Tales of Suburban High
When Americans think about public education, they tend to see a stark divide. On the one hand, there are the failed school systems of our big cities, blackboard jungles where drugs abound, gangs rule the hallways, and dropouts outnumber the barely literate graduates. On the other hand, there are the shining, achievement-oriented public schools of the suburbs, the institutions that have led so many middle-class parents to flee New York City for Westchester or Chicago for Highland Park. In these greener pastures, public education seems to be working fine: students do not have to pass through metal detectors each morning, most of them go on to college, and their parents (according to opinion surveys) are basically content.
The problem with this picture, as we have learned in recent decades, is that, despite their obvious advantages, all is far from well in suburban schools. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education cautioned that, across the country, SAT scores were flat, and students were falling behind their peers in other nations. College professors began to gripe about incoming students who, even with sterling records in high school, had never heard of the Renaissance, or thought Winston Churchill was a Civil War general.
Compounding these pedagogic worries have been concerns about the often poisonous social and moral environment of the high schools in more prosperous communities. After two teenagers turned Columbine High School in Colorado into a killing field in 1999, just about every suburban district in the country began fretting about potential violence. Many launched curriculums to combat sexual harassment, to root out homophobia, to discourage cattiness among girls, and, of course, to stop bullying among boys, the supposed root cause of the massacre at Columbine. More recently, cheating has become an issue, especially with the temptations posed by the Internet. In one much-publicized scandal, a biology teacher at a high school in suburban Kansas City discovered that 28 of her students had downloaded whole sections of their term papers. But when the teacher tried to fail the offenders, the superintendent and parents refused to back her up, apparently seeing nothing remarkable in the transgression. As one student told the chastened teacher, “We won.”
That matters are as bad as these instances suggest is amply confirmed by two new books that take us inside the classrooms of today’s suburban high school: Elinor Burkett’s Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School1 and Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.2 Burkett, an astute journalist with many previous books to her name, introduces us to Prior Lake High School outside Minneapolis, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class school that sends its better graduates to state universities. The pseudonymous Faircrest High School described by Pope, a lecturer at Stanford’s School of Education, is located in a “wealthy California suburb,” and is a more diverse institution. Though a third of its students are lower-income Hispanics, Filipinos, or blacks, it also boasts more National Merit scholars than Prior Lake, and more Ivy League aspirants.
For all their differences, both institutions are considered “good” schools. They feature plenty of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, college-hungry kids, and attentive teachers, and their facilities are so fine that one parent in Burkett’s account, observing plans for a new school complete with archery and golf ranges, quipped that it looked more like a sports-entertainment complex. The question is: what exactly are these “good” schools good at?
An instructive place to start is with the teachers. In dress, demeanor, and interests, many of the pedagogues at Prior Lake High School can hardly be distinguished from the hormonal crew they are supposed to be educating. There is the math teacher who brags to his students that he has read only two books in his life, one about high-school football and the other about Elvis Presley. There is the English teacher, with bleached hair and a “Tommy” shirt (because “kids love brand names”), who performs card tricks for his students and regales them with stories about his lost career as a basketball player. And there is the memorable Sandra Sterge, an English teacher—I think—who makes constant sexual innuendos in class, calling attractive male students “hotties” and joking about spending the weekend with them at the Day’s Inn.
I say I think Sandra Sterge is an English teacher, but it is hard to tell. She sees her role as making sure students “are happy and feel like they belong,” which seems to boil down to keeping them entertained. We do not see this former beauty queen instructing students in grammar, essay-writing, or literature—the subjects traditionally associated with her profession. Instead Burkett shows her to us teaching public speaking with a “lip-sync unit,” an exercise in which students rap songs with lyrics such as “I like big butts and I cannot lie” and “I’m long and I’m strong and I’m down to get the friction on.”
Nor is Sterge alone at Prior Lake in using popular culture as a tool for . . . well, it is unclear for what. During study hall, students watch the melodramatic psychobabble of The Maury Show. The English department insists that students study The Scarlet Letter—the movie, not the book. Other teachers show educational fare like the cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Keeping students properly diverted is also a key part of the program at Faircrest High in California. Especially striking is Pope’s depiction of American-history classes. In one of them, the teacher assigns only two projects for the entire semester, so that the students can, in her words, focus “in-depth” and become “experts.” As a practical matter, this means that aside from watching a few videos about World War II, they spend most of their time listening to each other’s “brief, disconnected reports on . . . topics as varied as the history of the automobile or the life of Lucille Ball.” Another history teacher begins a unit on the 1960’s by dressing in a tie-dyed shirt and lighting incense.
