Public education has long been claimed as a hallmark of democracy in the United States, a core element of the country’s self-image. It ensures informed self-government, and it has helped nurture a unified national identity across several generations of diverse immigrants. In the form in which it is known today, public education first emerged in the late 19th century, driven by industrialization and urbanization. At that time, most people in the United States lived in rural areas, and about two-thirds of all workers were employed in farming. Given the conception of adolescence at the time, and the fact that average life expectancy then was only about 37 years, a common assumption was that adolescents should take on work responsibilities as quickly as possible (Kett, 2003).
As secondary schools were established across the country during the post-Civil War period, they were often designed to educate youth for routinized jobs in factories in the new industrial age and, implicitly, to socialize conformity in increasingly diverse and complex urban centers. Many of the key features of these early high schools remain with us today. Yet much has changed over the past 150 years, and the needs of American society today bear little resemblance to those that were served by secondary education in the early industrial age.
Life expectancy has more than doubled since that time, to about 79 years, so the period over which the benefits of human capital developed during adolescence can accrue has increased substantially. And changes in society have made formal schooling increasingly important for labor market
success (Goldin and Katz, 2010).1 The share of U.S. workers employed in manufacturing today is just 11 percent, while the share employed in agriculture is under 1 percent. Fully three of every five workers in America are now in what one might think of as knowledge-based “white collar” jobs.2 At the same time, the United States is losing its competitive advantage in education. In a survey of nearly 10,000 Harvard Business School alumni judging the United States’ competitiveness in global markets, the K–12 education system was deemed a weakness and to be deteriorating (Porter and Rivkin, 2012). The economic strength that America enjoys—for now—is attributed instead to our nation’s universities, innovation, entrepreneurship, and capital markets, which are relied upon to help overcome our current deficiencies in K–12 education.
Changes in the labor market have also increased the returns to “nonacademic” skills (Deming, 2017; Goldin and Katz, 2010). Some schools have taken a more expansive view of skill development. But most secondary schools remain large, highly structured bureaucracies where youth follow rules, with few opportunities to create, solve problems, and practice decision making, despite the fact that these skills are becoming increasingly important for economic success and these opportunities are the very things youth need to fully develop (Eccles et al., 1993).
Moreover, the country itself has changed. The United States has become increasingly diverse with respect to race and ethnicity, as Whites will soon make up less than half of the population under age 18. Gender roles have changed as well. Women have increased their participation in schools, the labor market, and other key social institutions. In 1890, fewer than 20 percent of all women were working in the formal labor market in the United States. Today, the figure is closer to 60 percent, gradually approaching the figure for men.3
The nation today also confronts persistent disparities in how adolescents perform in school. Differences in high school graduation rates between youth of color and White youth remain large, with a Black-White gap of 12 percentage points and a gap between Latinx and White youth equal to 9 percentage points in the 2015-2016 school year (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Similar disparities are found in achievement test scores. By age 13, the Black-White gap in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) equals 0.62 standard deviations in reading and 0.80 standard deviations in math. The difference in achievement test
1 While the returns to a college degree for men declined around the time of World War II, since 1950 we have seen a large rise in the difference in earnings between those with a degree versus those without one. Similarly, the returns to a high school diploma for men declined in the period leading up to 1950, but have increased steadily since (Goldin and Katz, 2010).
2 Finance, insurance and real estate; government; education and health; and information.
scores between rich and poor (the 90th versus 10th percentiles of the income distribution) is also large and has increased substantially since 1940 (Reardon, 2011). As shown in Chapter 4, these disparities in educational outcomes are linked to demonstrable disparities in educational opportunity stemming from differences in family resources (income and wealth) as well as the stability, stress, and safety of neighborhoods where students grow up.
The system of public education that emerged in the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries was also driven by prescientific suppositions about adolescent development. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries we have learned an enormous amount about adolescence that bears on the aims and design of formal education. Research from psychology and other social sciences has taught us that development does not end at puberty with the emergence of abstract thinking skills as a final stage, as was once thought. Rather, youth have a great capacity for growth and change, retaining substantial neurobiological and developmental plasticity into their early to mid-20s (Hohnen and Murphy, 2016; Steinberg, 2014; see also Chapters 2 and 3). Moreover, research from neuroscience helps us understand how this plasticity relates to the architecture of the brain itself, creating new opportunities throughout the teen years and into the early 20s for youth to continue and sharpen their development.
These major changes in our understanding of adolescence itself, together with major changes in society and its needs, require rethinking and modernizing a public school system that was largely designed for 19th century life. We now understand that when young people reach adolescence, they vary widely in their academic skills and needs and in their future career aspirations. There are also dynamic and unique neurobiological changes taking place in tandem with cognitive, social, and behavioral development (see Chapter 2), all of which factor into educational experiences. The secondary school system of the future must do a much better job of meeting teens where they are and personalizing instruction, much as the field of health care, for instance, is increasingly shifting toward “personalized medicine.” The growing recognition of the importance of skills other than reading, writing, and arithmetic for both personal fulfillment and success in modern-day life will require schools to broaden their mission.
The growing diversity of U.S. adolescents will also require schools to become more culturally competent, to have a focus on understanding differences in background and identify and assist youth with issues related to identity and social competence. Rather than become more integrated, evidence suggests that schools are becoming increasingly segregated along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines (Hill and Torres, 2010; Hill, 2011). Modern society is unfortunately characterized by substantial inequalities in income, wealth, and neighborhood opportunity, which have translated into inequalities in educational opportunities (see Chapter 4). Given the grow-
ing importance of education over the past 200 years, addressing almost any form of social or economic inequality in the United States will be difficult without also addressing these educational inequalities. This includes supplementing the different resources the families of adolescents can bring to bear, including help navigating the education sector.
In the remainder of this chapter, we first highlight changes within society that are relevant for the education sector. We then discuss what social science and neuroscience have discovered about adolescence, before turning to key changes that these trends will require of the education sector in the United States, broadly defined.
While the current system of secondary education was largely designed to meet 19th century educational needs, rapid changes in American life in the 20th and 21st centuries have affected both the contexts in which young people grow up and the skills and competencies they need to garner from the education system in order to become productive adult members of society. This section discusses these societal changes—changes in the labor market returns to education, in the growing importance of nonacademic skills, and in out-of-school learning environments—and their relevance for the education sector. Potential responses to these developments are discussed in the following section.
Changes in Labor Market Returns to Education
Adolescents today are increasingly transitioning into a labor market where technological innovation and automation are providing higher returns to education and skills, particularly for those holding a college degree (Goldin and Katz, 2010). Although the economic returns to a college degree have increased for the past three decades, the real wages of individuals in the middle of the income distribution have stagnated, at least when measured before tax and transfers (Autor et al., 2006, 2008; Cass, 2018).4 In fact, as the top of the income distribution has pulled farther away from the middle, the before-tax wages of those with mid-range qualifications have closely tracked the before-tax wages of high school dropouts and high school graduates (Acemoglu and Autor, 2012).
4 The available data suggest that there has been more growth in the middle and bottom of the income distribution with respect to income measured after taxes and transfers compared to pre-tax income (Congressional Budget Office, 2018). We focus here on trends in pre-tax income, since that seems most relevant for understanding how different types of occupations and skills are being valued in the labor market and how those valuations change over time.
The fact that the labor market returns on schooling have increased so substantially in recent decades tells us that the supply of skills we are developing among young people is not keeping up with the demand for skills in today’s society (Goldin and Katz, 2010). Moreover, we may not be developing the right mix of skills. More than half of U.S. employers have expressed difficulty in finding and hiring people with appropriate skills, while the proportion of U.S. college graduates working in jobs that are below their skill set has increased (Porter and Rivkin, 2012). It is currently unclear whether this mismatch is due to student preferences for and values placed in aspects of jobs beyond the wages they pay, or due to misinformation about the labor market demand for different occupations. In either case, improved understanding about how academic work links to postsecondary goals and plans gives meaning and motivation to schoolwork and is associated with higher levels of academic engagement (Hill and Wang, 2015; Hill et al., 2018).
This also raises the question of whether the curricular focus and the set of skills our education system seeks to develop have become too narrow. The “college-for-all” movement has resulted in a diminished emphasis on vocational education as a purpose-driven pathway through high school that prepares youth for the workforce (Cass, 2018). However, currently only 36 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States have a 4-year college degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). Thus, a single high school diploma, and the curriculum that goes with it, may not provide the kind of credential that most students need to navigate the job market, which particularly disadvantages low-income students and students who are not planning to attend college. Put differently, the types of skills that the economy increasingly requires are not limited to those skills associated with college attendance; yet high school graduates are not generally well-equipped to enter the labor market.
A randomized controlled trial of Career Academies by Kemple (2008) suggests that there may be higher returns to career-oriented or vocational education than the usual college-for-all track, at least for some students. These secondary schools “combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, and establish partnerships with local employers to provide work-based learning opportunities” (Kemple, 2008, p. iii). Relative to other high schools, Career Academies did not increase graduation rates, but they did increase annual earnings by 11 percent overall and by 17 percent for men. One challenge is to ensure that these types of vocational options are available to those students who believe they would benefit from them without closing the door to college for those who decide that is the right path for them by, for instance, not making available academic courses that are required for college attendance.
Future technological changes, and in particular the expected increase in the use of automation and artificial intelligence, are predicted to create
further challenges for all workers, but perhaps particularly for lower-skilled workers (Acemoglu and Autor, 2012; Acemoglu and Restrepo, 2018a, 2018b; Agrawal et al., 2018). Increasing automation is likely to allow for substantial increases in productivity, to the benefit of the whole society, but the displacement effects of automation may produce negative consequences for many lower-skilled workers.
One question is whether potential changes in the labor market over time should lead schools to focus more on developing skills that are generally useful across all occupations (what Becker  called “general human capital”) or instead try to forecast what occupation-specific skills (“specific human capital”) will be most helpful in the future and develop those skills. This choice partly depends on the degree to which the education system can adequately forecast the skills and disposition that match the needs of the job market, and how those requirements might vary both over time and across local micro-economies of cities and communities across the nation (Brighouse et al., 2018; Porter and Rivkin, 2012). Because most current mid-skill jobs include at least some tasks that could not easily be automated (Acemoglu and Autor, 2012), understanding and forecasting which jobs are likely to be the first to be either fully or partially automated is essential if the goal is to develop “specific” human capital. Among other things, it will be important to forecast how the increasing focus on “human augmented artificial intelligence” might change the labor market returns to different skills over time, and to identify the occupations in which humans will have comparative advantage so that we can train youth for those roles.
Growing Importance of Non-Academic Skills
For most of human history (200,000 years or so), the “economy” of human life consisted of hunting and gathering.5 About 13,000 years ago humans shifted to farming and agriculture, which greatly improved the ability of populations to feed themselves but still required most people to spend most of their time engaged in food production. About 250 years ago, the industrial revolution fundamentally changed society in this regard, greatly improving the efficiency of agriculture and freeing up workers for entirely new types of jobs that would have been previously unimaginable. By the middle of the 20th century, in the United States, the share of workers in agriculture had declined to 8 percent, and about one-quarter of all workers were engaged in manufacturing (Thompson, 2012). The invention of computers and the early Internet about 50 years ago dramatically transformed the economy yet again. With this wide-frame view of history, the picture
that emerges is not only one of an ever-changing world, but also one in which the rate of change itself seems to be increasing.
