Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg

Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence

by Laurence Steinberg — May 15, 2015

American high schools continue to show lackluster performance relative to high schools in comparably developed countries and to American elementary and middle schools. Laurence Steinberg argues that the problem isn't our schools, but the ways in which we raise our adolescents.

For more than three decades, we’ve been told repeatedly that American students fare poorly in international achievement comparisons, and that a shocking proportion of them lack basic skills in reading, mathematics, and science. The wake-up calls come several times every year as another report confirms the all-too-familiar findings. Each time, education experts, politicians, and pundits all pontificate about the “true” source of the problem—inadequate teacher compensation, growing diversity in the student population, the poor quality of graduates from our teacher-training programs, too little funding, too much testing, disengaged parents, income inequality, take your pick—and the issue receives media attention for a day or so.

Soon afterwards, the president or the secretary of education visits a school district that has defied the odds, singles out one or two students for their extraordinary accomplishments, and delivers a nationally publicized speech that announces a plan that is certain to turn things around. Within less than a week, the “crisis” fades into memory, until it is revived by the next disheartening report, press release about the latest round of substandard test scores, or revelation that an education hero or heroine had all along been faking the data.

Amidst all this noise, one vitally important signal almost never gets picked up: these problems exist primarily in America’s high schools. In international assessments, our elementary-school students generally score toward the top of the distribution, and our middle-school students usually place somewhat above the average. However, our high-school students score well below the international average, and they fare especially badly in math and science compared to the country’s chief economic rivals (OECD, 2014).

Our poor showing is not a function of anomalies in the measurement process. Though many other countries track their students differently than we do (placing some in vocational tracks and others in college-preparatory programs), the organizations that administer the surveys are very careful to ensure that every country gives a representative sample that includes students at every level of ability. Nor do we fall behind because our teachers must deal with a greater diversity of skills in the classroom (which might make it harder for teachers to target their curricula effectively). In general, there is more intellectual diversity within a typical American high-school class than in other countries, but overall the disparity between our best and worst performers is comparable with other countries, indicating that the numbers aren’t skewed by this diversity (Koretz, 2009).

The problem with our high schools is that, for all but the very best students—the ones in AP classes who are bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—school is tedious and unchallenging. The majority of American high-school students say they are just going through the motions at school, calibrating their level of effort to ensure that they do well enough to stay out of academic trouble (Johnson & Farkas, 1997). One-third of American high-school students report that they have little interest in school and get through the day by fooling around with their friends (Steinberg, 1996). And keep in mind that these surveys don’t include the 20 percent or so of students who have dropped out. If they were included, the proportion of disengaged teenagers would be considerably higher (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).

One might be tempted to write these findings off as mere confirmation of the well-known fact that adolescents find everything boring, but American high schools are more boring than schools in other countries. More than 80 percent of foreign students who have attended American high schools report that their home schools are more challenging. More than half of American high-school students who have studied in another country agree that our schools are easier. Objectively, they are probably correct: American high-school students spend far less time on schoolwork than their counterparts in the rest of the world (Loveless, 2002, 2006; Ripley, 2013).

Trends in NAEP scores reveal just how little progress we’ve made in improving high school student achievement (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013a). Reading and math scores have remained flat among seventeen-year-olds for the past 40 years, while NAEP scores among younger students have risen over this same time period. High-school students’ scores on subject-area tests in science, writing, geography, and history, which have been tracked only for the last two decades, haven’t changed either. In 2012, only 6 percent of seventeen-year-olds scored at the highest level of reading proficiency for their age. Just 7 percent of seventeen-year-olds scored at the highest level of proficiency in math that year. Far more elementary and middle school students score at the highest proficiency levels than do their high school counterparts. 

If anything, logic would suggest that the test results for seventeen-year-olds would be better than those for younger kids. Hardly any students drop out of elementary or middle school, but many seventeen-year-olds have dropped out by the time the NAEP rolls around. With this academically challenged group no longer being measured, the seventeen-year-olds’ NAEP scores should be somewhat better than the nine- and thirteen-year-olds’ scores. But the opposite is true.

This shortfall is perplexing. It has nothing to do with high schools having a more ethnically diverse population than elementary schools. In fact, elementary-school-age children are more ethnically diverse than high-school kids. Nor do high schools have more poor students. Elementary schools in America are more than twice as likely as secondary schools to be classified as “high poverty” based on their students’ family incomes (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013b).

