One key to improving education is an understanding of how the current consumers of education, students, view what they're getting now. In that regard, a recent survey of more than 1,300 American teenagers by Public Agenda, a nonprofit public opinion and educational organization based in New York, deserves careful thought.
The study's title, "Getting By," indicates a general theme. Most young Americans see academic work as something they have to do, which they can't do without, but which they certainly don't find stimulating. Most do the minimum required - a level of accomplishment dictated by the demands of parents and teachers and by their own sense of future goals.
Emerging from the data, however, are some clear indications of what might be possible. The majority of kids - urban or rural, black, white, or Hispanic - have few doubts about the importance of mastering the academic basics. They also share an aspiration to move from high school into higher education. They generally respect fellow students who do well in school. And they like the idea of more demanding, universal educational standards.
Public Agenda's executive director, Deborah Wadsworth, summarizes these findings this way: "America's teenagers are calling out for help. 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."
That hopeful note is hardly new or revelatory. The best teachers have always known that youngsters can be encouraged to move far beyond the minimum required. One section of the study suggests, however, that such teachers are in short supply, especially in public schools. The private school students included in the survey were much more likely to rate their teachers highly and say that students were being challenged to stretch themselves.
That's a reminder of the special challenges that public schools face. They have to address the needs of all students, from those with learning disabilities, to those who lack motivation, to the "gifted." An array of factors - the trend toward "charter schools," the push to bring computer technology into the classroom, legal demands to revamp school funding, the call for national standards, to name a few - are forcing public education out of traditional, often homogenized paths. The nation may be at the point of responding to its students' usually unspoken plea to have more demanded of them.