If the world is changing at an increasing rate, then a potentially important goal for modern-day education systems is to help adolescents prepare to deal with uncertainty and change and see how the skills learned in one occupational context can transfer and then be applied to another. Such transferable skills and dispositions are both skill based and socio-emotional.
As the economy has changed over the past several decades, the skills and dispositions required to succeed in the job market have become increasingly interpersonal and socio-emotional (Deming, 2017; Goldin and Katz, 2010; West, 2014). These dispositions include having a strong sense of identity and purpose, along with strong interpersonal skills. Indeed, youth with higher levels of self-control also have more frequent job search preparations and stronger intentions to search for jobs and, later, they have greater intrinsic and extrinsic career success (Baay et al., 2014; Converse et al., 2012).
Related to the growing need for nonacademic (or psychosocial) skills, demographic changes in society—namely the increasing racial/ethnic diversity of the U.S. population described in Chapter 1—will also make it ever more important to be able to interact with people from different backgrounds and life experiences. The socio-demographic changes in American society also change the way the education sector itself must operate. Schools must now become more culturally competent, and they must deal with the large and growing inequality in socioeconomic advantage (or disadvantage) in American society (see Chapter 4).
Changes in the Out-of-School Learning Environment
Public and private schools have long played the primary role in educating youth, with the support of parents, but agencies and programs outside of school are playing a growing role in supporting education, including providing tutorials and online learning opportunities. These and other out-of-school learning contexts remind us that the education sector continues to be broader than just schools.
While the most obvious element of the education sector is public K–12 and postsecondary schools, the sector also includes private schools, ancillary services, and agencies that provide tutoring programs, alternative education, credit recovery programs, and professional development for teachers that serve adolescents. Further, and also relevant to adolescents, the education sector includes private and public organizations designed to mentor youth and assist in making the postsecondary school transition, including apprenticeships, vocational training, internships, after-school programs, and job training, along with programs designed to help youth prepare for college applications and standardized tests. Often missed among these
educational agencies designed for adolescents is the role of the military in training youth, as well as the roles of on-the-job training and gap-year programming and experiences.
Finally, while not unique to adolescence, the increased role and presence of online learning, a platform that might be more readily accessible to millennial and later generations, provides youth with many more options to gain access to information and knowledge than are available through their home and community educational institutions. Helping youth navigate these myriad online educational opportunities is increasingly important in light of evidence from Escueta and colleagues (2017) suggesting that different computer learning platforms may differ considerably in their effectiveness.
These out-of-school learning contexts are often developed to make up for differential access across socioeconomic status, such as access to enriching experiences in the summer or weekends, in order to increase equity and reduce demographic achievement gaps. However, they are also utilized by wealthier parents to ensure a competitive advantage and to cultivate their children’s interests and talents (Lareau and Weininger, 2003). For instance, it is common for schools serving wealthier districts to help their students navigate the college admissions process. These schools provide coaching in how to request recommendation letters, how to choose the appropriate balance of “reach” and “safety” schools when applying for college, how to write college applications, when to take the SAT, and so on.
Schools serving poorer districts may play a similar coordinating role, but they face challenges that schools in wealthier districts do not. Most importantly, adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack access to some of the family- or community-based resources to meet basic needs (e.g., food, health care, safety) that might be required if the adolescent is to develop to full potential. Clearly, if the basic needs of an adolescent simply cannot be met by their institutional ecosystem, the school’s coordinator role will be of limited value (Jackson, 2019). This is another key aspect of the education sector where significant inequities have emerged.
In addition to these broad societal changes, the education system will need to be responsive to developments in neuroscience and social science that have improved our understanding of adolescence. Education, and learning more generally, can capitalize on our new understanding of the significant neurobiological development that occurs during adolescence (Hohnen and Murphy, 2016). This section reviews the scientific literature related to cognitive development and learning and identity development in adolescence that is particularly relevant for the education sector.
Cognitive Development and Learning
Neural development, including the strengthening (myelinization) and pruning of synaptic connections, increases the efficiency of cognitive processes, reducing the cognitive load of basic thinking processes and enabling youth to think and plan more abstractly, to think metacognitively about themselves and others (i.e., to “think about thinking”), and to draw connections between emotional arousal and experiences (Goldman-Rakic, 1995; Hohnen and Murphy, 2016; Petanjek et al., 2011; Rakic et al., 1994; see also Chapter 2). These emerging cognitive capacities enable youth to see themselves in the world and to understand how they might simultaneously achieve their own goals and contribute to the common good of society (Damon et al., 2003). Because of their emerging cognitive capacities, adolescents begin to take ownership of and responsibility for their schoolwork and their long-term goals (Jodl et al., 2001; Seiffge-Krenke et al., 2010), to integrate their goals into their identities (Oyserman et al., 2006; Savitz-Romerj and Bouffard, 2012), and to launch successfully into their adult life.
Neurobiological development requires practice and experiences that elicit critical, analytical, and creative thinking for those skills to develop, in a process known as experience-expectant plasticity (Greenough et al., 1987; Hohnen and Murphy, 2016; Nowakowski, 2006). This experience and practice, which contribute to the building of neural connections, synaptic pruning, and improved cognitive efficiencies, is characteristic of adolescence (Petanjek et al., 2011). Only by practicing planning and decision making can youth develop the skills and dispositions necessary to successfully navigate postsecondary school transitions and prepare for college and careers.
Current school systems are not well-aligned with this changed understanding. For example, scientific advances have demonstrated that adolescence is a time when optimal development is stimulated through exploration, making and learning from mistakes, and trying on identities (Hohnen and Murphy, 2016; Steinberg, 2014). Requirements for stringent adherence to rule-following and conformity in secondary schools may be at odds with such self-discovery. Investigation into the elements of rule-following and conformity that are currently required of students is needed to generate policies and practices to better align the structure of secondary schools with the developmental needs of adolescents. In addition, the ways in which families engage youth and become involved in their education is different during adolescence, as compared to the elementary school years (Hill and Tyson, 2009; Hill et al., 2018). Yet, these developmentally appropriate responsive changes in families’ practices are not easily supported by schools.
Current knowledge about how youth learn and what contexts support their developmental needs enables us to create the kinds of learning
environments that capitalize on the neural plasticity of adolescence, which in turn makes it possible to recover from earlier developmental setbacks in childhood as well as to embrace the socio-emotional and hormonal fluctuations of adolescence and help youth prepare to take on the responsibilities of adulthood (Hohnen and Murphy, 2016; Rakic et al., 1994; Steinberg, 2014; see also Chapter 3). Enrichment programs involving reading and mathematics instruction and music education, for example, have established benefits for brain development, such as changes in cortical thickness and structural connectivity (Huber et al., 2018; Iuculano et al., 2015; Keller and Just, 2009; Kraus et al., 2014a, 2014b, 2014c; Romeo, 2017; Romeo et al., 2018).
Another measured instructional practice is the encouragement of divergent thinking, such as asking students to come up with alternative uses for household objects; this practice improves creativity and leads to changes in prefrontal function (Kleibeuker et al., 2017). Given the brain’s high plasticity during adolescence, it is very likely that novel educational experiences shape adolescent brain development for the better. However, neither schools nor the broader education sector has kept pace with this accumulating knowledge of the ways cognitive and social factors during adolescence can be guided to improve educational opportunities for all.
We have also learned that high schools, in particular, struggle with the heterogeneity in students’ academic levels and needs. Cascio and Staiger (2012) show that variance in student achievement grows wider as youth progress in school. The end result, by middle or high school, is great variability in academic levels and needs, which are particularly pronounced in urban school districts. For example, in the 2017 NAEP, 38 percent of eighth graders in Chicago were below basic level in math, 27 percent were at basic level, 27 percent were proficient, and 8 percent were advanced. Keeley (2011) found that although many of the most economically and socially vulnerable adolescents in Chicago—those in contact with the criminal justice system—had academic skills at grade level, on average these youth were 2 years behind grade level in reading, with some up to 7 years behind, and they were 4 years behind grade level in math, with some up to 10 years below grade level.
Adolescence is also a period when young people develop a more elaborate sense of their identities, including who they are, the groups they belong to, and their possible futures. As described in Chapter 2, the meaning young people attach to their membership in social groups, also known as social identity, can support a range of positive outcomes, especially for racial-ethnic minorities (French et al., 2006; Yip et al., 2006). Educational
institutions can encourage this type of identity development by providing experiences that promote identity exploration and affirmation through exposure to knowledge and role models (Umaña-Taylor et al., 2018).
Identity is a broad concept, one that incorporates aspects of how young people make sense of their life stories thus far and how they imagine the possibilities for their futures (Destin and Oyserman, 2010; McLean and Breen, 2009). Similarly, developing sense of purpose simultaneously gives and reflects meaning for oneself and benefits society (Damon et al., 2003). It grows out of identity development and leads youth in finding their place in society. Both identity and sense of purpose develop in the context of exploration and affirmation. Identity development involves a combination of exploration and commitment over time and unfolds from dynamic interactions between the self and one’s social contexts, such as school, family, and peers (Koepke and Denissen, 2012; McLean and Mansfield, 2012). Broadly speaking, adolescents select into contexts that either match their understanding of their identity or reflect identities they wish to cultivate. Reciprocally, feedback from these contexts encourages, discourages, and shapes students’ understanding of themselves. Identity is “rooted in emotion, emerging in relationships, developing as dynamic, self-organizing system” (Bosma and Kunnen, 2001, p. 5).
Identity processes are related to a larger set of self-development characteristics, including self-regulation and “agentic capacities”—the ability of individuals, as independent agents, to shape their own lives—that youth need to help develop and commit to meaningful goals. Youth need to develop a sense of efficacy, which includes confidence in their ability to effect change in their world. In addition, they need self-motivation, internal locus of control, and emotional stability (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2009; Schwartz et al., 2005). These characteristics enable and equip youth to persevere toward their goals and remain true to them in the face of challenges in an individualistic culture. The development of both identity and self-regulation are facilitated by the neurobiological development that occurs during adolescence. As the human brain develops within the experience-expectant framework discussed above (Greenough et al., 1987), the experiences that result in identity development lead to the neural connections and myelination that solidify youths’ sense of self and the emotional reactions associated with their experiences.
The linkages between one’s social identity and future goals are captured by theories related to “possible selves of future identities” (Oyserman, 2015; Oyserman and Destin, 2010) and sense of purpose (Damon et al., 2003). Educational and career goals and aspirations, the type of goals often promoted in schools both implicitly and explicitly, reflect what youth can do rather than who they are. But adolescents quintessentially pursue more fundamental questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” In contrast
to career and educational goals, it is this growing sense of purpose, and the accompanying exploration of possible selves, that reflect who youth are and why they are here. These are admittedly more philosophical preoccupations than career goals, but for that same reason they are more meaningful to youth, and having them to hold onto is a preoccupying developmental task in an otherwise volatile social world. Understanding their emerging goals and talents broadens youths’ possible career paths and facilitates their ability to adapt to fluctuating economic realities and see where they have transferrable skills.