And it’s not because high-school teachers are paid less; salaries are about the same for secondary- and elementary-school teachers. It’s not because high-school teachers are less qualified; secondary-school and elementary-school teachers have comparable years of education and similar years of experience. Student-teacher ratios are the same in our elementary and high schools. So are the amounts of time that students spend in the classroom. We don’t shortchange high schools financially, either; American school districts actually spend a little more per capita on high-school students than on elementary-school students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013b; OECD, 2012).

The bottom line is that it is hard to point to anything about American high schools themselves that explain why they perform so poorly, both in comparison to high schools around the world and in comparison to elementary and middle schools in the United States. Maybe our high-school teachers are less qualified or more poorly trained than those in other countries, but it’s unlikely that our teacher-training programs are worse at admitting and training high-school teachers than ones bound for elementary- or middle-school classrooms. In fact, the reverse may be true: a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (2013) found that only one in nine programs for future elementary-school teachers adequately prepared them, compared to one in three programs for future high-school teachers. Many more training programs for secondary-school teachers received high marks than did programs for elementary-school students.

High-school students from many Asian and European countries outperform their American counterparts mainly because the cultures of achievement are very different in these other countries. These cultures give rise to higher expectations at home and more support for achievement within the adolescent peer group (Steinberg, 1996). In addition, in many other countries, especially in Asia, parents demand much more self-control from their children at much younger ages. By the time children in other cultures have matured into adulthood, they have much stronger self-control than Americans do.

In a cross-national study of adolescents and young adults that I direct, we tested people’s impulse control at different ages, ranging from ten years old to thirty (Steinberg, 2014). The comparison between China and the US is instructive. At age ten, there were very few differences in self-control between Chinese and American children—the Chinese children scored about 10 percent higher. This gap widened little by little each year; by fourteen, the Chinese scored 20 percent higher, and by eighteen, they scored 45 percent higher. In their twenties, the Chinese demonstrated 50 percent more self-control than the Americans. This advantage is unlikely to be due to cultural differences in temperament, since we would expect to have seen the self-control gap at the younger ages as well as the older ones. It is likely a consequence of how adolescents are raised.

If all of this is true, why have we been able to make inroads into improving student achievement in elementary schools? The answer is that the “noncognitive skills” that have been shown to be so fundamental for success in school, like self-control, become more important as students get older (Poropat, 2009). As students progress from elementary to middle to high school, the work becomes more challenging, and the demands for self-reliance intensify. Adults provide less supervision and assistance—students are expected to work more independently. High-school assignments take longer to complete; exams take longer to study for. The work is harder. Students who have strong self-restraint and the capacity to delay gratification have a greater advantage in high school than they do in elementary school. A child doesn’t need much perseverance to succeed in second grade. In other words, it is easier to improve elementary schools without paying attention to noncognitive skills.

Most discussions of high school reform focus, not surprisingly, on schools and teachers. They typically call for changes in the curriculum, in instructional methods, or in the selection, training, or compensation of teachers. I think this focus on what takes place inside the classroom is myopic. And it is why our efforts to improve high schools in America have largely failed. We haven’t done anything to improve adolescents’ noncognitive skills.

Nearly twenty years ago, in Beyond the Classroom (Steinberg, 1996). I argued that no school-reform effort would have any impact, though, if students didn’t come to school ready and able to learn. I continue to believe that this is true. The fundamental problem with American high-school achievement is not our schools or, for that matter, our teachers. If parents don’t raise their children in ways that enable them to maintain interest in what their teachers are teaching, it doesn’t much matter who the teachers are, how they teach, what they teach, or how much they’re paid. Without changing the culture of student achievement, changes in instructors or instruction won’t, and can’t, make a difference. In order to do this successfully, we need to start with families.


Johnson, J., & Farkas, S. (1997). Getting by: What American teenagers really think about their schools. New York, NY: Public Agenda.

Koretz, D. (2009). How do American students measure up? Making sense of international comparisons. Future of Children, 19(1), 37–51.

Loveless, T. (2002). Brown Center Report on American Education, 2002. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Loveless, T. (2006). Brown Center Report on American Education, 2006. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

National Center for Education Statistics (2013a). The nation’s report card: Trends in academic progress. Washington: U.S. Department of Education.

National Center for Education Statistics (2013b). The condition of education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Council on Teacher Quality. (2013). Teacher prep review. Washington, DC: National Council on Teacher Quality.

OECD. (2012). Education at a glance. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

OECD. (2014). PISA 2012: Results in focus. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Poropat, A. (2009). A Meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 322–38.

Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

U.S. Department of Education (2012). States report new high school graduation rates using more accurate, common measure. Press release, November 26, 2012.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 15, 2015 ID Number: 17967, Date Accessed: 5/23/2015 10:14:49 AM

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