the Algebra 1 classes, ect, ect….but the mom stood firm. The girl hated school after that, however, she did love to read. When she took her ACT test, her score was so high she was admitted into a well known engineering school !

        • pasammy

          I agree that a child should not be pushed through. That mom is not the norm. You tend to find moms pushing the other way. Teachers do use multiple means. Sometimes a kid is simply not ready for the material. That happened to my child.

          • Lisa

            Not all teachers use multiple means; in fact, my daughter’s Alg 1 teacher didn’t use any means… she expected eighth graders to go online and find the means themselves. My daughter should have been taught one way, then another – which is how the Algebra I was teaching in a different school system the previous year was done.

          • pasammy

            What you are describing is the problem that school districts face. That problem is that curriculums are not standard in this country. I know that there is a big battle over the Common Core Standards and I actaully ride the fence on this one because some of the standards are, well, lets not go there just yet…..

            Anyway, we are one of the only modern countries in the world where the curriculum in not standard across the nation. Kids coming into my school had one devil of a time with the math program because we were using the everyday math/integrated math and lots of districts were not. I am not sure why standards for Algebra would need to be different in NJ vs WV vs TX vs CA. An integer is an integer whether it is above or below the Mason Dixon line or to the east or west of the Mississippi.

      • Labyrinthia

        First, most of the world does not teach algebra, geometry, etc separately. Instead the concepts are combined. In addition, in some schools students will study 1-3 subjects at a time, completing a years worth of work over a very small period of time.

        And yes, it is possible to break a subject into separate units and have the grading period only cover that unit. Which was what I was suggesting. As is, that Algebra 1 is broken into two parts.

        • pasammy

          Where are you getting your informatio from? Many countries do use that sequence because it actually works. Many schools in the US tried your method. It was called everyday math at the elementary level and integrated math at the high school level. It was bad. First, colleges had a difficult. time trying to figure out just what high school kids were learning. Second no concepts were ever mastered. This experiment lasted almost 10 years.

          Also please understand this: lessons make up units and units make up courses. Most US high school courses are either for an academic year or for a half year.

          Again, what you are describing is done. Algebra 1 has several units. Grading is now done electronically so separating units by grading periods is not needed. Kids can get instant feedback.

          • pasammy

            Sorry 4 errors. I am using a handheld device.

          • Lisa

            Our new school system has many math and science classes that meet daily in high school (it’s called a modified block) and only meet for one semester. My issue with this is that a child can take Alg I first semester of 9th grade and go an entire year with no math until second semester of 10th grade. They want my daughter to take a full year of Chem Semester 1, then a full year of Physics Semester 2. If she is going to be a science major she will burn through a high school career’s worth of science in the first two or two and a half years… then nothing until college? Sure, she could take a boat load of other science classes, as electives, but music, dabbling in art or theatre or trying out some psych or lit classes as well as foreign language and tech are also important.

          • pasammy

            I agree. The school that I teach in had modified block and that was a problem. Modified block is good for somethings like elective classes but it really is not good for core classes. First, if a child misses two days of school, it is like missing a week of classwork. Second, like you said, there is too much of a gap in between sequential classes like math and science. If your daughter takes chem and physics (like my son did) in 9th and 10th grade, does your school offer AP courses or CHS (college in high school) if they do and your daughter is able to take them, it would be a good idea. If they do not offer these courses, can your daughter enroll in your local community college while in high school? My school allows this.

  • OLO101

    I would hate to see school watered down so everyone can pass. Not everyone gets a trophy.

    • michelle

      But that’s what’s happening now. Do you really think the rise in graduation rates is due to some miraculous in acheivement? No, the requirements to graduate have been lowered.

    • Michelle

      Not watered down. Currently, if you missed turning in homework and ace the final, you get a C. Yet you have mastered the material. And if you get a C on the final (,you know the material pretty well) and don’t turn in homework you flunk. Now, do we want kids who turn in homework, or who learn? In some schools in Canada they have same day, after school suspension for kids who don’t turn in homework. They do it there and, hence, they do not fall behind.