Adolescence is also an important time in which young people begin to understand how they fit into the larger society and develop the interpersonal skills that undergird their emerging sense of civic life and community. Adolescents ascertain which groups they belong to, what those groups mean to them, and how others in society perceive their group membership. They use this knowledge to help guide their behaviors as they engage with the wider world and cultivate a sense of belonging and security (Ellemers et al., 2002). These social identities include interpersonal relationships, connections to clubs and organizations, categorization within demographic groups, and even a sense of local, national, and global citizenship.
Social identities matter not only for individuals’ own lives but also in shaping society as a whole. Importantly, a sense of efficacy for civic engagement, or a sense that one can make positive changes in society, is useful for promoting democratic ideals (Brighouse et al., 2018). Adolescence is therefore an important opportunity to develop all of these inclinations and skills—academic, socio-emotional, civic, and dispositional (Brighouse et al., 2018).
Our current understanding of adolescence raises questions about whether the education system needs to do a better job developing the academic, socio-emotional, and civic commitments and skills that prepare youth to find a meaningful and productive role in society and in our political and economic structures. There are signs that the education sector may need to focus on a broader set of outcomes or “educational goods” than it currently does (Brighouse et al., 2018). By the end of adolescence, youth should ideally have developed not only a means of economic productivity but also autonomy, democratic competence, healthy personal relationships, the ability and propensity to treat others as equals, and personal fulfillment (Brighouse et al., 2018). The traditional emphasis on grades and test scores, and even on graduation rates, which dates back decades or centuries, may no longer be sufficient and, potentially, may be shortchanging both youth and society.
In summary, the education system has the potential to capitalize on new understandings of the significant neurobiological and psychosocial development occurring during adolescence. Emerging cognitive capacities allow youth to develop goals and identities; build critical, analytical, and creative thinking skills; and take responsibility for their own education. However, today’s school systems are not aligned with these new understandings, and many schools struggle to meet the increasingly divergent academic levels and needs of adolescents.
Both to meet the needs of a changing society and to realize the promise of adolescent development, changes to the education sector are needed. This section discusses the evidence for reforming the education sector to better meet the needs of adolescents and society and to assure that all adolescents have the opportunity to flourish and thrive. We first discuss the need for differentiated and responsive academic opportunities—helping teachers learn to individualize instruction and using tutoring, technology, tracking, and credentialing. Then we discuss the development of nonacademic skills such as decision making, practical knowledge, and adaptability. Next, the section examines how schools can better recognize adolescents’ integrated needs and create culturally sensitive learning environments. Finally, we conclude by exploring the supports adolescents and their families need to navigate an increasingly complex education sector.
Differentiated and Responsive Academic Opportunities
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching in general is dealing with academic variability across students. Social science study of education has shown that the variability of young people’s academic levels—and hence in their needs—increases as they progress through school (Cascio and Staiger, 2012). This variation in students’ academic skills or levels within a school creates challenges for successful instruction, given the risk of mismatch between the academic level at which regular classroom teaching is directed and the academic level of any given student. By the time students enter adolescence, the provision of a “one-size-fits-all” education has become increasingly problematic. As an alternative to “one-size-fits-all” approaches, “personalized medicine” may provide a useful comparison for education during adolescence.
Previous research suggests that adolescents’ social environments may not be aligned with their developmental needs, something known as “stage-
environment fit” (see Hunt, 1975; Eccles et al., 1993). Research also suggests a similar mismatch may occur for youth’s academic needs. Engel and colleagues (2013), for example, find a mismatch in math instruction among young children in the opposite direction of what we see during adolescence—namely, that many kindergarten classrooms teach math content that is too easy. The problem becomes even more severe in high school, given the growing variation in what youth know, coupled with increased inflexibility in curricular options, inflexibility in the ability to move between academic and vocational offerings, and difficulty in making up work when students fall behind.
While the optimal approach for better individualized instruction in the United States remains somewhat unclear, candidate strategies worth exploring further include efforts to help teachers learn to better individualize instruction; opportunities for tutoring; the creation of technologies and staffing that will facilitate more intensive instruction in adequate doses, levels, and topics; efforts aimed at helping students acquire appropriate grade-level skills and knowledge and catch up on missed work or topics not mastered; and opportunities for specialization in topics of interest. We review each of these strategies in turn.
Helping Teachers Learn to Individualize Instruction
Cook and colleagues (2015) analyzed data from the School and Staffing Survey (SASS) that suggests that fully 41 percent of new elementary school teachers and 44 percent of new secondary school teachers said they were unprepared or only somewhat prepared to differentiate instruction. By way of comparison, the proportions of teachers feeling unprepared or only somewhat prepared to teach their subject matter were just 21 percent and 14 percent for new elementary and secondary school teachers, respectively. Is there some way to help teachers learn how to do this better?
While a majority of American public school teachers receive some form of professional development each year, most of this development is neither very intensive (less than 8 hours per year) nor very effective. For example, Jacob and Lefgren (2004) studied teacher professional development as part of an accountability reform in Chicago, which provided additional training to all teachers in schools with test scores below a specified cutoff. The existence of the cutoff created the opportunity for an unusually rigorous regression discontinuity study, which suggests that the relatively modest in-service training that was provided had no statistically significant impact on student learning outcomes. This finding is consistent with the generally pessimistic assessment of most existing teacher professional development efforts by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.
On the other hand, there is some suggestive evidence that more intensive professional development could improve teacher effectiveness. For example, Allen and colleagues (2011) conducted a year-long teacher coaching intervention called My Teaching Partner. Secondary school teachers videotaped themselves delivering a lesson and submitted the videotapes to trained teaching consultants, who viewed the videos and then provided 20- to 30-minute coaching sessions roughly twice a month covering what worked well and what could be improved. The randomized controlled trial found increases in student learning of 0.22 standard deviations. While the cost per teacher of this intervention initially seems high (about $3,700), perhaps a more useful metric is to compare the cost per student from a gain of this magnitude to other candidate interventions. By that standard this intervention is remarkably cost effective.
Under the right conditions, principals can also coach teachers to help them improve their instruction. For example, working in the Houston public schools, Fryer (2017) studied the effect of providing principals with 300 hours of training over 2 years to teach them how to help teachers improve instruction, carried out in a mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. This included training principals on lesson planning and use of data-driven instruction, and having them observe classroom lessons and carry out one-on-one coaching with teachers (in-person analogs in some ways to the online coaching sessions in My Teaching Partner). The intervention improved student test scores in reading and math by between 0.10 and 0.19 standard deviations. While the cost per principal is not trivial, the cost per student for these student-level learning gains is on the order of $10. There would seem to be enormous value in learning more about how to optimally carry out professional development strategies that help teachers better individualize instruction, among other key teaching tasks, and how this compares to other candidate strategies.
Another way to deal with this heterogeneity in student academic needs is through tutoring. For example, Bloom (1984) summarizes a series of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with K-through-8 students, in which they are taught new subjects (such as cartography and probability), which found that when students were assigned to 1:1 or small-group (3:1) tutoring, test scores increased by fully 2 standard deviations when compared with regular classroom instruction alone. Tutoring also generated large increases in time-on-task, improved student attitudes and interest, increased the amount of feedback and correction between student and instructor (a key characteristic of effective teaching), and ensured that all students received this attention—including those students who were struggling in
school (Bloom, 1984). While teachers in regular classrooms tend to focus their attention on students performing at the top third of the achievement distribution, tutoring allows for specialized instruction—focusing on the particular academic needs of each student or a small group of students. In this way, the mismatch between what is taught and what the students need is alleviated.
The challenge for education policy has been that such intensive small-group instruction is very costly, so in practice students lack access to appropriate, high-quality targeted tutoring, especially if their parents cannot afford to procure it for their children. Whereas many public school systems use federal funding from the Title I program (intended to provide resources to help low-income students) to support tutoring programs, most of those programs involve hiring former teachers at salaries that are close to what full-time teachers currently make, resulting in a high hourly cost. The result is that students who are far from grade level and in need of extra help and remediation often get only a very modest amount of tutoring help per week, not nearly enough to bring them up to grade level. As a consequence, they continue to sit in classrooms hearing instruction that is mismatched with what they need.
The “two sigma problem,” as articulated by Bloom (1984), is to identify lower-cost instructional alternatives that are as effective as tutoring. One possible approach is to rethink who is required to deliver small-group instruction; that is, whether we can reduce the labor costs associated with this instructional model by hiring nontraditional instructors who are less costly than traditional teachers. There are encouraging signs of promise for this approach from several RCTs carried out in the Chicago Public Schools (Cook et al., 2015). An RCT with 2,700 male high school students from disadvantaged communities showed that 1 year of tutoring, at a cost of between $2,500 and $3,800 per participant, increased math achievement test scores by 0.19 to 0.31 standard deviations, increased math grades by 0.5 standard deviations, and reduced course failures in math by one-half, in addition to reducing failures in non-math courses. Fryer (2014) found similarly large impacts from this type of tutoring, which relies on instructors who have fewer credentials than regular public school teachers (and hence lower salaries), in the Houston Public Schools.
The approach remains somewhat expensive although if implemented as part of a public school system’s regular operations it might not need to provide tutoring to every student every year, since the goal is primarily to help students who have fallen behind so they can re-engage with grade-level classroom instruction. Other challenges beyond cost remain. It may require incorporating tutoring into the school day itself, which raises a number of
logistical challenges relative to after-school tutoring.6 How to measure and monitor the quality of these tutoring sessions is not yet well understood. And, relatedly, whether tutoring can be delivered on a large scale remains an open question, although this is a generic challenge for most social policies or programs (Banerjee et al., 2017; Davis et al., 2017).
In principle, some of the challenges of tutoring associated with cost and scale could be addressed by making greater use of technology, though how to achieve that in practice is not yet fully understood. In a developing country context, Banerjee and colleagues (2007) studied the effects of giving elementary school children in India access to 2 hours per week on a computer to play math games that emphasized basic math competencies and were tailored to their level of math skill. The result was gains in math test scores at the end of the academic year on the order of 0.35 to 0.47 standard deviation, although 1 year later these effects had faded to 0.10 standard deviations. Similarly, Muralidharan and colleagues (2019) studied the effects of a technology-assisted after-school instruction program for middle school students in India and found after 4.5 months that there were gains of 0.37 standard deviation in math and 0.23 standard deviation in language (the equivalent of reading/English scores in the United States).
