High schools, which dominate American adolescence, didn't always exist. Until the industrial evolution supported majority prosperity enough to delay working and until war demanded universal literacy, elementary school was good enough. Leaving the family farm was a sign of success but success was also dependent on the quality of the land.
"The high school movement is a term used in educational history literature to describe the era from 1910 to 1940 during which secondary schools sprouted across the United States. During this early part of the 20th century, American youth entered high schools at a rapid rate, mainly due to the building of new schools, . . .In 1910 19% of 15- to 18-year-olds were enrolled in a high school; barely 9% of all American 18-year-olds graduated. By 1940, 73% of American youths were enrolled in high school and the median American youth had a high school diploma. The movement began in New England but quickly spread to the western states. . . . the states that led in the U.S. high school movement (e.g. Iowa and Nebraska) had a cohesive, homogeneous population and were more affluent, with a broad middle-class group." (Few slaves, tribal people excluded.)
"By 1955 80% of United States youth had graduated from an academic high school. In this setting general skills and social mobility were emphasized, not specific training or apprenticeships." (I was in high school '53 -- '57.) (Wiki)
In other words, culture shaped the high school and the high school shaped culture via two frames -- one was the New England way of high idealism and town halls (mini-college) and the other was central Middle American half-ag/half-machine pride of small towns. High schools have not resolved this except that both are still white and subtly Germanic, more military than they realize.
The characteristics of high school are necessarily those of adolescence. Passion, confusion, withdrawal or domination, realization, wild peaks, self-harm, "uncanny valleys" and in early years the near-worship of role models and mentors. More recently, adults are so discredited that priority is given to peers, even in the most severe and tragic situations. Responding to this, the YA category of fiction -- remember, novels try to explore ways of life and how to get through them or not -- is melodramatic, much like television stories, both the news and the shows.
Madness, death, extreme poverty, insanity, survival in a hostile dictatorship, love so intense it approaches fusion, violence in everything including sex. -- these are all permitted in the new YA literature, far from the pitches made for honesty, creativity, obedience, achievement, and tradition that used to shape the stories. We seem not to notice. We are not sophisticated in the humanities, which deal with these forces.
The other major influence on the forming adolescent is advertising and pop culture, esp. music, and these two mighty American forces inform and control each other. Despite laws, companies persist in evil ways with little jingles -- but if people stop buying, the companies quickly reform. Now merchandizers realize that women, blacks, gays, immigrants are all consumers and therefore quickly legitimized. The midwest-type high schools are slow to catch on. So are politicians.
The main organizing force of high school, like most education in the US, is hierarchy -- what grade are you in, what grade did you get, what were your SAT scores? Little thought is given to alternatives and even then the numbers come as creeping muggers of unique qualities. No one cares about entertainment standards except in terms of tickets sold. No wonder the producers operate as predators.
The two "horses" pulling life in high school are status and turf. The race is to the goal of being rich and having more turf than a locker. Status is "shown" by appearance and how one's family fits into the community, which made more sense when people lived in a small context where everyone was known so people having coffee together could say frankly what they thought of everything and everybody. Now, being fashionable and conforming (which can be contradictory) are the language of status. I was severely criticized as a teacher in Heart Butte because I did not wear a suit and high heels, the television picture of a successful professional woman.
Usually only the teachers pay any attention to college admission and they don't know the real complexity of which university is good for what. Nor have they realized that higher education is a lifelong commitment, not just four years in preparation for marriage and commerce.
But to me the most dismaying population of high school is the management, which is more or less consistent with the US as a whole. When athletics gripped American life as a quasi-military rallying method, it became a requirement of high schools to produce winning teams, esp. in small towns or -- in my experience -- reservations. ("That one year we took state!") Combined with the glitch of always crediting one big strong man instead of many collaborating lesser beings, the "coach" easily transitioned to being the principal and even the superintendent, though at that level leaders used to have decent grammar. Today they just look good in a suit and maybe can operate a computer enough to do a budget.
Women tend more towards the New England model and tend to observe the humanities so long as the kids manage a little distinction, esp. in music but less in art. "Dramatics" is all over the map, from the embarrassing to the professional level: adolescence is naturally dramatic. More than that, what we see on screens lifts up dramatic crime, ghoulish deaths, terrifying tortures, naked sex -- all made friendly by heroes who do a lot of kidding with their partners. This invades our under-mind.
High school needs to be completely rethought. The age is defined by the advent of physical sex which is now performed to the limit of what is possible, unconstrained by awareness of consequences except parental fussing and possible eviction. Governments run by men in their Seventies have no idea of what's happening, legally or not. (They personally operate on both sides.) Likewise, marriage and considerations for children need to be completely rethought -- no one seems to realize they are being used as pawns. ("I gave her a baby so she owes me.")
The other clawing subsurface oceanic monster is drugs of kinds we've never known before, because they were just "designed" molecules yesterday. The effects are often continuous with adolescent internal murk and even a relief from terror and despair. Or maybe a source of the same. One can at least have the fine felt self-status of being high on drugs. Drug dealer is a public role that causes users to plead and produce big money, surely signs of importance.
Probably the next time a pattern settles it will be plural, and quite a few more than two frames of understanding -- New England idealism or Midwest conformity. But it will take decades and must account for the whole world, not just one nation. We can do that so long as the Internet is sustained, but there is no assurance that will happen.