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High School Daze
September 8, 2003 8:27 AM   Subscribe

The best high school in America? WaPo's Michael Dirda reviews Edward Humes' School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School.

Gretchen Whitney High is an incredible success ("People move to the Cerritos area so that their children can attend this school... And by move I don't mean from Los Angeles: They relocate from India, from Korea") story academically, especially considering its origins But there's always a price, typically exacted by the parents, who display the same good sense and no-pressure behaviors they've displayed at Little League and Pop Warner games. But no one's killed anybody over Whitney admission, at least that we know of. The story of Cecilia's art portfolio, though, will break your heart. Humes offers larger lessons, too, about how to improve our schools. I am buying this book today.
posted by mojohand (31 comments total)

 
Poor kids. What are they going to do when they get out of the grade reward system academics? High School to prepare for Ivy or prestige schools, then another 4 years of grind for the right graduate or professional school. Then what?

(on second thought, silly question, they'll end up as worker bees in the 'professions' law, medicine, consulting, i-banking, etc..., that way they can keep the hamster wheel spinning)

I suppose I shouldn't be complaining too much, with the creativity and independent thought of these bright kids smothered to naught, it leaves the leadership and vision type jobs open for idiosyncratic outside-the-box liberal arts graduates such as myself. What was it about Ivy grads working at all of the top businesses, but not running any of them?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:57 AM on September 8, 2003


Yeah! A great school in a rich neighborhood! What a shining success! Now if only those poor rural districts could follow their lead and be rich as well, our educational system will be fine.

I'm not trying to be a prick, and certainly the people I've met who attended top-notch high schools have benefited tremendously, but it just goes to show how being from a poor rural area can handicap a kid from the get-go. All of the kids from this high school are going to show up to college with a million AP/Honors credit, further rewarding their fortuitous births with a much easier path through higher education.

Not trying to feel sorry for myself here... I went to a tiny high school in the Ozarks with no foreign language, AP, or honors classes, and we couldn't even take home our books (there were only enough to use as clasroom sets). I got lucky and got out, but I knew so many kids who worked and were smart but just had no chance to really prove it, especially if their school lost its state accreditation. But a comparably skilled and motivated student at the school in the link would probably go to Harvard.

The thing that people always fall back on when confronted with wealth disparity in the US is the fact that American rewards hard work. In the case of education, it would be more accurate to say that it rewards one's parents' hard work.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:25 AM on September 8, 2003


One father told Bob Beall, the program's founding principal, "I'm very wealthy. I"ll be happy to make a large donation once my son is admitted. What amount would you like?" Another disappointed parent, a mother, took a different tack: " 'I'd do anything to get my daughter into Whitney,' she said, closing Beall's office door, leaning close to him, and staring meaningfully into his eyes. 'Anything.' "

Grew up near this area which has seem to always have had a large Asian presence but thought Whitney was private from the way the school was described. With Cerritos having more than one public school, the above quote does not sound public but elite.

no social lives, they sign up to retake their SATs immediately when they score less than 1500,
This seems more parent driven than student's one self. Also notice in Asian culture they take pride in their child's grades. But many times have seen a report card with one B the rest A's and the parents were not proud because they could not say their child had "straight A's".
Although their parents push them they usually live very well in nice homes and drive new cars so their school work ethic is rewarded.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:27 AM on September 8, 2003


Reminds me of the countless stories of child prodigies (see the 12 year old in medical school). Whenever I read them, I wonder - what's the point? Is the purpose of life to get good grades and earn lots of money? These kids are pushed so hard by their parents to basically do the things they wanted to, to become trophies to be shown off to other parents. The sad thing is when the kids grow up, become lawyers and start saying things like, "I know I'll have no life, but I'll be earning a lot of money." Sigh.

I made a post on my weblog about this, the utter lack of imagination of parents - and kids - in trying to achieve and 'excel'.
posted by adrianhon at 9:36 AM on September 8, 2003


They also make wonderful music.
posted by Witty at 9:43 AM on September 8, 2003


There was just a letter to the editor at Harvard Magazine encouraging this same "teach them to be worker bees" mentality at the college level. (Scroll halfway down, to the letter titled "UNIVERSITY, CORPORATE ALLIES.")

One of the more infuriating letters I've read in a while.
posted by occhiblu at 10:01 AM on September 8, 2003


They also make wonderful music.
Witty, the above link was for Widney High.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:06 AM on September 8, 2003


Sigh. More gifted-education bashing. I think that attending one of these schools would be a great experience, but I'm not sure if it gives you an advantage, let alone an unfair one, over people who went to a decent-but-not-great public high school (poor rural districts and inner cities are a different issue.) After all, colleges want to take only so many students from a few elite high school programs. I wonder if parents understand this when they try to get their kids into these programs. My parents actually thought that neither of them having graduated college would hurt my college admission chances.

