CHICAGO — Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of American public high school students want much tougher academic standards and stricter discipline in the classroom, according to a nationwide poll released today.
Indeed, most American teenagers feel they are essentially "living down" to low expectations placed upon them by their schools. Two-thirds of them admit they could do far better if they tried, according to the survey of 1,000 public high school students by the New York-based Public Agenda Foundation.
A report on the survey, "Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools," turns a popular perception on its head by showing that high school students are nearly as concerned as parents and teachers over falling standards and lax discipline in schools.
"Half of the teens in public schools today told us their schools fail to challenge them to do their best," although 96 percent of the students say they want to excel, states Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. "Students across the country spoke about how little work they do to earn acceptable grades and, consequently, how boring and meaningless their classes are."
Most students (68 percent) reported that cheating on tests and homework, coming late to class (50 percent), and generally doing the minimum were serious problems in their schools - ranking above drugs, violence, and overcrowdedness.
Two-thirds reported that they look up to classmates who do well academically, but 75 percent complained that other students "pay too much attention to what they're wearing and what they look like."
Meanwhile, 71 percent of the teens - including a higher proportion of minority youths - voiced frustration over the large number of disruptive students in their schools. Half agreed that they would learn "a lot more" if the constant troublemakers were kicked out of class.
The teenagers' strong concern over standards, however, stood in striking comparison to their lack of curiosity in academic subjects.
For example, although they agreed almost unanimously on the importance to their future careers of earning high school and college degrees, they expressed far less interest in gaining a rich and varied education.
Asked what was "extremely important" to learn by the end of high school, some 8 out of 10 students listed a narrow range of practical job skills, including basic reading, writing, and math, as well as computer literacy. Ranked last were subjects such as American and foreign history, and works by Shakespeare, Plato, Hemingway, and other classical and modern writers.
The degree of academic curiosity varied significantly by race, however, with African-American students expressing greater interest in a wider range of topics than did whites or Hispanics.
When students were asked what could help them learn more, the majority (63 percent) pointed to good teachers. Indeed, students pointed to skilled teachers who are willing to check and recheck homework, enforce school rules, and impose ethical values such as honesty and hard work as the key to solving many of the problems they encounter at school.
The study also surveyed 250 students at private high schools, and found that, on average, they were far less critical and more complimentary of their schools and teachers. Cheating and disruptive students, drugs and violence, and a lack of challenge were all reported less frequently.
Almost twice as many private-school students (58 percent) as public-school students (30 percent) are convinced that "most of their teachers care about them personally," says the report.
"America's teenagers are calling out for help," concludes Ms. Wadsworth. "They are telling us something we should already know - that by asking for less, we get less. If we ask for more, on the other hand, they will respond. Perhaps these teenagers are merely marking time until we adults show that we value academic achievement and civil and ethical behavior as much as we value celebrity status, athletic prowess, or financial success."