Author’s note—This is the final installation in a IV-part series of research articles: Parts I & II explored why and how US public high school students face significant inequity when aspiring to attain college and career readiness, and Part III examined federal, state and district stakeholders’ responsibilities in leveling the playing field to college and career readiness for all. Footnotes appeared in parenthetical format connect to URLs at the end of Parts I, II, and III; full details of all works cited from the series appear here at the conclusion of Part IV. Thank you for joining me.
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Ninth Grade Intervention: A Rationale
Educational journals, literature and even pop media are filled with examples of poor decision- making skills of students as they approach the crossroad of entering high school. Wide-ranging reasons for this are founded in the physiological limitations of the human brain as it develops. In providing high school freshmen the college and career readiness detailed in this research, it is important to consider some facts about human physiological and neurological development. Underserved students face particular challenges and require particular support.
By age 14, the human brain has greatly increased its ability for intellectual and social skills development. The parietal and temporal lobes have begun to mature. Poorly thought-out decisions are common, though, because while teenagers’ brains have matured considerably since they were born, the main part responsible for logical thinking has not. These students are perfectly capable of beginning to explore information that can help secure their futures, although higher-order reasoning (the prefrontal cortex) has not matured. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s remote control; it regulates impulses, emotions and empathy, and communicates with other parts of the brain by a complex neural network. Point being: even though a 9th grader may seem distracted and immature, they are two years away from taking the SAT or ACT, and three years away from signing promissory notes that can have major impact on their lives’ trajectories.
Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from targeted intervention as they enter high school to begin to reckon with realities that can help them aspire. Lacking social capital at home, millions of these teenagers will not learn this information elsewhere, and their parents cannot afford to hire private support. If they don’t get it in public school in 9thgrade when it matters most, they likely won’t get it at all.
Research shows that ninth graders consistently have the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high-school grade level. Ninth grade has increasingly become a “bottleneck” for students. A joint report from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution found that in 1970, there were 3 percent fewer tenth graders than ninth graders; by 2000, that share had increased to 11 percent. (1)
Add to the confounding ecosystem of factors impacting student outcomes and economic systems the fact that an increasing number of students and teachers are living with trauma. In fact, Trauma Informed Care has become such a trending issue in education conferences over the last decade that an entire sub-industry of solutions built around social-emotional learning, such as Panorama and Intellispark, has arisen. These EdTech providers seek to help existing ecosystems within districts galvanize adults working with young people to buildresilience even in the face of emotional and social challenges like peer pressure, bullying, and other unfortunate hallmarks of childhood andadolescence.
Taking this one step deeper, the Center for Disease Control’s statistics on abuse and violence in the United States offer alarming evidence that the needs of teens run far deeper than many realize. Young people don’t care how much adults know until they know how muchthey care, and America’s public-school teachers and counselors are often so overwhelmed with their own jobs and lives that the precious time it would take to address each need is simply not available. In the forthcoming book Whole, thought leaders Rex Miller, Bill Latham, Kevin Baird and Michelle Kinder—several of whom co-authored Humanizing Education—argue that America’s public schools have become comparable to battlefield hospitals in the civil war, “butchering” those who enter due to overly burdened expectations. They focus particularly on proposing support for America’s teachers, who are increasingly challenged to provide the nurturing cognitive experience students require due to their own needs not being met by districts—including the fact that they are generally underpaid, overworked, and under-resourced. (2)
Echoing concerns of what’s amiss inAmerica’s public schools, Harvard Medical School reports that one in four minor students experiences some sort of maltreatment, including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. (3) Citing toxic stress—that is, stress that is severe, unmanageable, and occurs in the absence of appropriate support—medical researchers now know that trauma leads to physiologic changes that permanently alter the developing brain. It can result in a hyper-stress response, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to significant cognitive, behavioral, psychological, and medical disorders. While some might like to imagine that America’s college and career readiness crisis exists apart from such realities, it does not. In fact, research of this type that fails to acknowledge the context of student lives as it seeks to support outcomes and objectives would be short-sided, foolish and dangerous.
Since freshmen have a prefrontal cortex that is still developing, solutions being provided must bear in mind the end user: a still immature teen, with a limbic system in flux, and possible trauma to boot. The limbic system helps with basic health functions like regulating heart rate and blood sugar levels, and also informs things like passion and memories. Anyone who remembers caring disproportionately about something when they were this age will acknowledge that emotionality can impede cognitive focus and prioritization. In terms of the future of college and career readiness, it is therefore critical that not only are core classes like history and science taught, but also practical and necessary classes outlining in a concise, clear and equitable manner the options just ahead post-graduation. This cannot simply live on a mobile app, in hopes that students across all socioeconomic strata will somehow find, use and leverage it. Most teens cannot begin to self-advocate about something as challenging as building an unseen future without a trusted adult shepherding the process. Therefore, the GRADS Initiative and other viable options leverage blended learning models that are collaborative and respectful of local educational stakeholders (4).