In the United States and other developed countries, Escueta and colleagues (2017) identified 29 RCTs of computer-assisted learning programs, which help tailor the level of instruction to student needs. Two-thirds of these RCTs found beneficial effects on learning, particularly in mathematics, with effect sizes on the order of 0.2 to 0.6 standard deviation. These programs can personalize instruction for each student working on the computer, while also generating data that helps teachers understand where students are and what skills or concepts they are struggling with. In addition to helping personalize instruction, both computer-assisted learning and tutoring have the potential to improve time-on-task by reducing the
6 Fryer and Howard-Noveck (forthcoming) find no detectable overall effects of after-school reading tutoring on middle school students in New York City. Whether the contrast between these results and the math tutoring results in Chicago, which involved in-school tutoring, is due to the difference between in-school and after-school tutoring or instead due to a focus on reading vs. math tutoring remains somewhat unclear, although some other work in Chicago has found sizable gains in reading scores from reading tutoring (albeit in school and with younger elementary school–age children).
chances that disruptive behavior by other students in the class impede the instruction.7
The advantages of technology are several. Not only is it easier to scale up an automated instructional program than human instruction, but also technology-based systems are increasingly able to adapt to user input, making them more dynamic and responsive to students’ learning. Further, because the skills that make people good instructors may be in short supply, as programs increase in size the average quality of instructors is likely to decline unless programs raise wages and hence program costs (Davis et al., 2017). Finally, because today’s adolescents are “digital natives,” computer-assisted learning may be a natural adjustment for many.
However, research on implementing such automated systems is sorely lacking, and given the centrality of social experiences to students during this period of life it is important to investigate the advantages and disadvantages of placing students in potentially isolating computer-assisted learning environments. Teachers and technology might best be viewed as complements, not substitutes. For example, teachers may be able to help keep students motivated to continue with computer-assisted instruction by connecting the content to the specific interests of each student, or by helping ensure students’ needs are well-matched to the specific computer program’s design.
In principle, an alternative approach is to reduce the heterogeneity in academic levels and needs within a regular classroom setting by sorting youth together based on how they are performing academically—that is, tracking.8 Some of the strongest empirical evidence about the effects of this practice come from developing countries. For example, a large-scale RCT in Kenya found benefits (Duflo et al., 2011), with learning outcomes higher in “tracked” schools for students in both the top and bottom halves of the achievement distribution. The study suggests the benefits of reducing academic mismatch through better-targeted instruction are potentially large enough to outweigh adverse peer effects from having lower-achieving classmates, at least for initially low-performing students.
These encouraging findings for internal tracking in the Kenyan context do not necessarily mean this is the right approach in the U.S. context. One
7 Research in the United States finds that simply providing students with access to computers will increase computer use, but seems to have mixed impacts on learning outcomes (Escueta et al., 2017). The results tend to be more promising for postsecondary students than for secondary or elementary school students.
concern with tracking is the potential for tracked students to get stuck in lower academic levels without a means to catch up and take on more challenging work. Moreover, a recent study of mathematics tracking shows that in the United States, high school students in the highest level math courses had a significantly higher math self-concept compared to students in lower level math courses. This pattern held when tracking occurred on a course-by-course basis (versus tracking between schools, which is less common in the United States). The authors concluded that “when students are grouped only for certain courses, they observe the grouping process on an everyday basis and are thus constantly reminded of the relative status of their track” (Chmielewski et al., 2013, p. 948). Tracking may have the adverse effect of widening the gap among students. A student who would want to move to a higher track may find that the students in the higher track have already moved to an even greater command of the content area and vocabulary needed to perform in that area than the struggling student has had an opportunity to access. This is especially concerning in the U.S. context where we find a greater proportion of traditionally underserved students in lower tracks. Another concern is that if teachers prefer to work with higher-achieving students, all else equal, grouping students by academic level (tracking) may expose struggling students to relatively less effective teachers. It could also limit the possibilities for social network equity, since tracking can segregate students in ways that deprive them of social capital and other relational resources (Gamoran and Mare, 1989). Ultimately, whether tracking generates net benefits in the United States remains unclear.
At the very least, the U.S. education sector needs to recognize that college may not be the right fit for all students and needs to find other ways to help students succeed in the labor market—including by providing them with the necessary credentials to succeed. When high schools were initially formed in the late 19th century and postsecondary plans were more circumscribed, a high school diploma signaled to employers that its holder was ready for a job in the surrounding community, largely factory jobs or apprenticeships. However, today, the kinds of skills needed to navigate the job market have broadened markedly, the pathways from high school to jobs that pay a living wage are more heterogeneous, and a greater number of individuals are using high school to prepare for college. A single high school diploma, and the curriculum that goes with it, does not provide the kind of credential that most students need to navigate the job market, which particularly disadvantages low-income students and students who are not planning to attend college.
As noted above, secondary schools today tend to deemphasize vocational education as a purpose-driven pathway through high school meant to prepare youth for direct entry into the workforce (Cass, 2018). Given that only 36 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States today have a 4-year college degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), it is essential that meaningful high school–based vocational training, which leads to the certification of occupation-specific skills and licensing, be developed to open the door to jobs that would otherwise be inaccessible. Obtaining certification through credentials and licensing offers adolescents opportunities to access valuable and secure labor market positions. Further, credentials and licensure, which ensure skills and knowledge, have been shown to reduce racial inequities in pay for Blacks (Blair and Chung, 2018).
There have been calls for national workforce credentialing systems, many of which emphasize the role of community colleges, to address the growing need for mid-skilled employees (ACT, 2011). Consistent with Porter and Rivkin (2012), who argued that the connections between skills and the economy is local, the Abell Foundation conducted a study of the mid-level job market and high school graduates in Baltimore, Maryland. To understand how to connect high school graduates to mid-skilled jobs that do not require a college degree, the Abell Foundation identified the “best prospect” jobs for youth and matched them with training and certification programs at Baltimore community colleges (Hopkins, 2015). These “best prospect” jobs are mid-skilled occupations that pay a living wage, have future mobility, and require little postsecondary training—often even less than an associates’ degree. They found that although there are continuing education and certification programs aligned with the “best prospect” jobs, most high school graduates were unaware of them. Although the data are limited, there was a consistent positive impact on earnings 2 years post-credentialing, especially for those in health care jobs (Hopkins, 2015). Similar to what Porter and Rivkin (2012) found, there are more “best prospect” jobs than qualified employees in Baltimore. Credentialing and the curricula that undergird credentials would ensure that youth today (and in the future) do not emerge from secondary education with a diffuse and unhelpful “one-size-fits-none” high school diploma, ill-prepared to succeed in a changing job market.
While the best way to differentiate educational opportunities for adolescents still remains unclear, there is undoubtedly real value in achieving this goal where possible. Taken together, additional research to better understand how to differentiate these opportunities and more policy attention to ensuring that differential and responsive educational opportunities for all adolescents are implemented could yield high returns.
Decision-Making and Psychosocial Skills
Deepened understanding of adolescence also underlines the importance of various non-academic skills—such as decision-making and psychosocial skills—that extend beyond schools’ traditional focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Changes in the economy and other parts of society have further served to increase the importance of such skills. Youth themselves have reported their desire for schools to teach a wider range of skills, as illustrated in Box 6-1. The education sector of the future will need to accommodate these changes. In this section, we discuss ways the education sector can better support the development of decision-making skills, practical knowledge, adaptability, and psychosocial skills for adolescents.
To take advantage of the choices and opportunities available to them, adolescents must have ample opportunities to practice sound decision making (Eccles, 2007; Steinberg et al., 2009). The ability to make sound decisions is enhanced by the neurobiological development that occurs during adolescence, resulting in increased “processing speed” and reaction times. Further, cognitive automaticity—the ability to carry out cognitive processes quickly and without effort or intention—which results from myelization and synaptic pruning (see Chapter 2), decreases the cognitive load of everyday decision making, freeing cognitive capacity that can be devoted to more complex thinking (Petanjek et al., 2011; Rakic et al., 1994). This means that as youth mature they are better able to see abstract connections among ideas, and engage in thinking and other cognitive activities with more flexibility and feedback utilization (Vera-Estay et al., 2015).
To make good decisions about schoolwork, as well as in other areas, youth need to practice their emerging abstract reasoning and good decision-making skills and to learn from their mistakes (Byrnes et al., 1999; Fan et al., 2012; Halpern-Felsher and Cauffman, 2001; Steinberg, 2005).
Youth are capable of exercising good decision-making skills, but research also shows that some contexts facilitate mature decision making better than others. Sound decision making can easily be disrupted during adolescence by emotional arousal (Casey et al., 2001; see also Chapter 2). Youth make good decisions when those decisions are not emotionally charged, when they have had prior practice making similar decisions, when the people they admire make similar decisions, and when an immediate “reward” is not offset by a consequence well into the future (Steinberg, 2005).
In addition to these dispositions and skill sets related to decision making, youth need practical knowledge about how to function in a complex social world. With the traditional emphasis on grades and test scores, an additional area of competence that has lagged is the type of practical
knowledge that will help adolescents to establish independent adult lives and flourish. Social science research has helped us understand that there are important inequities in youths’ exposure to such knowledge outside of the school setting. Lower income youth, for example, are significantly less likely to have basic savings accounts than their more advantaged peers (Friedline et al., 2011). Whereas financial literacy is a primary focus of policies and programs directed at the developing world (Clark et al., 2018), they have diminished in focus in the United States.
For most purposes, adolescents reach “legal” adulthood at the age of 18, and genuine independence in adulthood requires youth to be financially literate. They need the skills to “read, analyze, manage and communicate about personal financial conditions that affect material wellbeing” (Vitt et al., 2000, p. 2). Youth need to be able to understand how to develop and live by a budget, enter contracts for housing leases and mortgages, understand how to negotiate health, auto, and housing insurance, make financial plans, and otherwise engage in economic life (Johnson and Sherraden, 2007; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993; Nussbaum, 2011). Poor financial decisions during this critical transition period can result in high levels of debt and derail youths’ ability to meet their basic needs as they continue to mature (Lyons, 2004; Norvilitis et al., 2003). Despite the need to develop these skills to successfully transition into adulthood, schools and other agencies have decreased their emphasis on financial literacy and competency (Johnson and Sherraden, 2007). This is especially concerning considering that adolescence is a time when marketers, retailers, and credit card companies are increasingly targeting youth, enticed by their more than $211 billion in spending power (FONA, 2014).
Many successful programs for improving practical knowledge and financial skills build on “asset theory” (Beverly et al., 2008; Karimli et al., 2015), which is focused more on developing assets rather than income because of the sustaining power of assets in times of income volatility. For adolescents, secondary school experiences that provide “experiential” learning opportunities have been found to yield the most gains in knowledge, intent, and practice (Amagir et al., 2018). Amagir and colleagues (2018) did not find differences in program effectiveness among programs teaching financial literacy as stand-alone offerings and those programs that were integrated into existing curricula in secondary schools. For young adults, participating in financial education programs in college led to increased understanding of financial concepts, the intention to engage in responsible credit card use, the use of budgeting and planning, and fewer compulsive spending decisions (Anderson and Card, 2015; Borden et al., 2008; Bowen and Jones, 2006; Maurer and Lee, 2011).
More than in decades past, adolescents need practice to develop skills in thinking critically and analytically. Whereas in the past, it was only important for a small proportion of our population to become life-long learners, the current and emerging economy requires workers who have developed skill sets applicable to many types of jobs and who are also prepared for continuous learning and problem solving. Throughout their working lives, these skills, dispositions, and ways of engaging the world enable youth to create opportunities and pathways into adulthood.
