This was a commentary that I published in Education Week on September 2, 2009.
It’s the real thing when the light goes on.
In the middle of his high school electronics classroom, the teacher had built the frame of a very small house. The frame is bare except for wires running across and through the beams, wires and receptacles, some wall switches, various light fixtures, and a power panel, door open. Students test their skills on this simulated residence, and on this day, two students are hooking up lights and running the wires to the power panel.
There is a group of younger students present, new boys and girls just entering the program. The teacher gets a nod from the two students that they’re ready, so he walks over to the classroom’s central power source and ceremoniously flips a switch. It works! The whole house lights up, ceiling lights, wall lights, floods. “Wow,” exclaims one of the younger students, under his breath. “Man,” he says, “that’s crazy!”
This boy was not much interested in school, but the demonstration caught him. He spoke to the teacher afterward, eager to begin.
Good teachers work hard to create such moments: some activity or object – a science experiment, a power tool, a carefully selected book – that captures the imagination of a kid who is drifting away from the classroom.
What we witness in these moments is the emergence of meaning in a young person’s school life. Whether or not that moment takes hold and leads to a student staying in school depends on a lot beyond the moment: the rest of the curriculum, continued mentoring and counseling, and the circumstances of the young person’s life outside the schoolhouse door. But without that flash of light, actual or metaphorical, the chances are that nothing much will happen.
The nation is turning its attention to young people like that boy in the group of visiting students, high school and college-aged youth – 16 to 26 is the commonly heard age range – who are “disconnected,” who are doing poorly in school, who are at risk of dropping out or have already done so, who, post-high school, can’t seem to find a viable career path. In my state of California – even during our budget meltdown – there are initiatives aimed at this population from government, educational institutions, and philanthropies.
This is good news, for this population typically is not made a top priority in public policy.
The twin driving engines of these initiatives are economic and sociological: a concern about the effect on the economy and social structure of a significant stratum of poorly educated, underemployed or unemployed young people unable to create a decent career for themselves. Therefore, the pitch to them, like the justification for the intervention itself, is an economic one: to offer a means to get young people back on academic or occupational track toward economic success.
What we miss with this appeal, however – and is missing generally from educational policy – is what that boy experienced when the lights went on. To be sure, the prospect of a good job and financial security can be hugely motivating. But it also can be a distant abstraction, something we know is good for us but doesn’t stir feeling or imagination. The economic appeal falls flat unless it connects with something of emotional significance in a student’s life: the palpable hardship of parents’ existence; a commitment to younger siblings or to one’s own new family; a burgeoning interest in some pursuit and a desire for competence in it; a sense of the future and of who one wants to become.
Because of our structural and technocratic orientation to reform, we can get the scaffold of a program in place, but neglect what is most crucial: how to create the conditions for those moments around the small house frame to arise. We don’t see words like emotion or imagination or, for that fact, identity in our educational policy. They are not the language of rigor, of education science.
But perhaps the science that drives our policy is not rigorous enough, not close enough to the real data of engagement with school. There is in the policy literature a recognition of the importance of adult mentoring in the lives of at-risk youth, but not a lot else that addresses the wider human dimension of education.
This limited focus concerns me because we have a history of conceptualizing and intervening in the school lives of disconnected students in reductive ways: solely in terms of their academic deficiencies and/or their threat to the economy and their potential economic rehabilitation. Frequently the result has been narrow academic skills and job training programs.
To avoid this trap, we will have to begin with an intellectually rich and wide-ranging definition of opportunity and occupation, offer a robust course of study, provide consistent advising and mentoring, and create institutional pathways to work and career. And to achieve these goals, we’ll need to affirm the interior as well as economic life of the students in our charge, appeal to the heart as well as to the financial calculus.