Two authors go back to high school and find little to cheer about

Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School
By Elinor Burkett
HarperCollins, New York, 325 pages

Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
By Denise Clark Pope
Yale University Press, New Haven, 240 pages

The emphasis on test scores in the recently enacted federal education bill came as no surprise to Massachusetts residents. In this state, after all, education reform has primarily resulted in the creation of a few dozen charter schools and the MCAS. In our hopeful quest to narrow the student achievement gap between inner-city students of color and wealthier, whiter students in the suburbs, education-reform legislation on both the state and national levels invariably relies on testing to pass judgment on the quality of students’ schooling. Yet to the apparent surprise of advocates of new high-stakes tests, it is the parents of suburban students who are now objecting most strenuously to defining academic achievement in terms of test scores, especially to making a high-school diploma contingent on passing a single test. Two new books about life in suburban high schools have a lot to tell us about what it’s like for students to try to measure up–or not.

For Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School, journalist Elinor Burkett, the author of five previous books on topics ranging from AIDS to childhood sexual abuse, roamed the halls of Prior Lake High, in a suburb outside Minneapolis, from September to June. Burkett wanted to write from firsthand experience, she says, because she feared that our best students and their schools were not accurately portrayed by the media, especially in the aftermath of Columbine. “I was driven by a single question: ‘What’s going on in our suburban high schools?'”

She came to Minnesota in search of what she calls “a good school, a school that produced students who, by every objective measure, academically outpaced their peers.” This was a dubious proposition to begin with, since it gives the school credit for “producing” its high-achieving students. In fact, standardized tests of achievement are typically poor judges of schooling because factors other than instruction have a stronger influence on student scores. By defining a good school solely in terms of these so-called “objective” measures of achievement, Burkett assured herself only of finding a fairly affluent suburban school, which she did.

Prior Lake’s principal, Craig Olsen, imposed on his guest only one condition–“no preconceptions”–and Burkett blithely assured him that she had no ideological axe to grind. “In all honesty,” she writes, “I had no idea whether I was about to step into a garden of teenage delights or a noncinematic version of High School High.” As it turns out, however, Burkett was full of preconceptions, though these did not derive from reading and thinking about any of the current educational debates. (She seems to find all reading on the issues too laced with the authors’ points of view to be worth considering.) Instead, her biases come, naturally enough, directly from her own high-school years.

Burkett had not set foot inside a secondary school since her own graduation in 1964. That, she tells us, “says something about how pleasant I’d found my three years at Harrington High School.” As a student, Burkett joined no clubs, participated in no activities, attended no athletic events, resented “pep fests” and all other school spirit activities, and was certainly not a cheerleader. Thus she brings to Prior Lake a vivid, if until then slightly repressed, memory of life as an outsider in a place dominated by insiders. Holding onto her own adolescent misconceptions of their motives and experiences, Burkett reserves her most scathing observations for those students who seem to fit into high-school society most comfortably, and for the adults she sees as their boosters.

We are invited to adopt Burkett’s outcast stance as she, along with the multitude of students, walks into Prior Lake on the first day of school, only to attend, yes, a pep fest. She scans the audience of new and returning students to figure out who is pleased to be there, and who is not. The first students we meet are Roger and Nick, who saunter in late and blurt out, “Fuck, a pep fest.” Burkett relaxes; she has found soulmates.

In her chronicle of life at Prior Lake, Burkett tells the stories of about two dozen students and a dozen adults–teachers and administrators–through vignettes, circling back again and again, ultimately creating a richly novelistic world out of this suburban high school. Anyone who works in a school will immediately recognize the characters: among teachers, the first-year idealists, the cool, edgy provocateurs, the tough but revered veterans, the cynical burn-outs; among students, Abercrombie kids, jocks, student council types, artistes, and “alternatives”–loners, druggies, goths, and metalheads. Burkett is especially sympathetic to the students who don’t quite fit in, those who are searching for something they can’t quite find–and to the teachers who try hard to challenge their students, even when they do so in misguided ways.

For all her disdain toward the education literature, Burkett does not hesitate to tell us where schools have gone wrong. The educational reforms of the 1970s and ’80s eviscerated our schools’ academic strengths, she tells us. The “self-esteem movement” and the trend toward educational egalitarianism that gave ability tracking a bad name have combined to make mediocrity the norm. “What subliminal message do [students] receive when schools pretend that all students are equal academically, but not athletically?” she asks rhetorically. Academic programs expect and reward too little in either effort or learning, she charges. For most students, academic experience now consists of relentless tedium and dilatory effort, periodically interrupted by flashes of real interest. They do just what they need to do to keep their grade point averages high enough to qualify for hall passes or special insurance rates for their cars.

Burkett is a keen observer, and she touches lightly but seriously on a number of thorny school issues as refracted through the eyes of the Prior Lake community. She gives us a telling account of the difference in attitude toward grades between students and teachers. Students practice a common, and very pragmatic, calculus, she discovers: They know what it takes to get a good grade in each course, and plan their schedules with a balance between “hard” courses and “easy” courses to produce the best academic record they can muster without expending too much effort.