Relatedly, today’s increasingly knowledge-based economy, which yields innovation and entrepreneurship, requires a “mindset” of learning, malleability, and expectation for growth and improvement (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck, 2006; Yeager and Dweck, 2012). When young people come to recognize that intelligence is malleable and continues to develop, they are more likely to respond to mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn rather than risks to avoid. These are the kinds of mindsets that succeed in a knowledge-based economy. Adolescent mindsets do not develop in isolation. Schools, teachers, and experiences that encourage opportunities for students to embrace challenges and learn from them support the development of a “growth mindset.”
A growing understanding of the importance of psychosocial skills, especially in the labor market, highlights the value of having the education sector include them in its focus. There are numerous established approaches for supporting adolescent psychosocial skill development in secondary schools. The select strategies described next have shown some promise, although the evidence base regarding their effectiveness and scalability is still in its infancy.
Project-based Learning. One of the potential ways to support psychosocial development in secondary schools is through project-based learning (PBL). This method differs from regular classroom instruction in that instead of relying on a standard classroom lecture format, students are asked to work on a problem-based project over a sustained period of time. The potential benefits, especially in middle and high school, include leading students to see connections between the classroom and the world, increasing students’ ownership of their work, and developing critical thinking skills (Friedlaender and Darling-Hammond, 2007). This is related to the core idea first proposed many years ago by, among others, John Dewey: “Learning by doing.” The potential advantages of PBL relative to standard classroom
instruction are in developing additional skills related to creativity, organization, and group collaboration that may be particularly relevant for how the modern economy works and—ideally—to engage students in projects they find interesting (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). This may also help address concerns about the motivation levels of high school students in the United States (National Research Council, 2003).
The effectiveness of PBL remains unclear. Existing studies of PBL implementations tend to focus on comparing student test scores in a district before versus after PBL practices are adopted (Marx et al., 2004; Rivet and Krajcik, 2004). Learning more about the effectiveness of this and other strategies to improve psychosocial skills is an important priority for research.
PBL is not currently widespread in American schools, perhaps because it asks a great deal of teachers that differs from what they learned to do in university or on the job.9 Presumably, most teachers already have some lesson plans in place, and given the relatively limited diffusion of PBL most teachers were likely taught in a regular classroom setting themselves. Learning how to plan projects and manage students during this process will require additional work and perhaps training and assistance as well, as will learning how to assess the work product and skills of individual students if they work in groups. More research is needed on the effectiveness of PBL and possibilities for implementation and scalability.
Provision of Feedback. Development of psychosocial skills can also be infused into regular classroom settings, for example by changing how classroom teachers provide feedback to students. Because adolescents tend to be vigilant to feedback, educators have the occasion to harness everyday mistakes as learning opportunities. When mistakes occur in class, on assignments, or during exams, adolescents often draw cues from authority figures on how to respond. If they are not given a chance to reexamine their work or perhaps even a second chance to resubmit their work, it signals that mistakes are evaluative rather than formative (Smeding et al., 2013; Yeager et al., 2013). In other words, without feedback assessments appear to be provided only to sort high-ability from low-ability students, which conveys to students that they are unlikely to be able to learn and improve. On the other hand, when adolescents are provided feedback on mistakes along with assurance that educators recognize their potential and expect improvement, they experience greater motivation to exert effort and embrace challenges.
Promoting Belief in Malleability. Other experimental demonstrations with high school and college students also show it is possible to promote the idea that ability is malleable rather than fixed; students with whom this has been done show better academic outcomes than those in control groups, especially if they all had low levels of previous academic performance (Paunesku et al., 2015; Yeager et al., 2016a, 2016b). The experimental demonstrations reviewed suggest that educational institutions and experiences can be designed, tailored, and facilitated within local contexts to genuinely engage students in ways that encourage learning-growth mindsets.
For example, in a study of ninth graders across 10 high schools in the United States, Yeager and colleagues (2016a) found that a mindset intervention using design thinking improved core course grades for previously low-achieving students and increased the learning-oriented attitudes and beliefs of both low and high performers. As discussed above, mindset interventions are designed to change how students interpret and approach challenges and increase their resilience by exposing and affecting their central beliefs about education and school. Growth mindset interventions seek to explain to students that intelligence can grow with hard work, reframing their struggle with learning as an opportunity to grow rather than a lack of ability. The two-session mindset program used by Yeager and colleagues (2016a) was created through an iterative, user-centered design process.
Promoting Development of Future Identities. Developing their own possible selves and future identities helps young people ascribe meaning to difficult tasks such as schoolwork. As a result, those who have the opportunity to explore and develop the possibilities and pathways for their futures tend to demonstrate more effective self-regulation than those who do not. Experimental studies demonstrate programs that effectively help students to develop motivating future identities with positive consequences for academic trajectories, whether facilitated by trained professionals, by teachers, or even by near-peers (Destin et al., 2018; Horowitz et al., 2018; Oyserman et al., 2006).
Mindfulness and Related Practices. Current evidence suggests favorable academic and psychological outcomes in secondary schools implementing mindfulness practices (Raes et al., 2014; Zenner et al., 2014). Informed by current findings in neuroscience, recommendations for secondary schools include training teens in executive functioning skills (e.g., working memory tasks), providing opportunities for mindfulness activities such as meditation, and deepening self-regulation skills through sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (SAFE) socio-emotional learning programs (Steinberg, 2014). Teacher preparation programs can also serve a critical role in exposing future educators to relevant studies of adolescent brain
development so that they are equipped to understand the efficacy of these practices in their classrooms. Furthermore, the same practices may be appropriate and beneficial for learning in certain university classrooms.
Cultivating Meta-Cognition. Finally, meta-cognition itself is a critically important skill for helping youth recognize when their automatic responses, which may be adaptive in most settings, are maladaptive and therefore should be “slowed down” so they can devote more mental energy to conscious reasoning. Several RCTs in Chicago show that it is possible to improve high school graduation rates and reduce rates of violence involvement through such programs (Heller et al., 2017). Similar findings have been found for young men in developing-country contexts (see, e.g., Blattman et al., 2017). Since programs with this focus rely on providers with skills that may be in short supply, it can be a challenge to deliver them effectively at scale. But assuming this problem can be solved, such interventions could be widely scaled, because they require a limited number of contact hours—typically between 10 and 30 total.
Advocates of socio-emotional learning programs suggest, although they are critical, socio-emotional learning programs are often overlooked in secondary schools (AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity, 2015; Belfield et al., 2015; Cervone and Cushman, 2015; DePaoli et al., 2017). Given their documented impact on the risk of violence involvement, and the fact that injuries (including from violence) are the leading cause of death to adolescents, incorporating this type of instruction into the health curriculum offered by high schools may yield positive results.
Strengthening Students’ Health and Well-being
Adolescents have distinct physiological, socio-emotional, and cognitive tendencies and needs that must be recognized and addressed as they mature. This section discusses five ways in which schools can recognize these needs: through the assessment of school start times; the provision of physical activity and nutrition programs and activities; the adoption of trauma-informed practices and delivery of mental health services; the creation of safe and supportive school environments; and attention to wraparound services.
School Start Times
Natural neurological changes in circadian rhythms during adolescence due to hormonal fluctuations cause a misalignment between natural wake times and school schedules (Kirby et al., 2011; Wright et al., 2012; see also Chapter 3). The neurobiological changes lead to wakefulness later in the day and later in the evening, resulting in an accumulation of “sleep
debt” and less optimal cognitive functioning during school, especially in the morning hours. Multiple studies document an association between sleep loss and negative academic capacity and performance (Dewald et al., 2010; Shochat et al., 2014). Advanced cognitive capacities for planning and decision making, for which adolescence is a period of rapid growth, may also be impaired by sleep loss (Beebe, 2011; Owens, 2014).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2014) issued a policy statement in 2014 calling for later school start times as an effective solution for addressing poor sleep hygiene among adolescents. Specifically, it recommended that secondary schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. While starting the school day later in the morning will not address all the factors contributing to insufficient sleep during adolescence, several studies show that teens get more sleep when school starts later (Owens et al., 2010; Wahlstrom et al., 2014). Moreover, later school start times seem to be associated with improvements in academic achievement (Carrell et al., 2011) and in behavior and mental health, including decreases in teen driving accidents, fewer depressive symptoms, and increased motivation (Danner and Phillips, 2008; Owens et al., 2010; Wahlstrom et al., 2014). Positive outcomes for youth pay off at the societal level: a macroeconomic modeling study found that delaying school start times resulted in significant economic gains at the national level over a relatively short period of time (Hafner et al., 2017).
School districts that have attempted to change the start times have encountered concerns about the impact of doing so on after-school activities (e.g., athletics, employment, caring for younger siblings), student access to public resources (e.g., public library), teacher schedules (e.g., less time with their own families), and the family schedules of students themselves.10 For school districts, the potential impact on transportation costs is often the primary argument for maintaining current, early start times.11 Given the importance of sleep for adolescents, there would be great value in more research to understand ways to mitigate the costs of later start times, and school district–wide policy changes in school start times provide a naturalistic experimental opportunity to examine associations between adolescent sleep, health, and educational metrics such as absenteeism, grade point average (GPA), and behavioral reports. At the very least, school systems should fully consider the benefits of sleep for adolescents in their planning.
11 However, a recent analysis suggests that delaying secondary school start times could actually be cost-effective in the long-run, particularly considering factors such as improved student academic performance and reduced rates of teen car crashes (Hafner et al., 2017).
Physical Activity and Nutrition in Schools
Adolescents gain much of their adult height and weight during puberty, and the speed and intensity of growth during this period increases an adolescent’s need for energy, protein, and certain micronutrients (Institute of Medicine, 2007). When those needs are not met, adolescents experience slower growth rates, later sexual maturation, lower bone mass, and low body reserves of micronutrients, which can have lifelong health implications (Story et al., 2002). Similarly, adolescence is a critical period for bone mass development, making adequate intake of calcium crucial (Heaney et al., 2000). Between the ages of 9 and 17, adolescents gain about 45 percent of the adult skeleton (Institute of Medicine, 2007; Weaver and Heaney, 2006), and by age 20, they have gained 90 percent of their lifetime bone mass (Santos et al., 2017).
Not only has research shown that physical activity has a host of positive physical and mental health benefits for adolescents, such as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety and improving mood (Institute of Medicine, 2013), but research has also shown a positive association between physical activity and academic achievement for adolescents (Esteban-Cornejo et al., 2015; Institute of Medicine, 2013; Kristjánsson et al., 2010; Rasberry et al., 2011). Physical activity in youth has also been associated with positive psychosocial traits, including self-efficacy, self-concept and self-worth, social behaviors, and goal-orientation (Institute of Medicine, 2013).
These critical nutritional and physical needs during adolescence call for special environmental supports to encourage healthy physical development. The school day presents numerous opportunities to improve the nutrition and physical activity levels of adolescents. Several federal initiatives aim to improve the nutrition and, to a lesser extent, the physical activity of U.S. adolescents. Most notably, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update the nutrition standards for the federal government’s core childhood nutrition programs: The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), among others. The National School Lunch Program serves 30 million children every school day, many of whom are low-income (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, 2017). The updated nutrition standards for this program, implemented in 2010 and revised in 2019, require school cafeterias to serve meals that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and regulate the sale of unhealthy foods throughout the school. The goal is to increase the consumption of healthy foods and create a healthy food environment for students. A study of students at 12 middle schools in a low-income, urban school districts found that students consumed more fruit and ate more of
their vegetables and entrees after changes to the National School Lunch Program were implemented in their cafeterias (Schwartz et al., 2015).