      • Jessela

        The issue is, holding them accountable for homework is a way to teach them deadlines and holding them accountable when it comes to whatever they will be doing for work. Some people don’t make a direct connection, but it shows something about work ethic and character.

        • Michelle

          Then we have goals that are at cross purposes. I can tell you as someone in the work world that all those projects and all that homework doesn’t teach responsibility. Most of the U.S. college grads I work with are more half assed than my coworkers educated in India or Europe. And in those systems final exams that test mastery make up the majority of your grade.

      • pasammy

        You learn by doing homework. Homework requires the kid to practice what they have been taught. It requires kids to do reading at home so that the teacher can move beyond the basic concepts in a lesson. I like the idea of keeping kids after when they do not have their work done. Usually, a kid who does not have homework done, does not have a good place to do it at home.

  • Mansgame

    High School in the US is ridiculously easy. I know that students who take college prep courses have it harder but if someone just wants to coast through, often they can graduate without even taking basic algebra 1 or chemistry as a senior! Someone who drops out after failing remedial math(essentially 5th grade math), gym, remedial science, remedial English, and remedial history doesn’t deserve to be in High School. The world needs ditch diggers too and if he decides to turn his life around later, that’s what GED is for.

    • Kate Pausig

      In high school I never took 5th grade math. I had to graduate with at least Algebra 2, 3 year of language, biology. I would have loved to gone to a high school that I only need to take 5th grade level of work.

  • Bryan

    What is wrong with having the education system “designed on purpose to weed out those who couldn’t cut it”? That may sound nefarious at first blush, but “cutting it” means meeting a minimum standard. Should school instead be designed to allow those that “can’t cut it” get a diploma anyway? There is undoubtedly a link between race, socio-economic status, and failure, but to say that the system is designed to fail certain people is just intellectual laziness. Some people expect the education system to fix everything, but it can’t. Look up the “30 million word gap”. The cumulative effect of growing up in a family that doesn’t value literacy is so great that the only way to overcome it would be to take the children away and have the state raise them. Does anyone really want that? The current system, although much maligned, does a a pretty decent job of providing a level playing field where most children can succeed–especially when you consider the low funding, diverse student population, and low teacher certification requirements.

    • pasammy

      You got it. The biggest block to education is a dysfunctional family. It can be from a rich or poor background. If you ignore your child’s eduction then your child will ignore it. If you are an enabler – you know the one who tells the teacher that your kid is an ace – you will also ruin it. Keeping a kid in a high school who does not want to be there sucks up time, money, and effort from the system. It is a shame because kids who want to learn from disadvantaged districts are short changed because all of the money is spent keeping 5% of kids who don’t want to be there in school. Lets have kids who don’t want to be there work in very manual labor jobs for 2 years instead of high school. That might just change things a little and lets not provide benefits for families of children who drop out. Lots of immigrants stayed in school during the 30’s and 40’s because they saw the economic value as there were not all the safety nets that exist today for people who choose to fail.

      • Sockmonkey23

        If you look at the consequences of not finishing HS today, they are far worse than they used to be. There are no jobs for these people. The world does not need ditch diggers.

        • pasammy

          They have always been far worse. People know this and still allow their children to fail school. Yes we actually do need ditch diggers and there are ditch diggers who make more than some college grads. I actually have known some college grads who left low end white collar jobs for the ditches where the work is harder but the pay is better. The oil industry and utilities are full of “ditch” diggers. By the way, not everyone is going to be a software developer or an idea person. In fact, about 50% of the population falls into that category. What do we do with those people. Put it this way, I can practice all I want, but I will never be an NFL quarterback. If you don’t got it….you don’t got it.

  • MoniLontra

    I wonder if part of the solution should come from the middle schools. Age 14/grade 9 seems awfully late to leave the “little kid environment” and to start an academically rigorous curriculum. For us (in Europe) that started in grade 5. Now, if that could be done here with more support and less of a sink-or-swim mentality than we had there, that would be the ideal in my book.

