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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Teens and College Preparation: What Are the "Good Old Days"?

I have often stated that I wish high schools would concern themselves more with high school level curriculum than with putting so much attention upon "get a leg up for college" manic behavior. As a teacher, I believed strongly in college preparatory classes for those students who were attending post-secondary schools, but I thought the pressure on students to take college classes during high school and to build an extensive resume with scads of extracurricular activities meant to impress college recruiters actually hurt their emotional development as it robbed them of innocence and stripped them of social contact with their peers.

I am saying that tough classes with appropriate subject applications can prepare students for college; however, on top of a good, challenging high school college prep curriculum, many parents and advisors now put too much emphasis on the importance of making Johnny and Susie look like ace college prospects by encouraging (often forcing) them to engage in a huge quantity of programs and offerings. To me, this idea that quantity, not quality, will somehow make Johnny and Susie better prepared is simply ridiculous.

Let me give you an example or two of college-like behaviors now popular in high school. When I was in school, I loved sports. For many years I would play three sports -- football, basketball, and baseball. It was common for athletes then to put down one ball once the season ended and take up the next one -- a natural progression that offered variety and welcome change. I enjoyed sports, loved the challenges of each different sport, and looked forward to advancing my skills as each sports season changed. We practiced to play high school games, not to impress college scouts or to overemphasize our role as young athletes. I, for one, had fun playing sports and viewed them as simple games, not all-consuming activities.

Today, high school sports put so much demand in terms of time and resources on participants that few who want to excel play more than one sport. Why? High school sports, like college sports, have become year-round activities. Workshops, camps, training programs, and targeted conditioning occur all year long. Also, with new laws allowing students to change districts, some schools recruit the best players in the area. Of course, these players are usually those who specialize in one sport while in high school. Gone are the days when little towns and villes produced good teams comprised of homegrown products.

Let me give you another example of rushing students to college. The senior prep class I taught, Advanced Composition, obligated students to write many papers. They were always busy prewriting, writing, and revising compositions that required time to prepare in order to meet exacting standards. Not only were they writing, but also they were learning writing theory that stretched their reasoning skills. My purpose was to prepare the students with strategies, processes, and exercises they could actually use to help them write during their college years. Those students who were so involved with a mountain of other activities often found little time to devote to writing.

Now, I understand that teens who are busy are less likely to feel bored and to engage in negative activities such as drug-related behaviors, but a teenagers who feel overwhelmed by a stressful life will often seek risky measures to relieve pressure. Dealing with anxiety, many even take stimulents to complete assignments or cram for exams. It is very important to know the child and his or her limits and needs. I found many top students to be so driven that they bought into the "quantity" formula for extracurriculars even though they constantly complained about out-of-class activities consuming all of their time.

College admissions counselors have a number of data points at their disposal from an application. They have an applicant’s SAT scores, Subject Test scores, AP scores, grades, courses, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation, and high school profile, to name a few. Demographic information including ethnicity, occupation of the applicants’ parents, geographic region, and parents’ highest level of completed education are also significant information that college admissions counselors consider.

In Crossing the Finish Line, Winner of the 2010 Pierre Bourdieu Book Award from the Sociology of Education, co-authors William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson analyzed the educational records of more than 200,000 students who entered four-year colleges in 1999. Among their findings: The grades students achieve in high school are the best predictor of how well they will do in college. Of course it is understood that the quality and intensity of a student's high school curriculum is very important also.

Other studies conclude that high-school grade point average (HSGPA) is consistently the best predictor not only of freshman grades in college, the outcome indicator most often employed in predictive-validity studies, but of four-year college outcomes as well.
A student in a good high school with an up-to-date, challenging curriculum should concentrate on making top grades if he or she seeks to be deemed "college ready." When a student's activities interfere, in unreasonable degrees, with his or her ability to achieve good grades, then the student would benefit from dropping some extracurriculars. To me, "quality," not "quantity," becomes the determining factor in time best spent.

Some Findings On "The Average Teen"
I wish high school could return to being just high school. I believe teens have so many pressures and time-consuming studies these days that "extras" can occupy too much of their time. If they have an interest in being totally consumed by "quantity," they run the risk of making lower grades. Perhaps, parents should encourage their children to limit activities that may consume too much time.

In any case, I believe a high school needs to have a strong curriculum to produce good college-ready students. Taking advantage of all the fringe programs and activities does not necessarily better prepare a student for the future. I definitely believe many of these offerings take up too much precious time. They may look impressive on a resume, but colleges know good grades in tough high school classes indicate future success. 

So, what does the so-called "average teen" have on his plate these days? They do a lot more than go to class. In fact, they have many concerns. Let's look at some profile for the average American teen:

1.  The average teen sends out 60 texts a day.

A new poll (2011) from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that number to be up from the 50 texts they were sending daily in 2009.

2.  Most teens are reading books at a 5th grade level.

“The single most important predictor of student success in college is their ability to read a range of complex text with understanding,” David Coleman, contributing author of the Common Core State Standards writes. “If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in 6th–12th grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career. Teachers, parents, and students need to work together to ensure that students are reading far more challenging books and practicing every year reading more demanding text. Students will not likely choose sufficiently challenging text on their own; they need to be challenged and supported to build their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

This sadly coincides with a report from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that only 34 percent of students were rated in reading as “proficient.” National 12th-grade reading scores were lower in 2009 than they were in 1992.