The Community Preventive Services Task Force (2016) found that meal and snack interventions are effective at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing or maintaining the rate of obesity and overweight among students (Community Preventive Services Task Force, 2016). These interventions include school meal policies, programs that provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students during lunches and snacks, healthy food marketing initiatives, and nutrition education opportunities that empower students to make healthier choices. In addition, the task force found that combining these interventions into multicomponent interventions was also effective at reducing or maintaining the rate of obesity and overweight in schools.
Federal- and state-level policies also affect adolescents’ access to and engagement with physical activity, most clearly through regulations on schools. The majority of states mandate some amount of physical education for students in middle and high schools (80% and 86%, respectively), although the quality and quantity of physical education provided typically fails to meet recommended standards for daily physical activity: only 27 percent of adolescents in the United States met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day every day of the week in 201612 (Carlson et al., 2013; Subcommittee of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, 2012).
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report Subcommittee of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition found evidence that multicomponent physical activity interventions in schools can increase physical activity during school hours. These multicomponent interventions, which have been shown to increase physical activity during school hours, typically combine enhanced physical education with other strategies such as health education, classroom physical activity, social marketing initiatives, active transportation to school, and physical environment improvements, among others. These interventions are effective at increasing physical activity during the school day, and when combined with community- and family-based interventions they show strong evidence of increasing physical activity for adolescents outside of school (Subcommittee of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, 2012).
Trauma-Informed Practices and Mental Health Services
A third example of how recognizing the wholeness of adolescents may change the way schools operate is the recognition that many students, particularly from economically disadvantaged communities, come to school after having experienced significant distress and trauma outside of school, whether due to natural disasters, neighborhood violence, or other adversity. These experiences can affect not only students’ health but also their academic achievement. For example, students (including adolescents) who have had a homicide occur within their neighborhood in the recent past exhibit test scores that are one-half to two-thirds of a standard deviation lower than the scores of other teens (Sharkey, 2010). Even youth from advantaged homes and backgrounds come to school with significant unmet mental health needs (Luthar et al., 2013). Among a nationally representative sample of adolescents, fully 40 percent experienced a mental illness over a 12-month period (Kessler et al., 2012). While the mental health services received by youth are most likely to be delivered in the school setting, overall only 45 percent of students with psychiatric disorders receive mental health care (Costello et al., 2014).
The unmet mental health needs of U.S. adolescents pose a key challenge to their ability to succeed in school, something that should be as significant a concern to the education sector as it is to the health sector. There are limits to the role schools can play in resolving this issue, of course, and providing mental health services in the school setting is just one way to help students. Although schools themselves cannot do it all, they can create opportunities for identification and treatment by providing mental health services (Green et al., 2013), although the quality and magnitude of services matters (Paschall and Bersamin, 2018). (See also the discussion of “School-based Health Centers” in Chapter 7). Finally, unmet mental health needs among U.S. adolescents pose a key challenge to their ability to succeed in school, something that should be of as great a concern to the education sector as it is to the health sector.
Safe and Supportive School Environments
Not all youth feel safe and supported while at school. For example, as discussed in the following chapter, weight-based victimization is widespread in schools, and can lead to poorer emotional health outcomes for students of all weight statuses (Buchianneri et al., 2013; Calzo et al., 2012; Puhl et al., 2011; Pont et al., 2017).13 In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual,
13 While their bodies are changing, adolescents are becoming more sensitive to the thoughts and perceptions of others (Steinberg, 2014) and attempting to establish a sense of self (Chapter 2). This greater tendency toward social comparison may exacerbate body dissatisfaction and body image issues (Steinberg, 2017; Markey, 2010; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006).
transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students report high rates of discriminatory bullying based on their sexual orientation and their gender identity. A number of negative health behaviors and outcomes for LGBTQ youth have been linked to such negative experiences at school (Russell et al., 2011).
During the past decade, a body of research has identified a number of policies, programs, and practices that help to create a safe and supportive school climate for LGBTQ students and indeed for all students. These include inclusive, enumerated policies; professional development on LGBTQ issues for educators and other professionals in the school setting; LGBTQ-related resources; and the presence of Genders and Sexualities Alliance clubs (GSAs, or Gay-Straight Alliances) in schools (see, e.g., Russell et al., 2010; Walker and Shinn, 2002). Policies that specifically identify sexual orientation and gender identity or gender expression as protected statuses in schools are associated with positive school experiences and health for all youth, including LGBTQ youth (Russell et al., 2010; Hatzenbuehler, 2011). Professional development for educators and other school personnel related to LGBTQ issues can equip them with skills to support all students (Hatzenbuehler, 2011; Kosciw et al., 2016). In addition, there are multiple personal and academic benefits when sexual orientation and gender identity are incorporated into the school curriculum (Black et al., 2012; Snapp et al., 2015). Relatedly, the presence of GSA clubs has been linked with individual student well-being, as well as with positive overall school climate (Ioverno et al., 2016; Poteat et al., 2015; Walls et al., 2009).
Addressing the integrated needs of adolescents is critical, especially for youth from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. While adolescents raised in households toward the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy are likely to have access to high-quality schools, safe and supportive communities, and well-functioning social systems, it is clear that adolescents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds face special challenges in accessing a well-functioning institutional ecosystem (Jackson, 2019). To this end, schools may come to provide services more commonly provided by other social institutions. These services might include free meals, laundry services, or health care. One of the best-known examples of schools operating in this “wraparound” mode is the Harlem Children’s Zone, at the heart of which is a set of well-funded charter schools that aim to create a “pipeline of support” through the provision of food and health care (Harlem Children’s Zone 2009, 2010; Tough,
2009).14 It is still too early to provide a full assessment of the effects of this pipeline approach, although Harlem Children’s Zone has shown positive results, particularly with respect to test scores (Hanson 2013; Page and Stone, 2010). Dobbie and Fryer (2011, 2013), for example, examine the effects of the Harlem Children’s Zone on student outcomes and find that there are sizable impacts not only on test scores in the short term, but also on longer-term outcomes such as increased college attendance and reduced teen fertility (for females) and incarceration (for males).
Creating Culturally Sensitive Learning Environments
Adolescence is also a period when young people become increasingly aware of and attuned to their social status (Yeager et al., 2018). Educational institutions can consider this by critically evaluating the extent to which these practices reinforce status hierarchies and stereotypes about members of groups that are nondominant or stigmatized in society. Although the school curriculum is often based on a majority-White cultural point of view, the U.S. school population is increasingly diverse ethnically, racially, and economically. Further, while today’s school population is racially diverse, teachers remain overwhelmingly White and female. These patterns highlight the potential for cultural mismatch and marginalization of youth of color at school as well as diminished opportunities for their full exploration and affirmation of identity. Disciplinary practices, staff, and curriculum are key contexts where this issue of culturally sensitive learning environments comes into relief.
Pressing boundaries, taking risks, and seeking autonomy and independence are hallmark features of adolescence (Steinberg, 2005), yet they often lead to misbehavior and rule violations at schools, especially when coupled with adolescents’ general sensitivity to cues of respect or disrespect (Hohnen and Murphy, 2016). These tendencies can have serious consequences if they lead to formal remediation or disciplinary processes. For this reason, it is wise to frame remediation and disciplinary processes in a way that conveys greater respect for adolescents and more effectively encourages and supports academic and behavioral improvement (Okonofua et al., 2016). For example, sending a formal suspension letter to a student emphasizing the positive goals of the suspension is more likely to lead to
A starkly punitive disciplinary orientation is problematic for all youth, but it is all the more harmful when it is administered with an unequal hand. Unfortunately, youth of color, LGBTQ youth, and youth with disabilities are more likely to experience harsh and punitive discipline, even for similar infractions, than other students (Fabelo et al., 2011; Losen and Gillespie, 2012). Having disciplinary policies in schools that are developmentally appropriate may be particularly important given evidence that students of color are disciplined more often and receive more punitive discipline than White students, as noted in Chapter 4. Black students are also more likely than White students to be suspended from school and receive in-school detentions that exclude them from the classroom (Fabelo et al., 2011; Losen and Gillespie, 2012). However, there is no evidence that Black youth, LGBTQ youth, or youth with disabilities violate rules more often or behave worse than other students (Losen and Skiba, 2010; Skiba et al., 2015). The disparities are greatest for infractions that require subjective judgment, such as insubordination, defiance, and disruption (Fabelo et al., 2011; also see Chapter 4 and Box 9-2).
Conflict Prevention and Intervention
In the pluralistic communities our nation sometimes idealizes, diversity is a source of strength and enrichment. However, it is sometimes a source of tension and conflict as well. As a result, contemporary secondary schools are well-advised to undertake systematic efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts among their students (Gregory et al., 2014; Gregory et al., 2017). Conditions that foster conflict prevention include supportive student-educator relationships, academic rigor, culturally responsive teaching, bias-free and respectful classrooms and schools, and opportunities for learning and correcting behavior. Equity-driven principles of conflict intervention include inquiring about the cause of the conflict, problem solving, recognizing student and family voices in identifying causes and solutions, and reintegrating students after conflicts. Finally, a multitiered system of supports that match supports with student needs can contribute to both conflict prevention and intervention. These changes may be enhanced by proactive acknowledgement of racial and cultural inequalities in discipline (Carter et al., 2017; Gregory et al., 2014; Gregory et al., 2017).
Staff and Curriculum
While school populations are increasingly diverse ethnically, racially, and economically, the education workforce is largely White. Indeed, 82 per-
cent of the U.S. education workforce is White. Similarly, only 20 percent of school principals are people of color. In contrast, 51 percent of U.S. school children are of color, and this proportion will increase in the coming decades (Child Trends, 2018).
Because adolescence is a time during which young people are honing their identities, it is important for schools to create learning environments that affirm the cultural backgrounds of all of their students. Mounting evidence suggests benefits for students when they have teachers who share their racial background (Dee, 2004; Egalite et al., 2015; Gershenson et al., 2017); this finding has even been replicated for community college students (Fairlie et al., 2014). For Black students in particular, having just one Black teacher in elementary school is positively related to high school completion and college aspirations (Gershenon et al., 2017). Having a Black teacher is also related to a reduced likelihood of exclusionary discipline such as suspension or expulsion for Black students at all grade levels (Lindsay and Hart, 2017).
The increasing divergence between the demographic backgrounds of secondary school teachers and their students makes the risks of a “hidden curriculum”—one not explicit in textbooks but embedded in the attitudes and behaviors of school staff—even more acute. The concern is that schools may remain places that are fundamentally driven by a single cultural narrative, since the cultural aspects of schooling also matter for students (Carter, 2013). Schools are important contexts for socializing youth, sending messages about appropriate behavior, who is or is not considered “smart” or “successful,” and how to get along with peers and adults (Warikoo and Carter, 2009).
