Reviews: Surprise Endings

March 01, 2002 6 min read
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ANOTHER PLANET: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School, by Elinor Burkett. (HarperCollins, 336 pages, $26.) In the wake of the 1999 Columbine tragedy, Burkett, a journalist and author of several highly praised books, decided to spend a year at a typical suburban high school to see if dangerous fault lines were undermining the foundation of this American institution. She chose Prior Lake High, a predominantly white, middle-class school about 30 miles from Minneapolis with an interesting mix of students, ranging from Christian fundamentalists to young intellectuals to hard-drinking athletes.

As Burkett tells it, lots of alienated kids drift about the corridors of Prior Lake, but they come across as more goofy and sad than dangerous. There is a shoplifting cheerleader, for example, who chitchats during every class and, at one point, proclaims: “It’s not my fault. I have ADHD.” Another girl, this one a social outcast on an anti-jock crusade, finishes all her arguments with boys by saying: “OK, you win. Your penis is bigger than mine.” Almost all the students cheat, according to Burkett, and a fair number are burdened with dysfunctional families.

One big problem is a shortage of positive role models. A number of the teachers—including the most popular—exhibit behavior as adolescent as the teens’. With disdain creeping into her prose, Burkett writes of faculty members who recount their weekend exploits to the youngsters, use cooperative learning to avoid teaching, and in the case of two “hip” female English instructors, enjoy sexual repartee with students. “You’re so cute,” one jokingly tells a boy. “Come spend the weekend with me at Days Inn.”

When it comes to grading, the difference between an A, B, or C frequently has more to do with the varying standards of individual teachers than with the quality of student work. As is often the case, the best and most demanding teachers are perceived by many of their colleagues as “snobs.” Although they earn the respect of a small, devoted group of students, their tough grading policies scare others away. Students, Burkett writes, expect A’s for the most cursory efforts.

Indeed, as the year progresses, the author becomes far more concerned about what she perceives as the school’s abysmally low standards than the potential of a student shooting spree. Adult expectations for students, she declares, went to hell in the ’70s and have never recovered. “Loosey goosey” educational trends— such as the self- esteem movement, pointless field trips, and the use of films to teach classic novels—all of this and more, she argues, are ruining public education.

Interestingly, a number of national trends refute Burkett’s assertion that the suburban high school is in decline. SAT scores, for example, are on the rise. And record numbers of suburban kids are now taking advanced placement and honors courses. While such measures are imperfect, they nevertheless suggest that many kids may be learning more today than their counterparts did 30 or 40 years ago.

The exception, of course, is the poor-performing, “burnout” kids, who have always made up a significant proportion of even the most affluent high school’s student body. At Prior Lake, these kids have been relegated to a vaguely academic program called “Focus,” where it’s not clear that they learn anything. Burkett persuasively argues that these youngsters need a good school-to-work program, an innovation the faculty amazingly dismisses as anti-intellectual.

Still, if Prior Lake is truly emblematic of the typical suburban high school and Another Planet is an accurate picture of what’s going on there, perhaps we should worry less about such schools turning out kids like Klebold and Harris, the Columbine killers, and more about them producing the likes of Harry and Lloyd, the protagonists of the hit movie Dumb and Dumber.

THE PROGRESSIVE LEGACY: Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School (1901-2001), by Marie Kirchner Stone. (Peter Lang, 370 pages, $29.95.) More than 100 years ago, long before “child centered” education became a common slogan, Col. Francis Parker, a former Union officer in the Civil War, founded a school in Chicago built on that very premise. Stone, who taught at the K-12 Parker School for 32 years before retiring in 1998, describes the founder as someone far ahead of his time, emphasizing experiential and thematic learning and the importance of democracy in school life. Today, the school he started is still regarded as one of the nation’s most venerable progressive institutions.

But is this reputation justified? Has the school remained true to its progressive tradition? Those are the questions Stone examines in these pages, concluding, albeit somewhat cautiously, that it has. Yet the evidence she presents in this detailed history indicates otherwise.

In the early years, the school was essentially run by the faculty in collaboration with the students. Each day began with a gathering, called “Morning Exercise,” during which students made presentations. The school was known for its student productions and publications. But, as Stone describes it, these and other progressive characteristics have waned over the past half-century. Morning Exercise, for example, has become increasingly irrelevant, a time when cartoons and films are sometimes shown. And the rich extracurricular activities have been edged out by a single-minded focus on academics. Perhaps most discouraging, though, is the way the teachers, who once defined the school’s mission, have slowly become “pawns” of the trustees.

Stone suggests that the drift away from progressivism has in part occurred as a result of the college- admissions game. With elite colleges looking for A’s in advanced placement courses and high SAT scores, the school, she writes, has found it difficult to “develop the full potential of each student as progressives defined it.” As a result, Parker today looks not so much like a great progressive institution as it does just another very good prep school.

LEARNING POLICY: When State Education Reform Works, by David K. Cohen and Heather C. Hill. (Yale University Press, 224 pages, $30.) In the 1980s and ’90s, California launched an unprecedented effort to improve the teaching of mathematics statewide. Frameworks for instruction were crafted that emphasized complex problem solving over drill and memorization. And because many teachers had a weak conceptual understanding of mathematics, the state offered professional development tied to the frameworks.

In this interesting if dryly written book, Cohen and Hill—an education professor and a research associate at the University of Michigan, respectively— report on their decadelong study of the California effort. Oddly, many of their findings suggest, albeit diplomatically, that the reforms were not nearly as successful as the subtitle suggests. One of the big problems was the professional-development component. Although some of the training helped give teachers a deeper understanding of math, much of it was hopelessly generic, focusing on tangential topics like cooperative learning and coping with diversity. Too many teachers, the authors write, only wanted what “would be immediately useful,” making it difficult to offer workshops geared toward long- term change.

Cohen and Hill point out that many teachers, including those who liked much about the new approach, continued to practice conventional math instruction. Considering that the state decided, in the late ’90s, to reemphasize computational skills and the like, these teachers, it now appears, were more wise than stubborn in not buying into the reforms wholesale.

—David Ruenzel


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