Growing Up Locked Down – What are the psychological effects of school drills?

When I was a kid, I wondered about what it would have been like to grow up in the 1950s and endure “Duck and Cover” drills in school. How did it feel to know you were practicing what to do in the event of a nuclear attack? How did it feel to know the adults in your world thought there was a strong enough chance of a nuclear war that all school children were required to be prepared?

When I was a kid, we had fire drills in school but that was it. Except for the loud siren noise, I enjoyed the fire drills. They were a nice break in the day where we were able to go outside and chat with our friends until the all clear was sounded. We all knew that fire could be dangerous but that if we exited the building quickly and orderly, we would be okay. Our safety was in our hands.

Today I visited my children’s school and it just happened to be a Lock Down drill day. Especially after Newtown, these happen on a regular basis. The purpose of a Lock Down drill is to make the classroom look as empty as possible. Lights and monitors are turned off, doors are locked, and the students and teachers hide as still and as silent as possible — under desks and tables, away from windows and doors. After Newtown, we all know the importance of Lock Down drills. There is a very good chance that lives were saved at Newton because the teachers and students worked together to quietly hide.

I am not questioning the value of Lock Down drills. I am wondering if anyone is taking a good, hard look at what possible damage the drills are doing to our kids. Sitting in the dark, silent room this morning I wondered what the kids, especially the more sensitive ones were thinking. We were all hiding because the adults in their world had decided that the chance of a mad gunman entering their school and trying to kill them was a real possibility. Unlike in a fire drill, in a Lock Down drill the power is not with the students. They know in the event of a real massacre, they will essentially be sitting ducks, hoping he passes them by and goes to the next classroom. They have no control over the situation and they know it.

I worry that we are teaching kids that their world, even at school, is not a safe place. That no matter what they do in their lives, they must always be ready to hide in the dark from the boogie man. Statistically any given school has a very small chance of being shot up but kids generally don’t figure the odds. Note, I don’t think arming the teachers or janitors and having a Rambo-like battle over their heads is a better option. I just think we need to start acknowledging that even Lock Down drills and the message they send, may be causing long-term harm to some of our students. We should study the effects of these types of drills and how teachers and administrators can best help students transition back to the regular school day after the drill. If you’ve been just been forced to contemplate your own fragile mortality, focusing on that next algebra problem may seem a bit pointless.


Getting Out of College

Most parents and teachers of gifted students and indeed, most gifted students themselves, assume they will go to college. They may even spend a great deal of time and effort, especially as they approach high school graduation, analyzing colleges and campuses. Students analyze which schools have the best programs and which dorms and amenities are the nicest.  Students want to find the institute of higher education that best fits their personality and interests.

Getting into the right college is important. Getting out of the right college with a degree and little or no debt is even more important. Our institutes of higher education are far better at admitting students than graduating them. Even upper middle-class students with above average test scores only have a 50% probability of successfully graduating from college. Lower income, above-average students fair even worse with the poorest having only a 26% probability of graduating.

Individuals and our entire nation benefits when we have a higher percentage of college graduates. College graduates enjoy significantly higher earnings throughout their lifetimes and are less likely to experience unemployment or dependency on social welfare programs. This is not true of students that have taken college courses but have not successfully graduated. College graduates generally also have jobs with insurance benefits, are less likely to divorce, and are less likely to be victims of violent crimes or commit crimes themselves. They are also happier and more civically engaged. Increasing the number of college graduates will make our country stronger. This is especially true when considering the woefully low number of lower income, above average and gifted students who, under our current system, are not graduating.

Today two reports came out specifically addressing the need for higher college graduation percentages. The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group composed of representatives from most major colleges and universities in the US, release An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority. Separately as part of an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and endorsed by college presidents, business leaders, civil rights leaders, and policymakers, The American Dream 2.0 came out with a special emphasis on addressing financial aid issues to improve college access, affordability, and completion.

State and federal support for higher education has been steadily decreasing. State support for higher education declined by 7.6% in 2012 and sank in real terms by 25% since 2008. This decrease in state support correlates with an unprecedented increase in student debt. Total annual student borrowing skyrocketed between 2002 and 2012 and is now $113 billion. Lenders are generally happy to accommodate the increased financial needs of students because college loans are some of the very few types of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Large college loans, especially ones incurred in pursuit of a degree that was never obtained, can burden a student for life — affecting their future job flexibility and long-term financial security.

The American Dream 2.0 has three overarching recommendations addressing financial aid issues and improve graduation rates:

  • Make aid simpler and more transparent
  • Spur innovations in higher education that can lower costs and meet the needs of today’s students
  • Ask institutions, states, and students to share responsibility for producing more graduates without compromising access and affordability

The College Completion letter offers concrete suggestions to colleges and universities for improving their graduation rates above and beyond better financial aid policies and packages. High school freshmen and seniors can use the report’s list (below) to evaluate whether institutions they are considering are actively working to increase graduation rates.

  • Change campus culture to boost student success
    • Unambiguously assign ownership and responsibility for enhanced student retention and graduation
    • Implement initiatives campus-wide
    • Study past mistakes
    • Create a student-centered culture to enhance student engagement and retention
    • Improve the academic experience, especially for those students that may need extra support
    • Give credit for previous learning
    • Provide support services for nontraditional students
    • Teach the teachers to improve their teaching and communication skills
  • Improve cost-effectiveness and quality
    • Offer flexibility to working adults
    • Ease credit transfers
    • Encourage competency-based learning
    • Deliver courses more efficiently
    • Narrow student choice to promote completion
    • Improve remedial services
    • Optimize non-core services
  • Make better use of data to boost success
    • Pinpoint weaknesses in preparation
    • Harness information technology to identify students at risk
    • Communicate with students about progress to graduation

We need better data on graduation rates so that students can compare schools on the one item that really matters — what is their chance of successfully graduating with a degree and little debt. High school students should know the percentage of students that graduate in 4 years, 5 years, and 6 years from the colleges they are considering and how much debt the students had when they left the school. It is time for students to worry about getting out of college when they are first deciding on colleges to try to get in.