I Eat Youth-Owned Culture for Breakfast

In this month's issue of Wired, besides an in-depth look at Craigslist, and an article on "good enough" tech, there was an interesting piece on education reform. In, Revenge of the Nerds, Daniel Roth posits that if we really want to reform education, and create schools that work, then we need to "make them geekier." If the school culture is geek, then the kids who excel are the cool kids and every kid wants to be cool (or, you know, not cornered in dark hallways or vaguely threatened during every passing). Viola - excellence!

Now I could really get into how making schools geekier is a fine idea, but that actual education reform needs to encompass a heck of a lot more than that. How a geekier school doesn't exactly address the myriad issues facing many underachieving kids such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of adequate space and time . . . but I won't because I'm sure that Roth didn't mean his one page fluff piece to be the end all and be all of modern education reform. I'm pretty sure that he realizes that citing the success of two charter schools (which can, and do, cull their student populations from the mainstream, and which have the option of expelling students who aren't working out. Those students end up back at their real public school which is now devoid of all those geeky star-achievers that were drawn to Awesome Charter School . . . see where I'm going with this?) does not a workable plan for reform make. I trust that Roth and the educators he talked with just want us to think about geekifying schools as part of overall education reform that works neighborhood by neighborhood to improve the overall lives and health of the children there.

But I'm not going to talk about that.

What I will comment on is the use of one quote from Tom Vander Ark, a private-equity manager with High Tech Schools, one of the charters mentioned in the article. His solution to geekifying schools (and, thus, saving them) is destroying youth culture. "A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You've got to break that." Roth's reaction? "The result: One hundred percent of High Tech graduates get into college."

Cause and Effect.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Huh. Really?

Hey kids! You know that big consolidated high school? The one that all the kids who didn't get into (or got kicked out of) the charters go to? The one with serious financial issues? With all the new, inexperienced teachers? The only school in the area to offer state and federally mandated services to English Language Learners and students with special needs? The one with class sizes of 30-40?

Yeah, that one! Did you know it's failing because of you? Once we destroy the youth-owned culture of that school all of you will get into college. Rad, huh?

A youth-owned culture is not a bad thing. Youth are not a monolith, believe it or not. A youth-owned culture will mean very different things at different times and in different places. Teens can be creative, compassionate, loving, involved, intellectual, open-minded, driven, organized, excited, artistic, literary, passionate, informed, and supportive. They can also be cruel, petty, lazy, uninvolved, violent, dismissive, pre-occupied, close-minded, and intolerant.

Instead of working to stamp out youth-owned culture, perhaps we can work to engender a positive one. I want the teens I work with excited and involved in school. I want them helping to run the show. I want them to feel supported in this ownership.

I think that Vander Ark and Roth do, too. I have a sneaking suspicion that the term "youth-owned culture" may refer only to a very specific type of youth culture - one that is imbued with violence and uninterested in education. If so, then they should say so. And maybe stop to consider why that aspect of youth culture is violent and uninterested in education. Until we work to address the underlying issues affecting teens attitudes towards and achievement in school, education reform will go no where. All the geekifying in the world won't put food in a hungry kid's mouth, or give them a quiet room with a desk to work in, or keep them from working two jobs to help pay the bills. It won't increase teacher salaries to attract the best and the brightest to the field, it won't lower class sizes, it won't make a full class-set of textbooks and equipment appear. There are bigger issues here.

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