I received a letter from John Ogozolak, a teacher in upstate New York, where the economy has long been in serious trouble, with a paucity of jobs and economic opportunity.

I decided to share it, because like him, I too have wondered what message we give our high school students. The politicians and the media constantly tell them how dumb they are, how lazy and shiftless, yet they are our future. What kind of world are they graduating into? Will there be jobs? Will they have a chance? Will there be social mobility and opportunity? Or will they find themselves slipping down into the bottom end of the economy?

John’s letter arrived only hours after I read this column in Slate by Laurence Steinberg, who studies adolescents, declaring that our high schools are a total disaster, and our kids are learning nothing, based on the fact that test scores for seniors are stagnant.

I responded to Larry Steinberg, whom I knew years ago, and pointed out that the NAEP scores for seniors are meaningless. When I was on the NAEP board in the early 2000s, we devoted a full meeting to discussing the fact that high school seniors don’t even try on NAEP tests. They know the tests don’t count towards high school graduation or college admission; they don’t count for anything, and the kids don’t care about them. They doodle on the answer page, they answer in patterns (like checking off every A), or they leave pages blank. They aren’t dumb. They know what they are doing. They are asked to jump over a meaningless hurdle, and they treat it as a joke. But the adults take their tomfoolery as evidence that they are unmotivated, possibly stupid. I don’t think the kids are stupid. I imagine how I feel when someone calls me on the phone and starts asking questions; usually I hang up, or I say something uncooperative because I don’t like to be interrupted for no reason to fit into someone else’s plan. I expect that the seniors feel the same way.

I often wonder why we have so little confidence in our young people, why we demean them so often, and why we never stop to think that they are products of our society, for better or worse. If we are disappointed in them, we should be even more disappointed in ourselves. They are our children. And let me be clear: I have met many high school students, and I have been impressed by their wit, intelligence, humor, courage, and passionate sense of justice.

Anyway, read Steinberg’s column, and contrast it with what John wrote. John is a teacher. He knows his kids. He sees them every day. He worries about their future, not because they are dumb but because our society offers them diminishing prospects and doesn’t tell the truth:

I teach 12th graders economics in what the New York Times described this past summer as the 4th poorest county in New York State.I start off the semester course trying to give the students a sense of what’s rich, and middle class and poor in this country.  The kids read from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and we discuss the growing gap between the rich and poor in this nation.I try to make economics REAL to these young adults while connecting their experiences to some of the important theories you’d find in a typical Economics 101 course in college.  These kids are on the verge of walking out of the school and being faced with paying for college and making their way in the world.

Then…..the students and myself get walloped at the end of the course with an asinine “assessment” created from a computer bank of outdated questions that someone in an office at the county BOCES prints out.  We get a test just because some law says we have to.  You couldn’t call it a standardized test.  One version had misspelled words and even the same question repeated twice.  But, of course, I couldn’t revise the test prior to administration……because I as the teacher couldn’t be trusted.

It’s truly sick, Diane.  I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories but I have to wonder if there’s some grand scheme somewhere to numb high school students with mindless drivel and endless tests so that they don’t get around to asking the big questions….like why is their generation getting screwed.  It’s frustrating to sit back and watch this educational car crash happen.  I’ve sent letters to the Times, to the newspaper in Albany, my legislators…..  I tried writing a blog but I don’t have the time really for its upkeep among other issues. I went to rallies and held up signs…..

We still try to have some fun in class while learning.  That’s about my biggest form of protest.