As for Faircrest’s elite AP course in American history, its chief distinction seems to be higher production values. Eve Lin (as Pope calls one of the school’s star students) worked for 250 hours on her part of an “intensive” group research project. Pope describes the culmination of this effort, a presentation in which the members of the group, wearing NASA name tags and T-shirts, escort their classmates into a darkened room decorated with twinkling stars. Through several scene and costume changes, they take the class on makeshift rockets, show film clips about space travel, and, using cardboard cones and Styrofoam cups, demonstrate how the Apollo 13 crew managed to fix their damaged spacecraft—all of this while the music from Star Wars blasts in the background. The teacher pronounces the show “magnificent” and gives the group an A+.
Not all the teachers at Prior Lake and Faircrest confuse education with entertainment. Some are serious and demanding, and they attract the most motivated students. But almost all of these exceptional teachers seem to be tired soldiers from a different era, readying themselves for retirement. One math teacher at Prior Lake, a veteran of 27 years, drives her calculus students so hard that they get perfect scores on the AP test at twice the national rate. While most students at the school do a total of two or three hours of homework a week, hers do more than that for her class alone.
But with no school-wide policies on matters like tardiness, plagiarism, and grading, even the most conscientious teachers find themselves without support, and sorely tempted to compromise their standards. Sick of excuses for unfinished homework, they hand out worksheets to be completed in class and hold special study groups before each test, resigned to the fact that their students will cram the past month’s assignments into a single all-nighter. The hard-driving calculus teacher at Prior Lake compares her school to East Berlin before the wall fell, a place where “nobody did much work because rewards bore little relationship to merit.”
What may be the saddest part of these accounts is that the students at Prior Lake and Faircrest are not the least bit engaged by the “edutainment” that increasingly dominates their curriculum. To the contrary, they are often contemptuous of their chummy, “with-it” teachers. Eve Lin waits away from the NASA demonstration knowing that her A+ does not add up to much. “All that work for a one-hour performance. . . . I think people really underestimate what students can do.” Others are disgusted by the condescension they constantly experience in the classroom. “She thinks she redefines cool,” says one student of Sandra Sterge, the lip-sync queen. “I’m embarrassed for her. Can’t she behave like an adult?”
Still, unlike their inner-city peers, the vast majority of these middle-class kids accept their tiresome four years as fate, a necessary prelude to college, which is itself a necessary prelude to a good paycheck. They do not play hooky, threaten teachers, or get into knife fights. Rather, they size up the situation and treat high school like a game, knowing what it takes to win. As one girl tells Burkett, “You can get all A’s without learning anything.”
This is what Pope means by “doing school,” and it takes many forms. Students sign up for courses that include a lot of group projects and then befriend smarter, more conscientious classmates who will perform most of the work. They try to be “interactive,” as they sometimes put it, asking a question every few minutes to impress the teacher even as they sit at their desks doing homework for the next class. They whine that a test was too hard, even—or especially—if they know it was not. They try to win over teachers by asking how their training for the marathon is going or whether they enjoyed a weekend date. “I have no interest in the personal lives of the teachers,” one girl says of the young man who teaches her government course, “but it’s a game, and Mr. Carr is losing.”
Whenever possible, they also pick teachers who are reputed to be easy graders or who assign journals or “creative writing” instead of research papers or tests. One of the five “ideal students” whom Pope follows in her book chooses to write her English report on Cesar Chavez—not for reasons of political commitment but because she has saved an A paper about him that she wrote in middle school. They use Cliff’s Notes and log onto sparknotes.com to get summaries of the books they are supposed to read, and if such resources do not provide enough help, they cheat.
In all of this, moreover, the students are actively aided and abetted by their parents. In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, Burkett said that nothing shocked her more about Prior Lake than the attitude of the parents, who see themselves not as the allies of the teachers and administrators but as their children’s agents. If a teacher is too academically demanding, they lobby to get their child transferred to another class. If junior’s grades flag, they demand extra-credit work to let him bring them up. And they gripe: “Why isn’t my child getting a higher grade?” “My son never got a B before.” As Burkett writes of Prior Lake, “I didn’t meet one teacher there demoralized by the low pay. But I met dozens of teachers demoralized by abusive parents who were not willing to let them do their jobs by holding kids to higher standards or by making them work.”
Their authority undermined at every turn—not least by their own behavior—teachers find that order in their classrooms is pretty much dependent on adolescent whim. After being called to task for runaway talking, one girl at Prior Lake protests, “It’s not my fault, I have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder].” A special-ed student whose disability gives him the right to copies of a teacher’s lecture notes feels free to sleep during class. At Faircrest, when several students pull down their pants and moon their classmates, a teacher can do nothing more than tell them to “cut it out.”
