I haven't been great at this yet, but I think I'm asking better questions. Here's how I am phrasing it now. Consider two groups of students in the secondary buildings--those who are learning what we'd like them to learn (group I) and those that aren't (group II). This includes learning the content to a high standard, plus any of the other important things we want to see in young people such as responsibility, punctuality and so on. In the other group we have everyone from the struggling learner to the talented but lazy to the outright resistant.
Now, my question is this: What do the students in group II see regularly that will encourage them to make the changes necessary to move into group I? On an emotional and rational level, what is set before them throughout their waking hours that says it is urgent and worth the effort?
I think the time at home might outweigh what we can accomplish at school in this regard, but leaving that aside, I tried to answer this question from the students' point of view. I thought of a school day, the teachers and classrooms that they will see. I thought of the messages they get through words and actions. I don't yet know what the solution is, but as I considered this, the frustrations I hear from the staff in the high school suddenly made more sense. There's just not much reason to aim high.
I don't know if this is obvious and I can't say it's a problem anywhere other than in the buildings where I work. I do know it doesn't get asked in this way in the meetings I attend. I'm going to start asking it more of others and of myself. I'm going to propose some answers and put them into practice.