3. The average prom spending has risen to a whopping $1,078 for families with teens.

This spending is up $807 from last year. Hair, makeup, shoes, jewels, flowers, limos, manicures --and all this before even discussing the dress. Dresses average out to $231 these days, with shoes at an average of $45, bags for $23, jewelry for $32, and hair, makeup, and manicures coming out to an average of $226.50.

"This is social-arms-race spending. It's extreme," says Jason Alderman, director of Visa's financial education programs.

4. Teens feel that school is boring, and they are tired.

Gallup recently asked U.S. teenagers* (aged 13 to 17) to select three words from a list of adjectives that describe how they usually feel in school, and found that "bored" is the word chosen most often, selected by fully half of teens. That was followed by another negative word, "tired," chosen by 42%.

Only as many as 31% selected any one of the positive feelings provided -- such as happy and challenged. Educators and parents would undoubtedly prefer that those were the first words that popped into teens' minds when asked about their day at school.

The data suggest that boredom may be a sign of the times for teenagers. Kids spend so much time with colorful, fast-paced TV shows and other stimulating media that it has become difficult for teachers -- who still often have little more than a chalkboard to work with -- to keep them focused.

But it's not impossible. "I have to change direction every 10 or 15 minutes to hold their attention," says Telma Gonzalez, a high school Spanish teacher in New York. "[But] even though kids say they are bored in school, they don't really act that way in my class. It may just be, too, that the inflexible routine of daily classes seems boring to kids."

5. Speaking of "tired," only 20 percent of teens get the recommended nine hours of shuteye on school nights, and more than one in four report sleeping in class.

These were finding to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation.The Sleep Foundation poll interviewed 1,602 adult caregivers and their children aged 11 to 17. It had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points. School-aged children and teens need at least nine hours of sleep a day, according to the National Center of Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health.

Among the findings:

  • Some 28 percent of high school students said they fell asleep in class at least once a week. In addition, 22 percent dozed off while doing homework, and 14 percent arrive late or miss school because they oversleep.

  • More than half of adolescent drivers (51 percent) have driven while drowsy in the past year.

  • Eighty percent of students who get the recommended amount of sleep are achieving As and Bs in school, while those who get less sleep are more likely to get lower grades.

  • More than one-quarter (28 percent) of adolescents say they're too tired to exercise.

  • Just 20 percent said they get nine hours of sleep on school nights; 45 percent reported sleeping less than eight hours.

  • Nearly all youngsters (97 percent) have at least one electronic item, such as a television, computer, phone or music device, in their bedrooms. Adolescents with four or more such items in their bedrooms are much more likely than their peers to get an insufficient amount of sleep at night. They are also almost twice as likely to fall asleep in school and while doing homework, the Foundation reported.

    What's more, the poll finds that parents are mostly in the dark about their adolescents' sleep habits. While most students know they're not getting the sleep they need, 90 percent of parents polled believe their adolescents are getting enough sleep on school nights.

  • "Sleep serves not only a restorative function for adolescents' bodies and brains, but it is also a key time when they process what they've learned during the day," said Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    6. The average American teen spends about 20 hours a week watching television, with the heaviest viewers coming from low-income households.

    Television viewing increases in pre-teen years and declines after age 12. Adolescents aged 9-14 spend over 20 percent of waking hours watching television, compared to 9 percent on hobbies and 3.5 percent on homework.

    7. Although only 13% of teens have had sex by age 15, most initiate sex in their later teen years. By their 19th birthday, seven in 10 female and male teens have had intercourse.

    The Guttmacher Institute reports, "On average, young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but they do not marry until their mid-20s. This means that young adults may be at increased risk for unintended pregnancy and STIs for nearly a decade or longer."

    Some good news: Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. In 2006–2008, some 11% of never-married females aged 15–19 and 14% of never-married males that age had had sex before age 15, compared with 19% and 21%, respectively, in 1995. However, after declining substantially between 1995 and 2002, the proportion of teens who had ever had sex did not change significantly from 2002 to 2006–2008.

    In 2006–2010, the most common reason that sexually inexperienced teens gave for not having had sex was that it was “against religion or morals” (38% among females and 31% among males). The second and third most common reasons for females were “don’t want to get pregnant” and “haven’t found the right person yet.”

    A sexually active teen who does not use a contraceptive has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year.

    The majority of sexually experienced teens (78% of females and 85% of males) used contraceptives the first time they had sex.

    8. The average seventeen year old spends over 100 dollars each week.

    Well, at least teens are contributing to the economy. More and more are now getting jobs and, in addition to their salaries, are receiving hefty allowances from their parents. In fact, it is estimated that teens will spend close to 155 billion dollars this year. That's an increase of more than fifty percent in five years. Hot on the trail of these passionate purchasers are marketing trackers. For many marketing people, their job is almost as fun as being a teen.

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