Lacking this support, students are left to try to navigate solo with mental constructs that cannot support positive outcomes. The students’ amygdalae—which collect and connect information from the five senses and links them to emotional responses—often give rise to newly intense experiences and confuse decision-making. At the very time when adults need them to focus on academic and future-focused matters, teens wrestle impulses of laziness, aggression, distractedness, rage, excitement, fear, and sexual attraction. Because their brains rely on the limbic system more than the rational prefrontal cortex, teenagers are frequently ruled by feelings more than logic. They are generally still predisposed to poor impulse control and faulty judgment, but the stakes are incredibly high, especially in terms of competitive college and career positioning, since the freshman GPA sets the stage for what admissions officers and certain potential future employers will assess in a few short years.(5) “More and more of us are realizing that it’s the make or break year for many 14- and 15-year-olds. It’s a time when the cognitive, emotional, and physical are all coming together,” asserts Jon Zaff, Director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University. (6)
The fact that approximately 22% of students repeat 9th-grade classes calls into question whether they have bought-in to the endeavor of aspiring academically in order to secure a promising future. Academics must be demonstrated to have direct relevance to their lives. (7) The right policy shift, where districts incentivize schools to add needed support for freshmen and older students needing a roadmap to success, can assuage those academic and behavioral concerns as well as the student debt and under-aspiration problems already discussed in Parts I, II and III of this research series.
Burgeoning differences, both academically and socially, between middle school and high school make this transition difficult. Many educators emphasize what can be donein middle school to better prepare students for new challenges. Not only are youth entering the intimidating institution that is high school, they are facing adolescent angst and depending on poor decision-making skills. When students fall behind and have to repeat a grade, they can wind up in a vicious cycle of peer judgment and lowself-esteem.
“We are ending up with something now called the ninth-grade bulge,” explains Jon Zaff, “which means a glut of students who have to repeat the grade. So they are stigmatized socially as well as academically, which can also lead to their finding it easier to just give up.” (8) Mitigating dropout rates matters to every public school district in America, and one way to accomplish that is by providing resonant, effective, scalable support that reaches every single student as they try to transition. While she doesn’t deny that the ninth grade is a pivotal moment in a student’s education, Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, expresses concern about how America’s public school system has come to a place where 9th grade is such a sink or swim proposition. “Many schools allow students to advance ready or not, and when they reach the ninth the stakes are higher. The high-stakes testing starts in the tenth grade so kids are being held back not for their own sake but to protect their school’s statistics. If the focus were really on the students, people would be thinking creatively about how to help them instead of thinking of them as data points.” (9) Shifting students from being seen and treated as data back to being treated as human beings is a worthy endeavor, and respectful, effective instruction can help each of them solve their own versions of the college and career readiness puzzle.
College and Career Readiness: A Literary Perspective
Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most famous writers, is bestremembered for his philosophical writings. While living at Walden Pond in the mid 19thcentury, Thoreau composed one of his best-known and most influential essays, Civil Disobedience (also known as Resistance to Civil Government). His deep political convictions at the time opposed slavery and the Mexican-American War, and the strong case he made for citizens acting on individual conscience merits consideration within the current college and career readinesscrisis for underserved students trapped within theAmerican system. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Thoreau wrote. By resisting government policy in terms of matters of import to him, he established the foundation for many revolutionary leaders in various sectors of US and international society. Since its publication in 1849, Civil Disobedience has inspired protest movements around the world. Most notably, this non-violent approach to political and social resistance has influenced American civil rights movement activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, who led India to independence from Great Britain. (10) Without information symmetry, American students are at risk of living lives of the sort Thoreau referenced when he famouslywrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. He went on to opine, “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealedeven under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.There is no play in them, for this comes after work.But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” (11)
Tying Thoreau’s perspectives to the modern day challenges faced by underserved students in America, one might ask what happens to those who cannot affordably make it to and through a college degree? When they cannot survive the admissions process and thrive upon acceptance, how many end up struggling all their lives in low-paying jobs? What percentage enter the prison pipeline? How many fall into despair on opioids or other drugs, or marry ill-advisedly out of fear they won’t be able to support themselves?
America’s district leaders have an opportunity here and now, in 2019, to begin to turn the tides. With proper policy adjustments, further societal and financial disaster can perhaps be averted. Published a century after Thoreau in 1951, the implications of aborted American aspirations were also scathingly assessed by a black poet who was one of the first to grace the hallowed halls of Columbia University despite the racial tensions of his time.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And thenrun?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
-Langston Hughes, Harlem, 1951. (13)
With the right interventions positively impacting college and career readiness in America’s school districts, the mass of young men and women need no longer lead lives of quiet desperation as they struggle. America’s underserved students can escape the trap of watching their dreams dry up, fester or sag beneath the weight of information asymmetry. Dreams deferred don’t have to explode. The time has come for leaders to commence the long-awaited change.
Comments welcome. District leaders and fellow researchers committed to increasing equitable college access are invited to connect to the author directly by email: email@example.com.
Footnotes for Part IV
2 Miller, Latham and Cahill. Humanizing the Education Machine. New Jersey: John Wiley.
3 Tello. Trauma Informed Care. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/trauma-informed-care-what-it-is-and-why-its-important-2018101613562
4 GATE. OpenTheGate.us/grads-initiative
5 Donnelly. 4 Keys to College Admissions Success. Morgan James Publishers
6 Willens. Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year in High School. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/ninth-grade-the-most-important-year-in-high-school/281056/
7 McCallumore. The Importance of the Ninth Grade on High School Graduation Rates and Student Success.
9 Ravitz, Diane. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. 2014. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
10 Willens. Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year in High School. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/ninth-grade-the-most-important-year-in-high-school/281056/.
12 Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or, Life in the Woods; and Civil Disobedience. 2014. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House LLC.
13 Hughes, Langston.Harlem, 1951. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. 1995. New York: Vintage Books Random House.
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