The Shadow Curriculum of American Schools

What lessons do kids learn from the structure of school?

George Dillard
6 min readSep 4


Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

We tend to make the mistake of thinking that school is primarily for teaching kids information.

Of course, we want students to learn the causes of the Civil War, how to solve quadratic equations, or how to conjugate French verbs. All of this stuff is important, and I believe in the importance of teaching a lot of content in schools, even if students won’t remember most of it. How much of the content that you learned in high school do you remember? (I’ll be honest with you here — I got As in high school math, but I don’t even know what trigonometry is)

Hopefully, students will leave school with an understanding of the subject matter they’ve studied. But it’s likely that they’ll learn more enduring lessons from the way that school is structured.

I was struck by this when reading Matt T.’s thoughtful essay on the perennial problem of “senioritis.” Matt argues that “senioritis is a policy choice,” and that we shouldn’t be surprised that high school seniors check out for their final semester of high school:

Students go through the American education system for 12 years driven by rewards and punishments: grades, detentions, graduation, college acceptances. Then, in the second semester of senior year, pretty much every incentive and every punishment is taken away. Yet we expect them to all of the sudden to have internal motivation: take exciting and interesting elective classes, do work for the sake of learning, even if the grade doesn’t matter.

I’ve had somewhat different experiences with seniors than it seems Matt has, and my anti-senioritis prescriptions are probably different from his, but I think his larger point is very important: the way we design our schools has a profound impact on the way our students behave and the messages they take with them for the rest of their lives.

So what lessons might students be learning from the way our schools are set up?

Before I jump in, I suppose I should acknowledge that there are obviously exceptions to every idea I’m going to list here. The American educational system is a wild and complex thing, with many different types of schools serving many…



George Dillard

Exploring the past to illuminate politics, the environment, and more. Social media & other projects: Email: whfacts at