    • Kate Pausig

      It depends, not every school across the country is k-8. Where I am from we had k-5, then 6-8 then 9-12. It got harder as we went on. I think it should be k-4, 5-6, 7-9, 10-12 and it gradually gets harder. Nothing is going to be done here because we don’t support our schools. As for the sink-or-swim mentality that is what the US is about. We are not about helping people succeed, you are on your own and their is nothing to help you.

  • Hill Fortenberry

    Having taught from 5th – 9th consecutively for 14 years, I can say yes there are problems. Placing the blame purely on high school demonstrates a flawed area of research. The author herself, noted the 14 year olds in Chicago are coming from K-8 campuses, where kids are coddled right on out the door. I am wondering why she chose to avoid including a discussion on adjusting that system as well? From my own experience in Texas middle schools (6-8), we have not done a very good job in preparing the students for the next chapter, still I can not imagine what it would be like coming from a K-8 campus. Schools at all grade levels as well as family values in education need to be taken into consideration before jumping the gun and asking for a revamped high school system.

  • Robyn Ryan

    We need to pour money into elementary ed for every single child. If the basics aren’t there, the rest just gets harder.

    • Kate Pausig

      We don’t need to pour more money into elementary ed, we need to fix how we do things. More money is not the solution. Finland spends less money on students and yet they are in the top 5 when it comes to education. More money is not the solution, more test is not the solution, expecting children to do work that is a grade to high for them is not the solution.

      • pasammy

        Where did you get that stat. Finland spends more of their GDP than we do and it is spent evenly.

      • Roni K

        Its really impossible to compare the results of education in one country to another. There are so many variables that affect a child’s ability to do well in school – economics, family involvement, culture, and language acquisition being just a few of them – and there are many different variables between educational systems. Its difficult to say how much each variable contributes to academic success. Studies in this country have shown that the greatest indicator of student academic success is parental involvement, which is one reason why many (but not all) charter schools seem to do better, and why children from higher income parents tend to do better. If a child comes to school having already learned to speak well with a large vocabulary, whose parents have let them know they are expected to do well in school, whose parents have the time and ability to keep track of what their child is learning, ensure their homework is completed and help them over rough spots, whose parents can help them navigate the educational system, who have many books at their disposal at home, who have the advantages of summer camp, libraries, reading clubs, etc, that child has a great advantage over the child who doesn’t have those things. The stresses caused by poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, inadequate nutrition, inadequate medical and dental care, bullying, drugs, and gangs also have a negative effect on a child’s ability to do well in school. So to compare any child to any other, whether in this country or in another country, all of these variables must be taken into account before you can even begin to compare the effectiveness of one educational system over another.

  • Michelle

    I was wondering how far down I’d have to scroll for the racism to come out and it wasn’t very far. “Why don’t we just let the (name your poison) fail?”. “It’s the fault of the parents.” “Let them dig ditches instead of going to high school.”

    The reason is this: our school systems are supposed to serve kids, not just babysit them. They’re supposed to leave educated, not just ready for employers to exploit. The article suggests we redesign the system to better serve ALL kids and what some of you get out of that is that we should lower standards? How about instead of punishing kids for not mastering skills they were never taught, we make sure every kid knows how to study, how to manage their time, etc.

    • pasammy

      Bad parenting knows no race. Are you perhaps making assumptions?

  • Chchcha

    What the author is proposing seems very much like a Montessori approach applied to high school. Many already exist in the U.S. It’s a completely different pedagogy but produces very capable, productive & innovative graduates. It’s not a way of learning, though, that you can just drop a child into on high school.

  • ecer

    We can absolutely make sure all kids graduate from high school. Just award any kid who survives to the age of 18 a high school diploma regardless of whether he or she actually knows anything. Done. Solved. Of course, in the real world, while we’ve made a LOT of progress toward that goal, we haven’t quite gotten there. Yet.

