View from Glen Hill: In education there is no one-size-fits-all

Even as Wilton High School again enjoys a high ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s annual assessment of American high schools, our schools and community have been focusing on the anxiety that more than a few of our students are experiencing.

A centerpiece of the measurement and interpretation of those anxiety levels has been the work here in our Wilton schools of Professor Suniya Luthar, Ph.D. Her research over the past year has determined that almost 30% of Wilton High School students “have clinically significant levels of internalizing symptoms (anxiety/depression).”  National norms are less than a quarter of that. The anxiety she was testing for was that at a clinical level, similar to what is described in the film “Angst,” shown here in town last week.

So, the questions arise: why is anxiety so much greater here, and what can be done about it?

In a TED Talk that School Superintendent Kevin Smith circulated to those attending the community visioning session held 10 days ago (and to be continued in June and the fall), Harvard Professor Todd Rose addresses the notion that designing for the average actually meets the needs of no one. He begins by recounting the efforts in 1952 by the U.S. Air Force to try to determine why fighter-pilot performance had been degrading.  The reason was eventually narrowed down not to pilot error or training failures but to cockpit design done for the “average-sized” pilot. Cockpit design is crucial to pilot performance, of course, given the need at supersonic speeds for split-second decision-making and action.

It turns out there is no “average-sized” pilot. When people are measured in 10 different body dimensions (height, shoulder width, chest size, torso length, hip size, leg length, etc.), it turns out that no one has the average size in all 10 dimensions. In fact, any individual pilot presents a “jagged profile” of everything from average to above average and below average across these dimensions; so cockpits designed for the average don’t meet any pilot’s needs. The Air Force pressured its reluctant defense contractors to produce cockpits with full flexibility (designed “to the edges,” in the lingo) over the contractors’ initially strenuous objections regarding difficulty and expense. Once that result was achieved (at what actually turned out to be little additional expense), the performance issues disappeared.

Likewise, Rose says, providing an education designed to meet the needs of the “average student” misses the mark for all students. Instead, the objective should be to provide the kind of education that will reach and motivate students with varying strengths in at least 10 different dimensions (memory, language, cognitive, knowledge, reading, science, perceptual, vocabulary, interest, curiosity) even as we find ways to help them strengthen those areas that are not within the dimensions of their innate strength.  

Rose counts himself as one of an estimated 50,000 high-achieving kids annually who fall by the wayside, 4% of the 1.2 million students each year who drop out of America’s schools. He recovered from his own dropping-out and now wants to see educational programs designed not for the “average student” but with a much more multi-dimensional approach.

Rose maintains that simple solutions can yield radical results and that those solutions can be achieved at little or no additional cost by utilizing to its full potential the technology with which many schools (including, of course, our own) are already well-equipped. What is required is going “to the edges” using creatively designed programs to help nurture each child.

In fact, what Rose wants to achieve and what Luthar has diagnosed may have similar resolutions. A student who is motivated by appreciating that his or her strong dimensions are recognized and enhanced even as weaker dimensions are addressed creatively is presumably a student for whom one major element of anxiety has been greatly reduced. Other aspects of anxiety reduction, though, are well-addressed by more traditional methods like professional counseling and parental and teacher support and generally being there for the student.

Rose describes one such example of a teacher who was trying to reach a science-gifted student who was having, as it turned out, great trouble with reading. With Rose’s help, she obtained those programs that would meet his needs, and instead of being the latest school dropout, he became the student to whom all the others would go for science help.  

What Luthar has diagnosed requires responses in multiple ways at home as well as in school. The participants in Superintendent Smith’s excellent new school-visioning process have much to consider.