Some studies suggest that more culturally diverse curricula may benefit student outcomes during adolescence. A recent study by Dee and Penner (2017) found that students of various racial/ethnic backgrounds who were assigned to take an ethnic studies course in eighth grade because their GPA was below a certain threshold had increased attendance, a higher GPA, and more credits earned in ninth grade. Similarly, students who took courses in Mexican American studies had higher rates of high school graduation and higher passing rates on state standardized tests compared to students who did not participate in the courses; this was true despite course participants starting off with lower ninth- and tenth-grade GPAs than the nonparticipants (Cabrera et al., 2014). Thus, opportunities for diverse content and exposure to the perspectives of nondominant groups in the curriculum may be beneficial for all adolescents. However, more research is necessary to determine whether there may be any unanticipated effects.
As students become more aware of their social identities, including their race, class, gender, and sexuality, schools have an opportunity to positively shape the meaning of those identities rather than reinforcing negative connotations (Umaña-Taylor et al., 2014). However, institutions and educators can sometimes convey, whether intentionally or unintentionally, impressions that students from racial-ethnic minority groups and students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds have lower academic abilities. Teacher behavior may also reinforce stereotypes that girls have less potential to excel in science and math than boys do. These negative messages can impair students’ actual performance and discourage them from pursuing endeavors where they might otherwise be likely to succeed (Murphy et al., 2007). On the other hand, when learning environments positively embrace students’ social identities and allow them to consider how their backgrounds may help them to succeed, their sensitivity to social status can serve as a support for motivation and achievement.
Biases held against students from particular social groups can be especially consequential when held by teachers and other school personnel (Tenenbaum and Ruck, 2007). Based on a meta-analysis, teachers hold differential expectations for students based on students’ racial background. On average, they have the highest expectations for Asian students and hold the lowest expectations for Black and Latinx students (Tenenbaum and Ruck, 2007). Teachers judge Black and Latinx students to be putting less effort into their studies, compared to White students, even though the students themselves report similar effort (Kozlowski, 2015). Further, teachers have more positive interactions with and make more positive referrals for Whites and Asians, compared to Black and Latinx youth (Tenenbaum and Ruck, 2007). When shown ambiguous facial expressions, teachers interpreted them as expressing anger and made more hostile attributions about those expressions when they were expressed by Black youth than when they were expressed by White youth (Halberstadt et al., 2018).
Biases and stereotypes are accentuated in contexts where an outgroup is easily identified, where there is little or no opportunity for individual interactions, and where there is mixed or confirming evidence regarding a negative stereotype, such as when there are demographic gaps in achievement or tracking that marginalizes an ethnic group (Banaji and Greenwald, 2013; Tajfel and Bruner, 1981). Large secondary schools make it more difficult for teachers to connect with students individually and avoid relying on pre-existing biases and stereotypes. Based on a review of evidence on school size, researchers recommend that secondary schools limit enrollments to between 600 and 1,000 students; the lower end of this range is recommended in particular for schools serving a large proportion of stu-
dents from communities with limited economic resources (Leithwood and Jantzi, 2009). However, contrary to what students need, 30 percent of high schools have 1,000 or more students (U.S. Department of Education, 2017).
An RCT of small high schools in New York City carried out by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which exploited randomized admission lotteries to follow students, found that attendance at the small schools increased high school graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points overall (Unterman, 2014). The effects in this study were even larger for Black males, equal to a 12.2 percentage point improvement in graduation rates. The data thereby suggest that small schools may be particularly helpful for adolescents who suffer from stereotypes in larger school settings. Small high schools were also found to increase postsecondary enrollment rates by 8 percentage points15 although some of the evidence regarding student outcomes in small schools is mixed (Barrow et al., 2015; Wyse et al., 2008).
Helping Adolescents and Families Navigate the Education Sector
The educational needs of youth and the education sector itself have become increasingly varied and complex. As a result, youth need more support in navigating their educational opportunities and linking their education to meaningful and sustaining postsecondary opportunities. Families are, in principle, an important resource for help in navigating these options and complexities. Youth rely on their parents and caregivers to select schools through school-choice assignment systems, to advocate for the right programs and courses in high school, and to help them find resources and programs outside of school (DeLuca and Rosenblatt, 2010; Hill et al., 2017; Kimelberg, 2014). Moreover, while youth are internalizing their own values and developing a sense of purpose around education and future goals, families can support them by communicating parental expectations for achievement and the value or utility of education, linking school work to future success, fostering their aspirations, and helping them make preparations and plans for the future (Hill and Tyson, 2009; Hill et al., 2018). These strategies help youth see how education fits into their larger goals and helps direct and motivate their educational pursuits.
Because effective parental involvement in education is different during adolescence than during elementary school (Hill and Tyson, 2009; Hill et al., 2018), many parents may require some adjustment period to under-
15 Observational studies, which are less reliable because they may confound the causal effects of small schools on outcomes with those of unobserved student, family, teacher, or school-level factors that are correlated with school size, yield more mixed results (Crosnoe et al., 2004; Eccles and Roeser, 2011; Gottfredson and DiPietro, 2010; Klein and Cornell, 2010).
stand this new terrain, particularly for their oldest children. With little real guidance, there is a risk of making uninformed decisions with long-term impacts as families struggle to figure things out, especially for parents who did not attend college. In addition, the adolescent drive for autonomy and independence, which is a natural part of development, can make parents feel marginalized, even when youth state that they want their parents involved to help them navigate schooling, link education to their future, and successfully make postsecondary plans (Hill et al., 2018).
Correlational evidence suggests that promoting parental engagement in the education of their adolescent child may have a protective effect against declines in achievement and engagement as children progress through middle and high school (Hill et al., 2004; Hill and Tyson, 2009; Ratelle et al., 2004). Indeed, parental involvement in education is more strongly correlated to academic outcomes in middle and high school than in elementary school and has longer-term implications for school success (Kim and Hill, 2015). Given the reluctance of many adolescents to share information with their parents, studies have found evidence that providing parents with more (and more frequent) information about how their child is doing in school can improve academic outcomes (Bergman, forthcoming; Rogers and Feller, 2018).
Parent engagement may be particularly challenging for families from economically disadvantaged circumstances. Adolescents develop in the context of an institutional ecosystem that encompasses schools, the family, the community, and systems that provide social services. Adolescents are likely to develop their educational capacities to the fullest extent only when all of the institutions within their ecosystem are operating well (see, e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1974, 1979). However, there are inequities in adolescents’ access to advocates and in their families’ varying ability to help them navigate the education sector and plan for their future. Moreover, there is some evidence that when adolescents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds reach high levels of academic achievement and progress to selective colleges and universities, they may experience a sense of conflict between their past and current status (Hermann and Varnum, 2018), or uncertainty about their changing socioeconomic identity (Destin et al., 2017). Further, these students often experience surprising levels of marginalization and ostracization that systematically work against their sense of belonging and ability to achieve success. These include experiencing homelessness and hunger during college breaks when their dormatories and cafeterias close, and needing to work in positions that serve the rest of the student body (e.g., in the cafeteria) that ultimately confirms stereotypes that they do not belong and are “workers,” rather than scholars (Jack, 2018). These experiences make it more difficult for low-income students to succeed academically and build social capital that will aid in their upward mobility. This body of research suggests that
when educational institutions include activities and opportunities that allow students to integrate their dynamic and multifaceted socioeconomic identities, students are likely to have stronger well-being and to more effectively pursue their academic goals.
The organization and focus of U.S. public secondary schools might have made perfect sense for the 19th century industrializing nation for which they were originally designed. But our improved understanding of adolescent development, together with transformative societal changes, have created a mismatch between what adolescents need and what secondary schools are currently designed to deliver. The launching of Sputnik in 1957 catalyzed the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and inspired a major investment in and resolve to improve our public education system.
Striking individual events such as the Sputnik launch, capable of catalyzing transformative changes in domestic policy, are few and far between, but today a similar catalyst may be the competition between the United States and China for global economic and technological leadership. We have to prepare ourselves by enlisting the talents of generations of Americans born in the 21st century. This can only be done by rethinking adolescent education.
To this end, the committee puts forth recommendations for modernizing the nation’s secondary schools. Taken together, these recommendations constitute a blueprint for achieving a developmentally appropriate education sector that reflects the preparation, knowledge, and skills that youth need for the 21st century and that rectifies longstanding and persistent disparities in resources across demographic backgrounds. This blueprint should be considered in tandem with companion proposals for strengthening community colleges and innovations in technical education as alternatives to traditional 4-year colleges. One pertinent example can be found in the 2014 National Academies report, Investing in the Health and Wellbeing of Young Adults (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2015, Chapter 4, pp. 123–170).
This committee’s recommendations for transforming secondary education for the 21st century highlight general principles as well as specific actions that policy makers, educators, and administrators can take to implement such change; see Box 6-2. In the following, we focus on the six recommendations of the blueprint, discussing each in turn.
RECOMMENDATION 6-1: Rectify disparities in resources for least-advantaged schools and students.
The committee acknowledges that implementing its proposals will require additional resources, as well as the thoughtful deployment of existing resources to where they are needed most. A demand for additional resources is likely to be particularly challenging for the least-well-resourced
communities, given the ongoing reliance of our nation’s K–12 system on local financing (namely, local property taxes). Funding schools at the municipality level leads to large inequalities in educational opportunities, and disparities in school funding across states only exacerbate the problem (see Jackson et al., 2016). All states should take steps to eliminate resource disparities across districts and schools by exploring methods or formulas for financing education to augment or replace municipal tax bases.
While state-level financing reforms are a necessary first step, additional efforts are needed. Although many states have addressed these inequalities in recent years, often prodded by constitutional litigation, the country is far from eliminating resource disparities across schools. Moreover, as demonstrated in Chapter 4, even when states have closed the gap in public resources, disparities in family resources and in neighborhood supports have continued to produce disparities in educational outcomes. Unfortunately, it appears that the increasing income segregation of school districts across the country, along with rising income inequality, has prevented society from realizing the full benefit of the significant gains in financial parity among school districts as measured by improving educational outcomes and decreasing disparities in test scores. Thus, the committee envisions a major commitment to eliminate disparities in educational spending for the explicit purpose of creating equal opportunity for a large proportion of the adolescent population now being left behind.
This is a national problem, and it requires a national initiative. While primary responsibility for K–12 education lies with the states and localities, the federal role in education has gradually evolved to assist the states in achieving equal opportunity and support other national priorities. For example, the federal government has played a large role in education in recent years, beginning with the federal No Child Left Behind statute and including the current Common Core provisions. Moreover, jurisprudence surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause gives the federal government a role in education, particularly related to reducing inequality (Harris et al., 2016).
In the committee’s view, worsening inequalities in secondary education now threaten the nation’s economic well-being. The committee is convinced that a more aggressive federal role will be required to address and eliminate these persistent disparities. Such a federal initiative could take many forms. It would be well beyond the committee’s charge or expertise to review the financing of secondary education, with its many complexities, but the committee does believe that setting the goal and inviting a national conversation on strategies for achieving it are well within our charge.