In comparison, teachers, who invest much more meaning in grades than their students do, share no such consensus. At one point, principal Olsen tries in vain to push toward a common understanding of what an “A” should mean for students learning the same material from different teachers, but the staff rebels. One teacher insists he gives out so many A’s because his ability to “connect” with students allows him to get more out of them; another says he expects more from students, so he gives out A’s sparingly, and only to those who really perform, not just try hard. Never do the teachers review student work together, to consider or even articulate the standards to which they are holding their students. No wonder the students see grades as arbitrary, a commodity valuable enough to be managed carefully, but not worked for. Burkett presents a vivid picture of the adult culture that contributes to the students’ malaise. But her cry to “raise standards” rings hollow when no one seems to know what a standard is.

While the students and teachers Burkett focuses on are colorful renegades whose cynicism she asks us to share, one wonders about the students she dismisses–the student-council and academic types who actually strive for success on the school’s terms. These are exactly the students Denise Clark Pope seeks out for Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, a less ambitious but no less harrowing account of suburban high-school life.

Pope went looking for a “good” California school, she tells us, one with good test scores but also with a reputation for caring teachers and innovative programs, and where most students go on to college. She asked teachers to identify successful students, and from their list of “good kids who work hard and do well” she chose five to shadow for a year. Her burning question was whether successful students are as deeply and intellectually engaged these days as she was when she was a high-school student in the 1980s, discovering the poetry of Walt Whitman. A former high-school English teacher who is now a lecturer in education at Stanford University, she must have had an inkling of the answer.

Unlike Prior Lake High, where athletic awards eclipse all other forms of achievement, Faircrest High glorifies academics. Teachers post classroom test results, students on the honor roll have their names displayed in the halls, and banners are made for students who score a perfect 5 on Advanced Placement exams. But Pope argues that, rather than nurturing intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn something really well, Faircrest High breeds students chiefly interested in the institutional rewards of school: high grades and a ticket out.

Pope’s first profile is of Kevin, who calculates his grade point average several times a day, after every quiz and homework assignment. A charming, engaging young man who knows exactly what he has to do, Kevin is not working to achieve understanding, Pope observes, but rather to win the grades that will please his parents and teachers and get him into college. Kevin’s experience, like that of Eve Lin, another honors-track student Pope profiles, is marked by fear, anxiety, competition, and a belief that his carefully orchestrated plan for success could come crashing down at any moment. For insurance, anxious strivers purchase second chances through “extra credit” assignments designed solely to inflate a disappointing grade, never to extend their learning.

Honors students learn to fake engagement.

Whereas students at Prior Lake High spend an average of two to three hours on homework each week, Kevin and Eve put in that much time each night. And when their hectic schedules of extracurricular activities interfere, they cut corners, finding ways to appear attentive in one class while doing the homework for another. Like other honors students, they learn to fake engagement by periodically looking up at the teacher and raising their hands. Pope describes myriad ways that the students’ integrity is gently compromised in order to give the teachers what they want.

Pope’s other student portraits are even more poignant. Teresa, who came to California from Mexico, is still mastering English, and works 35 hours a week to earn money for a computer in addition to taking a full course load. She is also acutely aware of the low expectations her teachers have for her. But a dance teacher becomes her advocate, helping her enter one alternative program, then another, until she finds a place that aligns more closely with her needs and interests. Michelle, a transfer student from a progressive school, considers dropping out when confronted by the narrowly defined educational goals of her teachers and classmates. She, too, finds an ally in school, her drama teacher.

Roberto is not so lucky. Though a curious, diligent student who is eager to support other students in his tutorial, he performs poorly under the pressure of tests and classroom presentations. He knows more than he can show, but he never challenges the authority of the teachers who sell him so short, nor does he even expect them to understand him better. Since he has not mastered the rules of “doing school,” as Pope puts it, Roberto succumbs to their hasty judgments and ill-considered class placements. Pope understands that high-school teachers have too many students in too many classes to know these students the way she has come to know them. Yet her detailed attention to their academic lives shows us what a loss this is to both students and teachers.

Meet the Author
The competitive values expressed in winning grades, Pope observes, mirror the model for success in most of our institutions. In high school as elsewhere in society, the drive to succeed often conflicts with deeply held values of integrity and personal meaning. But, she asks, is the price we pay for this arrangement too high? She wonders: What can we learn from the moments of true accomplishment, pride, and risk-taking that occur on a stage or while doing community service or in the workplace, those examples of engagement and learning that can be meaningfully evaluated but not measured by a test or even reflected in a grade? How can we bring students’ ability to think critically and to grapple with problems that matter back into our classrooms, so that we can teach them to do these things well? Contrary to Burkett, Pope suggests that perhaps it is our mania for measurement, not school reform itself, that is responsible for the conditions so dramatically displayed in these two books.

The stories of disengagement and of empty success told by Burkett and Pope echo Horace’s Compromise, Theodore R. Sizer’s landmark 1984 study of the American high school. If, nearly two decades later, our most successful high schools are still those where most students do well by “objective” measures but are mainly learning how to get by, this sad fact should be as disturbing as any in this era of “school accountability.” Is our goal for schools both urban and suburban really to make every child pin their futures on the kind of “measurable” achievement that underlies the ethical and intellectual morass at Prior Lake High and Faircrest High? Or should we be setting our sights higher than that?

Laura Rogers, a clinical psychologist and parent of two high-school students, is a founder of the F.W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens.