Tag Archives: education

Calibrating the Moral Compass

“Dominos & Compass,” by Kolby via Flickr.

“Dominos & Compass,” by Kolby via Flickr.

Writing in the Atlantic last July, high school teacher Paul Barnwell expressed fears that his students have broken moral compasses. At the same time, he reports, they are enthusiastic in classrooms discussion that address deeper levels of morality. Yet schools frequently steer clear of moral instruction because, Barnwell believes, they are too busy trying to meet narrowly defined federal academic success standards. The result? A crisis in character of the rising generation.

As educators ourselves, we concur with many of Barnwell’s observations. And we know we aren’t alone. Witness the rapidly growing interest in character education among philanthropies, researchers, policy advocates, and public schools. And recent legislation has encouraged a more holistic approach by requiring states to include non-academic factors in their accountability systems.

While we applaud efforts to promote character education, folding it into school accountability schemes is fraught with peril. Some argue that if it’s not measured, it’s not valued. But as psychologist Angela Duckworth notes, current measures for non-cognitive outcomes are limited by self-reporting and reference bias. Adding character to the testing regime at this stage would be premature and counterproductive.

Off-the-shelf character programs may be a tempting fix for schools already juggling multiple demands, but most such programs fall short.  A study conducted by the Institution of Education Sciences concluded that only two out of sixty measured outcomes were statistically significant. In fairness, as Duckworth notes, these kinds of outcomes are extremely difficult to measure well, in part because character formation itself is not easy to do well. Continue reading

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What Attica Prisoners Want Harvard Law Students to Know

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The last great book I read made me cry and grind my teeth and pace my cell. It was written by a Harvard Law School graduate. It was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. With the best education in America, Mr. Stevenson chose to “get close to,” defend and ultimately save the lives of people on death row. People on these kind of missions—playing a bigger game in life—make murderers like me melt.

My name is John J. Lennon and I am a thirty-nine-year-old prisoner serving twenty-eight years to life at Attica Correctional Facility in western upstate New York. I was convicted of selling drugs and shooting a man to death on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’m sorry for killing him, I’m sorry for it all.

That said, I’m not just a murderer. Today I’m also a journalist. Years ago, I fell into a couple of opportunities at Attica. In a privately funded pilot college program, I learned how to think better. In a creative writing workshop, I learned how to write clearly. Since then, my words have appeared in publications that make them matter. Continue reading

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The Murderer’s Reckoning:
An Interview with John J. Lennon

 

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John J. Lennon’s essay “The Murderer’s Mother” appears in our 2016 summer issue. In this interview, Lennon, who is incarcerated at Attica for a drug-related murder, tells us more about his background, how he came to writing, and what it’s like to be a journalist behind bars.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): What was life like growing up?

John J. Lennon (JJL): I grew up poor, with a single mother, in a Brooklyn housing project. But I had more opportunities than most kids in the projects because my mother made money running hot dog stands. She was able to send me away to boarding school from fifth to eighth grade. It was mostly upper class, privileged kids, about thirty of us, living in a mansion on the Hudson River. In the seventh grade, I won second prize in an essay-writing contest. They gave me a $75 savings bond. (Two years later, I would swipe it from my mom’s drawer, cash it at a discount, and buy drugs.) Things got bad in my adolescent years. I’d learned my real father committed suicide and then we moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Mom enrolled me in public school, and all of a sudden, life was much less sheltered. At the time, the reputation of a murderous Irish mob called the Westies—most of whom were sent away to federal prison in the 1980s—seemed to rule the neighborhood.

Just to give you a flavor of the time, here’s a short anecdote: It was 1991 when I first met Danny, a then-thirty-something Westie who had somehow managed to avoid indictment. My friend Terrence and I were holding down our street corner. Full of swagger with dark hair and blue eyes, Danny winked at me when he walked by, “What’s up, kid?” “You know,” Terrence told me after he passed by, “Danny killed a guy before.” When I heard that, it wasn’t just fear I felt, but admiration, too. It was then that I began to see murder more as a revered deed among gangsters than as the mortal sin it was among civilians.

THR: Tell us more about the crime that sent you to prison.

JJL: Alex, the man I killed, was, like me, in the drug game. At the outset, the murder was about money, drugs, and respect. As sick as it sounds, it was also about this need for me to complete my image. (I think many murders committed within gangster culture have a lot to do with broken boys and young men who want to earn status in a subculture that they otherwise cannot earn in mainstream culture.) I shot Alex several times with an AR-15 while he sat in a car, then dumped his body off a pier. It was a terrible crime, for which I’m deeply sorry. This all happened in December 2001. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: A More Instrumental Peer Culture

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

Students who are anxious about their grades seem more likely to hang out with students who share these concerns. These relationships can become more instrumental and competitive. An eleventh-grade girl reflects:

… there was a lot of pressure to perform well on the SAT. Most of this pressure came from herself and from her friends … there is always competition … to see who performed the best or worst. She does not necessarily aim to do better than her friends … but that nobody wants to have the lowest score…. Also there is pressure from parents …

This kind of behavior was not unique to Wilson High. A girl from Pennsylvania reports:

[People] became friends with each other by taking the same level of advanced classes such as math and history, and became competitive with one another over grades and even trivial points on homework. This competition was … often shakily hidden with remarks like “I got a 26/27 on that reading quiz last week. Oh, you got a 24/27? That’s pretty good.”

Serious students who study together can develop meaningful friendships, but in many respects their friendships seem narrower. Students who are working hard to keep their grades up are busy. Often they have complicated schedules and less time to simply hang out. As we have seen, one of the ways they compensate for this is to communicate with their friends via texting and social media.

The students we observed in 2013–14 seemed less relaxed than the students of 1997–99. Admittedly, this is a very impressionistic observation and it refers to a subtle change of ambiance rather than changes in the social categories or the explicit content of social roles. More academic students still have “best friends” for sharing secrets and anxieties. The difference is that it is not unusual—much less “weird”—that many of these shared anxieties are about grades or standardized exams. In the previous blog one student joked about “white students” being concerned about “only” making a 97 on a chemistry exam. His remarks are, of course, a parody—but it is a parody that points to an important change in teenage culture.

As in the previous trends that I have mentioned, it is difficult to know to what extent trends in high schools stimulate similar parallels in the broader society versus simply copy or reflect these tendencies. Certainly other observers claim that such trends are present. In his extensive study, The Meaning of Friendship, Mark Vernon puts it this way:

With work, the threat comes from being used. In a utilitarian culture, such as obtains in many parts of our world, the problem is that people tend to be valued for what they do, not who they are; they tend to be thought of as means to ends, and when treated as such become, in Adam Smith’s words, “unlovely.”

Whatever the direction of causation, the replacement of expressive and emotional friendships by yet another form of instrumentalism is a reason for concern.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Polarization

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first two essays focused on how the new technologies have changed the forms of social visibility and invisibility and how this has changed youth culture. The third essay looked at the increased academic pressure due to standardized test and SOLs. This essay suggests that these tests may have increased the gap between lower and higher performing students rather than having decreased it.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

In 1986, Signithie Fordham and John U. Ogbu published a paper entitled “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the ‘Burden of “Acting White.”’” It suggested that one of the impediments to higher academic achievement of African-Americans was the tendency of black peers to negatively sanction minority students who were too openly concerned about academic achievement—and accuse them of “acting white.”

This article stimulated much debate and considerable research. Quantitative studies have usually found relatively weak evidence in support of this hypothesis. It should be kept in mind, however, that most of these studies are based upon answers that students give to questions about their expectations and goals. Most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not dramatically different from more privileged (usually white) students in their hopes and aspirations. What people say about their prospects for the future, however, does not always represent their actual feelings. Much less does it measure the level of emotional energy and resources they have to accomplish their expectations. This is perhaps why ethnographic studies continued to find that at least some disadvantaged students seem, if not indifferent about grades and academic matters, less inclined to discuss their academic concerns in the context of peer groups and less committed to academic success. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Academic Pressure

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first and second essays focused on how the new technology and media affect the social visibility of students and reshaped teen culture. This essay focuses in new levels of academic pressure and some of their consequences.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

During the 1997–99 fieldwork, students said relatively little about grades, quizzes, exams, homework, and academic pressure. Of course, many students worked hard and cared about their grades, but these concerns were certainly were not central to conversations at lunch. For many groups it was bad form to say too much about your academic work. While on occasion students studied and did homework during their lunch period this was the exception rather than the rule.

As one young woman, a college student in a quite selective university, said at the time, “Bad grades and fights with my mother were nowhere near as traumatizing as not being included in some social activity.”

The majority of students no longer show such nonchalance about their grades. Here are some examples from our 2013–14 fieldnotes at Wilson High School:

  • Seven white females, one African American female (mixed race), and one white male. All ninth grade. Kelly and Sabrina had been finishing a math exam so they were late to lunch. When Amber, Kelly, and Sabrina joined the table they all immediately take out classwork and start studying.
  • Three white females, one Asian female. Eleventh grade. Upper middle class. Samantha had an AP US history review book out on the table and began leafing through it; Jenna observed that Samantha’s class was using a different book than her class was. Samantha told her that she had bought this book as an additional study aid at Barnes & Noble.
  • Five white females (one may have been mixed race Asian). One male. Middle/upper-middle class. When I arrived at the table Chad was quizzing Luke on a music score and Theresa, Danielle, and Holly were talking about a chemistry quiz they had to take that day.
  • Eleven white females. Ninth grade. Upper middle class. Monica, Kathryn, and Allison were doing homework at the table, and left the table about five minutes into lunch to go to the library and study. Natalie was also working on her Spanish homework during lunch, but she continued to do her work at the lunch table instead of going to the library with the other girls.

These fieldnotes were made shortly after one grading period ended and over a month before the end of the next grading period—so the great concern with grades is not because exams are eminent. In short, compared to 1997–1999, our 2013–14 data show a significant increase in both the number of students concerned about their grade and the intensity of the pressure they feel.

Unsurprisingly, being “smart” became a source of status and snobbery. A girl from a high status public school in the Washington DC area reports, “Those outside of the AP class … were looked down upon for taking the easy ‘joke’ classes or simply not being smart.…”

There are multiple sources of such pressure starting with parents: “Ella said that her dad had yelled at her ‘for like a half an hour’ after her last biology test because she got an 89. Kaylee chimed in she was ‘so bad’ at Spanish because she had a 90 in the class.”

Another factor was the continuing recession and a poor job market. High rates of unemployment continued through the end of our fieldwork in the spring of 2014. This reduced the inclination to drop out or to enter the job market with a poor academic record. Even fast-food employers such as McDonald’s require you to indicate the level of schooling you attended, whether you graduated, your degree or course, and your grade point average—and claim that they will assist you in getting additional education.

It is less clear whether, on average, it is harder to get into college today, but many students certainly think it is. It’s true that a smaller percentage of the applicants are admitted to very selective schools than in the past, but this is in part because standardized application forms, available online, mean most people apply to more colleges than they did in the past.

Another source of pressure is increased enrollments in Advance Placement courses. According the College Board at the end of May in 2013, “… more than 18,000 high schools completed over four million college-level AP® Exams in 34 subject areas ranging from math and science to history and world languages.” If you want to get into a good college, you will probably require good grades in some AP courses. Last, but not least, are standardized exams and related Standards of Learning or SOLs. There is heated debate over the usefulness of such exams, but it is clear many students feel pressured to study for these exams.

These tests lower student morale and make them more cynical about the educational process. Most students recognize that there is a legitimate role for testing and grades: “[Rachel] said she understands that adults need to be able to see what students are learning, but the current testing regime isn’t working.” Of the fourteen students we formally interviewed only one had anything good to say about the usefulness of SOL examinations; most were quite negative. Here are a few of the typical responses:

  • As a ninth grader, Matt … said most of his classes were oriented towards covering only the information on the SOLs, and he thought it made the classes worse because the teachers could not teach what they thought was interesting about the subject.
  • [Jessica] said she knows they cause other students stress, but not her because she’s “responsible and pro-active” about her school work…. “I get done what needs to be done in advance…. [but she said] the SOLs especially are useless.”
  • [Brian] said he personally doesn’t feel much pressure … because he’s exceptionally good at taking standardized tests. But, he enthusiastically added that “SOLs are bad and need to die in a fire.…” [Teachers] end up teaching to the test and aren’t as passionate about the material.

Of course, students’ comments are not unbiased. Most people are anxious about, or suspicious of, the procedures that are used to evaluate them. Nonetheless it is troubling how negative most students are about SOLs and the deep skepticism that even good students express about their usefulness of this kind of pressure.

This narrowing and measuring of performance is not limited to students. There is pressure to measure teachers by how well their students perform on the tests, and schools and administrators on their ability to improve these scores. Nor is the trend limited to education. Many firms are instituting computerized “enterprise systems.” These do such things as count the number of inquiries a call center operator fields and how long they spend on each call, the number of packages a warehouse worker ships per day, or the number of “successful” and “unsuccessful” operations a surgery team completes per month.

Some benefits may come from these various measurement systems. There’s a long line of research that shows when people are evaluated and rewarded on the basis of narrowly measured indicators, the result is often “goal displacement.” They do what they can—including cheating—to improve their scores on what is measured and tend to neglect broader, more difficult-to-measure goals. It is certainly possible that this is what we are training our young people to do.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.

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