One of Pope’s subjects, a talented but underchallenged student named Michelle, finds herself paired for a project with a class slacker who failed the last test and had not done the reading since the fall, when she lost her textbook. Just as Michelle begins their joint presentation, her partner saunters out of the classroom to go to the bathroom. Michelle presents the material as her classmates take notes. “Slow down!” they yell. “Shit, you weren’t supposed to write a book!” The teacher pleads, “Be nice” and “No swearing,” but no one listens.
In her inability to make sense of these chaotic scenes, Denise Clark Pope unwittingly illustrates how little our self-styled education experts have to tell us about the problems of suburban schools. She views Fair-crest through the prism of ed-school cliché. Such schools, she argues, are too focused on achievement and competition, and give short shrift to cooperative learning—even as her examples demonstrate that the latter approach simply leaves the better students to carry the weaker ones. She also suggests, contradictorily, that they do not provide enough opportunities for individualized learning—even as Faircrest students choose paper or research topics that let them get away with as little original work as possible.
Pope is right to object to the cynicism of the game the schools ask their students to play, but she offers no vision of what an educated person should look like. Her chief concern is that young people become “passionately committed” to learning; what they learn seems to be a matter of indifference. As she sees it, a Faircrest student who adores her Mexican dance class and another who is deeply involved in his community-service project are models of educational excellence.
Elinor Burkett, who comes to her subject with fewer preconceptions and more curiosity, provides a fresher picture of the suburban high school. But she is no more able than Pope to explain what she has so astutely observed. Indeed, as their two accounts make clear, none of the usual suspects takes us very far in assigning blame for the stubborn mediocrity of schools like Prior Lake and Faircrest.
Multiculturalism certainly does not play much of a role; Burkett notes that most of the assigned books are by white males. Nor are the educators at these schools sophisticated enough to have been corrupted by postmodernism—most have not heard of Faulkner, much less Foucault. Burkett makes a strong case for the woeful influence of the religion of self-esteem, but this too seems insufficient. Indulgent as they may be at times, teachers and parents alike do set real goals for the students. At both schools, caffeine-driven, sleep-deprived teenagers have date books crammed with lab-report assignments, church activities, tennis practice, theater and band rehearsals, student-council meetings, and part-time jobs. Finally, the schools impose a measure of order and discipline. Administrators search students’ cars, test them for drugs, send them home for wearing T-shirts with provocative messages, and even take them to task for hanging out with the wrong people.
Why, then, do so many middle-class Americans now act as if education is nothing more than a “game”? The ultimate culprits no doubt lie deep in our national character, and most of all in our relentless pragmatism, which here expresses itself in the inability of a single adult in this educational universe to offer a broader view. Along with any serious commitment to subjects like English and history, the idea of education as a way to sharpen mental discipline, to cultivate higher cultural interests, or to teach civic principles has simply disappeared. The course offerings at Prior Lake include journalism, theater, stress management, and “death education” (which includes field trips to a cemetery and an undertaker), and educators now refer to activities like student council and football as “cocurricular” rather than “extra-curricular.”
When everyone accepts that education is simply a means to acquire a McMansion and an SUV, the distinction between reading a classic novel and producing an entertaining video dissolves, especially if both efforts are rewarded with a coveted A. When students see teachers standing in front of them lighting incense or nodding approvingly during student presentations about I Love Lucy, it is perfectly understandable if they conclude that these adults have nothing serious to offer them, and are undeserving of their respect.
In a discussion of Thomas Jefferson during an honors class at Prior Lake, students demand, “How is this relevant to my life?” When the subject is the Electoral College, they complain, “Why do we have to learn this?” To some extent, this is just typical adolescent provocation. But the truth is, their teacher, an amiable but vapid young man whose literary taste has never evolved beyond John Grisham, does not have the slightest idea how to answer them—how to explain, that is, the importance of something like citizenship, which does not impinge directly on their immediate wants and needs.
But teenagers are not simply looking to be amused and flattered. At the end of her book, Burkett is surprised to run into one class goof-off who, after graduation, had enlisted in the Marines. He finished basic training with a perfect score on his final exam. “In boot camp,” he tells her, “they kick your butt if you don’t try your hardest.”
Most graduates of our suburban high schools must wait until after graduation—if then—to experience satisfaction of this sort. The education they receive during the decisive years of adolescence not only fails to spark their intellectual and moral imaginations, it hardly even tries. Instead it aims to produce students like Eric, a top academic achiever at Prior Lake, highly regarded by his teachers. “My belief is that every part of life is a game,” he tells Burkett. “The question is: what can I get away with before it’s a problem.”
1 HarperCollins, 336 pp., $26.00.
2 Yale University Press, 240 pp., $24.95.