The goal should be to ensure that every adolescent has a genuine opportunity to reach his or her full potential and to take full advantage of the resources and services that a transformed system of secondary education
can provide. Implementing the educational vision outlined in this chapter is a necessary step, and states and localities will need to make the case to their lawmakers to invest in the programs and services set forth in this blueprint. However, these changes will not be sufficient in themselves to enable all their students to flourish. The evidence reviewed in Chapter 4 demonstrates that special attention—and additional resources—will need to be devoted to the students who are already falling behind. This is where the need for a federal initiative is most compelling. In coordination with states and localities, the federal government should develop a program with the explicit goal of improving both the academic and the non-academic development of underprivileged adolescents. The program envisioned by the committee might be called “NextStep.”
NextStep would be modeled on Head Start, the successful early childhood program.16 Just as Head Start expanded the mission of the educational sector to break the cycle of poverty by targeting the needs of younger children and their families, NextStep would task the sector with promoting positive adolescent development through targeted instruction, services, and supports to disadvantaged and underperforming students. Federal financing for NextStep would supplement state-level efforts to equalize funding within and across districts by targeting additional funds to those students most in need. These programs would expand the mission of our educational sector to promote both the academic and the non-academic development of adolescents and would help adolescents develop a foundation of practical, noncognitive, and social skills, as well as academic skills, in preparation for a successful transition to life as a young adult.
Aside from NextStep, the strengthened federal role in financing secondary education could provide a backstop for the states by allowing counter-cyclical spending during economic downturns. During these times, when the labor market opportunity costs of human capital development are lower, the federal government could support older adolescents to obtain additional postsecondary schooling or job training.
16 Head Start aims to “promote school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families by supporting their development in a comprehensive way” (Office of Head Start, 2017). According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018, p. 63), “Head Start began as a program for prekindergarten-age children and was later expanded to include Early Head Start, which directs services to infants, toddlers, and pregnant women. The majority of Head Start funding is used to support prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, but funds are also used for family-oriented services such as home visits, health screenings, and parental support, as well as ECE funding for infants and toddlers.” Bitler and colleagues (2016), for example, found positive short-term effects for children participating in Head Start programs, including cognitive gains for those children at the lowest achievement levels, and long-term effects on well-being in early adolescence.
RECOMMENDATION 6-2: Design purposeful but flexible pathways through education.
To respond to the enormous heterogeneity in the academic levels and needs of adolescents, school districts should be funded to improve their capacity to adapt to students’ needs, including pace of learning and need to make up work. In addition, schools need curricula and course sequences that are responsive to students’ strengths, interests, and postsecondary goals and plans. While the optimal approach for better individualizing instruction in the U.S. context remains somewhat unclear, candidate strategies worth exploring further include creating technologies and staffing that will facilitate more intensive instruction in adequate doses, levels, and topics that are aimed at helping students acquire appropriate grade-level skills and knowledge, catch up on missed work or topics not mastered, and specialize in topics of interest.
School districts should also facilitate diverse pathways and postsecondary plans for adolescents—including those students interested in career-oriented or vocational education and training as well as those who are college-bound—and ensure that all students have the skills and access to coursework necessary for the option to switch between the two as their interests may evolve over time. Students should be guided in developing postsecondary career goals and the educational pathways to reach these goals, whether they include preparation for college or targeted and strategic vocational and career training that leads to the certification of occupation-specific skills and licensing necessary to compete in the changing job market. School districts should design flexible schedules for course offerings during the academic year and the summer to enable youth to easily make up classes, recover lost credits, and advance in their course work, especially for youth who are over-age and under-credited. In addition, school personnel should help youth and families create specific plans to recover lost credits, to advance in their course work, and to pursue postsecondary job and career opportunities. In addition, schools should provide flexible and diverse opportunities for students to develop interests, talents, and dispositions to foster their more general wellbeing and facilitate their civic engagement.
In order to do so, states and localities should provide funding to allow schools to hire sufficient career, vocational, and college counselors who are knowledgeable about the local job markets in order to prepare youth for 21st century jobs and identify internships and apprenticeships to facilitate in training youth for their transition to the job market.
Local businesses and school districts should create robust relationships and specific programmatic linkages to ensure that school curricula enable youth to learn the skills and information needed to prepare them for mean-
ingful jobs and careers in the local economy; local businesses, local colleges, and school districts should create specific internships and apprenticeship training programs to prepare youth for, and provide credentials for, meaningful jobs and careers. Given the potential for substantial change in the labor market of the future, one challenge for school systems will be to balance the development of general skills that (by definition; see Becker, 1964) are useful across all industries and occupations, versus more occupation-specific skills that would require forecasting future labor market demand in different sectors and jobs. Indeed, Porter and Rivkin (2012) described how economies and economic impact is localized, despite calls for national solutions. The type of analysis of job prospects and training needs at a local level is modeled in Baltimore by Hopkins (2015) and the Abell Foundation. As noted above, this report linked an assessment of mid-skilled job needs in Baltimore with the training and credentialing opportunities at local community college. Creating stronger linkages between high schools and community colleges with the specific and intentional goal of creating clearer and more flexible pathways from high schools to jobs is essential. Research is needed on effective collaborations between school districts and the actors in the local economy to develop theories of change and to design effective interventions and programs, to ensure that youth leave high school with skills, knowledge, and access to meaningful jobs and careers in the local economy, and that they are able to adapt to changing social conditions and be lifelong learners.
RECOMMENDATION 6-3: Teach practical knowledge and nonacademic skills, such as decision making, adaptability, and socioemotional competence.
Research in education and psychology have helped the field understand the growing importance of skills beyond academics for success in the labor market and other aspects of life, and indeed research has shown that these psychosocial skills have become increasingly important over time. Schools should create significant opportunities to develop these skills, including project-based learning, socio-emotional learning, and practices encouraging reflection on intellectual growth and personal identity. Schools should teach adolescents specifically about brain development, so that they understand its connections to their own health and well-being. All hold potential for developing such skills as part of regular academic instruction, although more research is needed to understand the exact effects of these approaches and how to implement them most successfully.
Schools may also encourage the development of non-academic skills, for example, by changing the curricular focus of the school day, including explicit instruction targeting these skills. The U.S. Department of Education should create guidelines for, and school districts should create curricula to
ensure, mastery of practical life skills for youth upon graduation, either through specific courses or integration into existing courses. Practical knowledge includes finance management, budgeting and banking; obtaining and managing insurance (e.g., health, auto); housing (e.g., renting, leasing, mortgages, contracts); and transportation (e.g., drivers licenses, identification and processes for using public transportation such as trains, buses, and air travel)
In addition, students should be provided with opportunities both within classrooms and within the larger school context to regularly make high-impact decisions in order to develop both decision-making skills and efficacy for civic engagement. To foster civic engagement and decision making and to empower youth to effect change in their communities, school districts and local governments should provide youth with opportunities to participate in research designed to improve the agencies that are directed to serve them (e.g., by designing and identifying appropriate research questions, analyzing appropriate data, and drawing recommendations and conclusions). These opportunities to practice decision making align with adolescents’ neurological developmental needs. As the adolescent brain develops myelinated associations between experiences, emotional experiences, contexts, and decisions, practicing decisions making at a time of peak brain development will increase the likelihood that they will make good decisions in the future (Steinberg et al., 2009).
RECOMMENDATION 6-4: Protect the overall health and well-being of each student.
Given the importance of sleep for adolescents, researchers and policy makers should prioritize identifying ways to mitigate the potential challenges of later school start times and fully consider the benefits of better sleep for adolescents, and school staff should consider the value of sleep as they plan the school day and design homework and assignments. As described above, one of the most discussed recommendations for improving adolescent sleep duration and quality was made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommended in 2014 that schools delay their start times to accommodate the natural sleep cycles of adolescents. Other recommendations with promising results have included raising community awareness of good sleep hygiene (Blunden and Rigney, 2015) and encouraging parents to enforce bedtime routines at earlier ages (Mindell et al., 2017; Mindell and Williamson, 2018). Evidence-based practices have demonstrated the potential of school-based sleep interventions (Cassoff et al., 2013; Kira et al., 2014; Tan et al., 2012), including those that use motivational interviewing (Bonnar et al., 2015) and mindfulness approaches (Bei et al., 2013). Still, more work is needed to determine best practices for improving sleep among adolescent populations.
School districts should enact policies and practices that promote supportive school climates and ensure safety for all students. In addition, school districts need to be funded and directed to provide access to mental health services for students. For example, districts and school leaders can create positions within school counseling departments and hire counselors trained in trauma-informed practices and mental health services or create partnerships with local agencies to provide these services. (See also discussion of “School-based Health Centers” in Chapter 7.)
School districts, in coordination with their local communities, should ensure that adolescents have the time and opportunity to gain sufficient health-promoting physical activity each day. One way to increase physical activity for adolescents is to deploy multicomponent interventions in schools, as recommended by the Subcommittee of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition (2012).
RECOMMENDATION 6-5: Foster culturally sensitive learning environments.
State and federal agencies and school districts and schools should require that teachers, counselors, administrators, and staff engage in regular training on implicit bias and cultural sensitivity, both generally and as they relate to specific populations within the school. Schools should recruit and retain a diverse workforce to mirror the diversity of their student bodies. Schools of Education and other teacher training programs should require coursework assuring mastery of culturally inclusive pedagogy and implicit bias in their training of teachers, as well as having requirements for basic training in adolescent development, including the neurobiological and psychosocial development of adolescents.
School districts and schools should implement curricula that are culturally inclusive and affirm the value of the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds represented among U.S. students, both in their content and in learning styles. Schools and school districts should create curricular opportunities for culturally relevant content and exposure to the perspectives of nondominant groups.
Schools and districts need to establish and utilize disciplinary policies and practices that are developmentally appropriate and ensure that disciplinary measures are applied equitably and fairly. School leaders need to assess and monitor their disciplinary practices to assure that they are free of biases by race, gender, socioeconomic, or ability status. In addition, school districts and schools should implement equity-driven principles of conflict intervention.
RECOMMENDATION 6-6: Help adolescents and families navigate the education sector.
Schools should support adolescents and families by serving formally and aggressively as placement coordinators for educational and vocational assistance, including identifying internships, apprenticeships, and training for career and vocational transitions and helping students navigate the education sector to identify opportunities and resources to meet their specific educational needs, including in the college admissions process. School districts should assist families in navigating the education sector to identify opportunities and resources to meet the specific educational needs of their adolescents.
To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need an educational system that elicits and supports the development of the whole adolescent. To promote the educational system’s core goal of developing adolescents academically, we need a system that elicits and supports other aspects of the adolescent as well—socially, physically, and cognitively. We need an educational system that is responsive to adolescents’ neurological assets and opportunities. We need an educational sector that is flexible enough to meet students where they are, help them make up for early setbacks, and identify and hone their interests and talents in a way that leads all to productive and meaningful places in society—including college and career. We need an education sector that is responsive to and reflective of the increasing racial/ethnic diversity of the American population.
Finally, we need an education sector that is committed to the flourishing of every adolescent. The new research understandings of the nature of adolescence itself, summarized here, help show us how we might better conceive of an education sector that is more responsive to the needs of adolescents and, therefore, of society as a whole.