This article isn't what you think it's about. It's not about research about sixth grade education. It's about research performed by sixth graders. 

The Allure of the American High School

Paris, France has some great schools. An American friend of mine lives near the Bastille with her French husband and two primary school-aged kids. She likes her kids’ school. But she still wants to move her family back to the US when they get to high school.

They want an American high school experience. The allure of US high schools isn’t math, science or history. It isn’t academic, college and career preparation. The Paris parents want cheerleading, prom, homecoming, football games, school spirit and sports. In other words, they want the comprehensive US high school experience, which isn’t offered in a French system that focuses almost exclusively on academics. 

Schools have changed. 

School-aged kids’ parents disagree with me all the time on how much schools have changed. I’ve worked with many public, private and parochial, secondary and higher education institutions in three states and five countries, and I’ve advised parents, teachers and leaders. Helping my friends navigate schools is rewarding. They are passionate about their choices, and I know that those choices matter. I listen to them talk about conversations about whether it’s better to learn physics before biology, the best novels to introduce to teens, the value of studying abroad in China or Argentina and whether private school is worth the cost. We typically do not disagree about extra-curriculars like prom and sports, so when I heard my friends in France say they wanted to move back to the United States for high school extra-curricular like sports, a light bulb clicked on.

Many of the parents I advise spend their days working in data rich environments where their jobs often revolve around their ability to analyze and act not on emotion but on verifiable information. It seems reasonable that for one of the biggest decisions of their lives, these parents would rely on fairly detailed research and data, quantitative and qualitative, to support their decisions about where to send their kids all day every day for nearly two decades.

Decisions about schools aren’t made that way. When it comes to choosing schools, most parents go with their gut. Choosing a school based on cheerleading and prom exposes deeper assumptions about how schools work- or don’t work. 

Parents generally hold that schools haven’t changed much, and the popular literature saying schools look today like they did in the 195s is generally accurate. Even if parents notice minor changes, they simultaneously dismiss those changes as insignificant and conclude that what was good enough for them is good enough for their kids. When I try to persuade them that school today is fundamentally different, I usually fail. 

  • Schools are different because increased competition for selective college spots, including from international students and especially competitive children from China which topped 300,000 this year. 
  • Schools are different because of increased student stress due to the increased competition, which even parents who retreat to the safe suburbs can’t avoid. The competition is all the more cut-throat given increased academic accountability from accurate new assessments that mercilessly sort students leaving little room for consideration whether a child is nice. When I was in school, being nice was at least as important as performing well. Those days are over. 
  • Schools are different because of macroeconomic issues that have created a wildly different world. It’s unclear what work students will be doing in the future, so schools have a hard time creating highly targeted programs. 
  • Higher education costs continue to increase disproportionately to the economy overall. There are increasingly vocal questions about whether the big student loans for the big degrees are worth it. Even as the economy improves, there is  the concern that salaries are not increasing at pace with increasing education costs, and children turning 25 in 2050 will very likely have a lower quality of living than today, if they haven’t already.

Parents hold romanticized view of schools.

The evidence I give for a fundamentally different approach to school doesn’t move them. Parents seem incapable of handling bad prospects and/or are hold such romanticized views of their school days. They are blind to the coming tsunami. They speak positively of their kids’ schools, and most of their evidence, from what I can tell, comes from comparisons about their school experience, which just isn’t applicable in this global market.  

Just yesterday, a teacher spoke with a father in China who complained about his daughter’s experience at school. He remembered getting an assignment on Romeo and Juliet in tenth grade, and the fact that his daughter got a shorter Shakespeare assignment with more online analytical work was a negative sign to him. 

Parents send their kids to school thinking what their children experience is fundamentally similar to their own childhood experience. I’m gentle with those parents because they aren’t running schools, and they don’t understand how different schooling looks every day on the ground. I also let them go because I figure it doesn’t matter too much. I know parents are the central educators in their children’s lives but also am comfortable letting them stay in their lane, parenting while I stay in my lane, running schools. Today, I realized the problem with that argument. I arrived today at the best example of how schools have fundamentally changed. 

Technology has made research easy.

It’s research. 

Twenty years ago, most high school English classes taught research in high school when seniors did “the research paper.” Today, students would think it’s a joke to wait until twelfth grade to introduce research. Why? Students in third grade and earlier perform research every day, multiple times per day far more rapidly than any twelfth grader of the past. 

It’s old news saying that the internet has changed everything. It means a world-sized asteroid collision for schooling. A totally new approach to teaching and learning is needed that embraces these changes, yet most schools are plugging away at practices and pedagogies they’ve been doing for decades. Many are banning technology, sending their kids ever further into the Twilight Zone where students as young as 10 are asking why they can’t look up the answer on their phones. 

What needs to be updated? 

  • Research needs to be taught directly and at a much earlier age than high school. The curricular plan need to be comprehensive and discuss reliability of sources and how to give credit where credit it due. 
  • Research need to be taught by whatever means necessary. Students in Shanghai research on their phones. Why? It’s easier to have Virtual Private Networks, big business in China, on one device, and students often can’t afford big fancy computers. They are masters of working with thumb-typing, and, as I was amazed to learn early, they know where to find everything. 
  • Students need to be encouraged to do it with fast processors, fast internet and good online support. This is a hole-in-the-wall-like idea is that kids will research and learn on their own. It’s not forcing them to rifle through piles of papers in the controlled stacks of books in the Harvard Library. Every kid every day already researches information. They want to do this, so channeling this positive energy toward more productive directions is a great idea. 
  • Schools and universities are not gate holders to information. All the information out there is easily available. Schools that don’t take advantage of this by telling students not to use tech are ignoring reality and will soon become unable to function. 
  • Plagiarism. Traditional schools are futilely trying to control this tsunami of information and research by making increasingly tough rules against plagiarism. This is misinformed. Tech an opportunity for teaching and learning, not a time to legislate rules. 
  • Parents of little kids need to understand this and a get on board. If you as a parent think your kid will get the same education you got, you’re not only wrong, your expectation is hurting your child. Parents need to  advocate for things to look like they did when the way information was introduced in the past is gone, now and forever. 
  • Schools must commit to teaching skills. This has been true for decades and has been repeatedly highlighted in the research literature. With easy access to info, it’s more crucial today than ever to have the skills to manage it. In 1993 when I started teaching, I had colleagues who said all students must know Death of a Salesman or Moby Dick. Today naming a single text as a source of all good is insufficient. Content is more important than ever, but the curating function of schools is decreasingly necessary. Young students research constantly now. They instantly look up up everything they don’t know. If I give them Moby Dick, they will read the summary online before the book. There is no point to stopping it. We need to teach to it. Students need the skills to know those online summaries are woefully insufficient to provide them with the content they, themselves, need and want.
  • Schools can try to require kids to reading certain content and take away tech to avoid temptation, but if the kids don’t support it, it’s a short-term ”solution.“ All that matters now is giving students ownership of the content they find, read and ultimately respect. The content that motivates and garners their respect they will read, and that content will change their minds and expose them to culture. Schools ignoring that little kids are researching are missing this.

Sadly most schools are missing this because of parents. Parents aren’t the only ones who think their own education is good enough for today’s youth, but they are the most powerful ones. Parents still control more of their children’s education than a school ever could. When parents come to see how fundamentally schooling has changed - regardless whether parents think they are sending their kids to a “traditional” school or not - then schools will have the latitude to fundamentally change how they approach reading, writing, research and, most imperatively, learning.  


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