CHICAGO -- If you live in an affluent community with a high performing school district and are familiar with the pressure-cooker environment of endless test-prepping, extracurricular overload and early resume-building that students endure in their quest to get into elite colleges, you probably laughed at a recent report saying many students believe their schools are not sufficiently challenging them.
If, like me, you live in a community struggling with high rates of poverty, or one where state budget cuts have reduced the schools to shadows of their former selves, you know full well that the report -- "Do Schools Challenge Our Students?" -- produced by the Center for American Progress has a painful ring of truth to it.
The findings represent the everyday experiences of students stuck in less-than-high-performing schools, where enrichment opportunities such as field trips or in-school presentations are few, where gym, music and art classes are often a distant memory, and where boredom is a constant complaint.
Delving into the student responses to background surveys administered with the content exams of the 2009 and 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the researchers noted that students said they were reading little per day and rarely writing about what they had read. Plus, they say their schools don't provide science and technology learning opportunities.
The most eye-catching finding from the analysis was that large percentages of students report that their schoolwork is unchallenging. For instance, 37 percent of fourth-grade students reported their math work is often or always "too easy," as did 57 percent of eighth-grade history students, 56 percent of 12th-grade civics students and many other slices of the student population.
Even more shocking: Large percentages of students, across grade levels and subjects, say that they sometimes or hardly ever understand what their teacher is saying or asking. Twenty-five percent of middle-school math students had this response while 36 percent of 12th-graders were similarly befuddled. With English-language learners representing only about 10 percent of the public school population, you can't say this is a language issue. It's about some students being totally lost while others sit around unchallenged.
It is important to note that these students' evaluations of their own experiences generally don't match up to their performance on the test that follows their survey -- we are strictly talking about student perceptions. But, having done my time as a classroom teacher, I can tell you students' perceptions are at least as important as their realities.
That said, these student voices are telling us that even as we wage age-old public policy battles over how to mitigate the effects of poverty on educational attainment and argue the pros and cons of teacher evaluations and common national curriculum standards, we should also reconsider the very basics of our educational system.
Should we continue using age to herd students into grade levels regardless of whether the skills needed to succeed have been mastered? How much more effective could teachers be on the measures of individual students' yearly academic progress if classrooms were stocked with students starting from a similar point?
This -- and many other "radical" ideas -- must be considered if we're going to bridge an educational divide where students don't feel stimulated. According to "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," a 2006 report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the No. 1 reason young Americans cited for dropping out was "classes were not interesting." The report said these students felt a lack of connection to the school environment and a perception that school is boring, a chilling fact to consider in assessing how non-elite students view their learning environments.
"It seems pretty clear that to engage students you need to make school relevant, you have to make it challenging, and there have to be cues that people at school care about them and their well-being," said Ulrich Boser, co-author of the report and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He told me that so much attention is heaped on the pressures that overachieving students face, it's easy to forget everyone else.
Well, the forgotten students of America have spoken and they are saying: Don't count us out, expect more from us. We must meet their challenge.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.