    Of course, if you want to hold onto the idea that every student who receives a diploma should have actually learned something to earn it, you’re going to find that goal to be incompatible with the goal of 100% graduation. And while we’ve been focusing on making sure everybody graduates for the last several decades, I think we might be better off working to raise the expectations for what they should have to learn to graduate. A diploma is required for jobs like working at McDonald’s, in part, because we’ve watered down a diploma to the point where you don’t have to do much of anything to earn it beyond show up occasionally.

    A diploma can mean something, or everyone can get one. Not both.

  • nicole

    Another way to solve the issue is to reinstate classes based on the trades. My high school in rural Illinois had a program called “Building and Trade” which was very popular. The kids in the class actually built houses. They learned construction from the ground up. Well-built too! It took two years to complete the house and then the house would be sold to the highest bidder (minimum bid disclosed of course) which would then take those funds and reinvest in the program. Some very very fine contractors came out of the program.

    Not every kid is destined nor should go to college and for those kids all High School is is a holding pen. The School Boards and the schools themselves teach to the “tests” that they have adhere to for funding and they teach nothing else. Is it any wonder that so many fail? Personally, I’d like to see us recognizing at an early age where a child’s talent and abilities lie and at least give those kids the option for schools designed specifically for those talents. I’d also like to see us get back to where we can teach our kids common sense survival skills. You have no idea how many college graduates may be able to do geometry yet can’t balance a checkbook until you work at a bank like I did for years….

  • Bridget O’Hara

    Arthur Morgan School has grades 7,8 and 9, the adolescent years. Students engage in meaningful work from caring for the garden and farm animals to planning their own 18-day academic and service learning field trips. If you want an incredible experience for your adolescent consider

    • pasammy

      Yes, especially if you have the money to do so and a child who can read and write before entering into the school.

  • duffy91

    Is the pendulum swinging back to the junior high model? Geez. Education operates by trends and educrats justifying their jobs. Yes, ninth grade is a pivotal year, but eight-graders on the college track don’t drop out. It is the struggling and less motivated students that are endanger of not seeing the benefits of a high school education. Then again, if they are not on the college track, they need to be on the vocational trade track, because otherwise their high school education is useless.

  • Thank you Holly for bringing attention to this important issue. As we consider how to most effectively engage students, I have been inspired by the “10 Expectations” that student should be able to have for their learning experience. See this 3 min video – for the 10 expectations that really elucidate the design criteria that undergird the Big Picture Learning approach.

  • Lisa

    If a student fails, let them take the class over, like in college. A student that really messes up and fails the first quarter can course correct, get As the rest of the year and end with a B average… I’ve seen it.

  • kdschu

    High school counselors are great at putting together 4 year plans for students. They actually need a SIX-YEAR Plan that starts in 7th grade.

  • BDThinker

    According to the article, “For some students, disproportionately
    poor and minority, the transition to ninth grade is difficult, and fraught with
    implications for whether or not they will graduate.” When English Learners
    enter high school the odds are against them because they are dealing with
    social issues, language barriers, playing catch up if they had interrupted
    schooling and sometimes having to come home to play parent to their younger
    siblings. As the article pointed out many students find it impossible to bring
    their average up once they mess up in 9th grade, but maybe that is
    intentional. As the article states, “all
    systems are put in place to weed out the students that struggle.”

    Many classroom teachers lack the knowledge to adequately teach
    English Learners, so their foundation in their primary grades may have gaps.
    These gaps might result in students not meeting the standard resulting in low
    grades. If an English Learner continues to receive bad grades based on the
    standard how will they ever feel motivated or prepared to graduate? In 9th
    grade if you start of badly, it’s almost impossible to bring up your GPA. “Black
    and Hispanic youths who attend high-poverty, racially isolated schools have
    serious problems. Large numbers are not completing high school. Our efforts
    should focus on reducing the causes of their disengagement from school, part of
    which has to do with being unprepared for high school work and part of which
    results from the circumstances in which they live.” (Ravitch, p.81, 2013)
    Expedition learning is a great step toward engaging our students.

  • Robyn

    In California, the vast majority of schools are k-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Our kids lose their way in middle school when they suddenly have 6 periods and much less teacher support. I’m curious how a similar study would reflect that difference.

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Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey’s work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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