Here's a former child prodigy who's not a worker bee or a corporate suit. He finished his education at the pace that was right for him and he is doing the intellectual work that, I assume, fulfills him most, at the point in his life, work that requires more imagination than I can even, well, imagine. And he's doing it when he is best able to use his brain instead of being artificially held back (mathematicians, unlike writers, do not generally improve with age.) That, I think, is the "point."
posted by transona5 at 10:35 AM on September 8, 2003


This sort of school will not be a guarantee that a student will be admitted to a specific elite college or a guarantee that a student will have a financially successful career. It's not even the primary purpose. However, this school is important to families because the academic focus and value system that promotes ambition reflects the values of those familes. Families choose towns, churches, and schools that reflect their own values, and if they value academics and preparation for college but can't find a school like Whitney, they're worse off for it.

Incidently, Whitney is a public magnet school, which is why there's competition to get in-- admissions policies.
posted by deanc at 11:05 AM on September 8, 2003


Speaking as someone who went to a public magnet school (one that was in a bit of rivalry with Whitney, also), I know a lot about the hothouse atmosphere of these schools -- how it's about the straight-As and the extracurricular activities and the constant push-push-push to do this, do that, be this person, do that thing, go go go go go go.

A lot of the kids I knew in high school aren't doing anything at the moment -- nearly ten years on, and we've had stress-related dropouts, unemployment hell, grad school pitfalls, and all that super-duper aspiring superstar wonder that we were supposed to do...we just haven't.

They kept on pushing us to be aerospace engineers just as the aerospace industry was falling apart. When we asked them about our future career options, they just shrugged and kept talking. They kept on pushing us to have better and better grades, taking more and more college mathematics classes, and didn't bother to actually prepare us for the job market.

Or, at least, that was the admin and science staff. Somehow, by sheer luck, we also ended up with a really good humanities faculty. For two years, we had a brilliant dance instructor, picked up some great teachers more than willing to teach random electives, and developed an arts and humanities education that made most of us well-rounded. I'd spend my days reading novels, doing my math homework, working on my anatomy lessons, studying monologues for drama class, and practicing the latest routine for the dance recital a few months away.

And, God, do I ever get the feeling these kids aren't getting that.

"The classrooms are small. The largest of the rooms is smaller than California's average classroom, the halls are crowded and specialty rooms such as fine arts rehearsal and performance facilities arts are absent."

What are you doing? No arts? Just the endless drudgery of "Your grades! Your grades are important for your college life! Grades! Nothing but grades!"

They will burn out. They will develop ulcers and stress illnesses and their first week at university will be hell. I saw too many of my friends freak out, and I know it'll happen to these kids too.

*deep breath*

Okay, I'm calm now. Now I bring in comedy.

"The school climate however is claim, friendly, and optimistic." (emphasis mine)

However, spelling is optional.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:44 AM on September 8, 2003


I think Cecilia should put her parents out on the street and let them get run over for half an hour.

Or at the very least, have them spend their twilight years in the cheapest retirement castle possible.
posted by marzenie99 at 11:48 AM on September 8, 2003


I know a lot about the hothouse atmosphere of these schools -- how it's about the straight-As and the extracurricular activities and the constant push-push-push to do this, do that, be this person, do that thing, go go go go go go.

It depends on how small they are. My public magnet school was tiny, about 130 kids total. Bright kids who all know each other discover the virtues of collective action very, very quickly.
posted by furiousthought at 12:09 PM on September 8, 2003


Education is an industry. The SATs, despite all their flaws, are a source of revenue for tons of independent SAT prep classes, books, and tutors. Private schools and magnet schools get more money (in donations, especially) and more applicants if they can demonstrate that their students got into prestigious colleges. Colleges also get more money and applicants if their graduates go on to prestigious jobs.

It is in the interest of the colleges, the high schools and the SATs for parents to buy into the concept that grades in the core subjects, and most especially SAT scores, are the only measure of future success in life. By creating this sort of grade and point hysteria, they ensure that they will make more money.

Meanwhile, in Florida, students can now forgo their senior year in public high schools by skipping out on physical education, arts, and life management classes.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:11 PM on September 8, 2003


My parents both went to Brown. They're pressuring me right now to work harder because I'm a senior... So now I'm supposed to get better grades after 3 years of sloth. Right, sure.

I got much higher than that girl's SAT scores (I got the equivalent of a 1400 on the PSAT sophomore year). I have a 3.1 GPA and have taken 6 AP classes (I averaged a 4 on the tests), and I do literally no work at all. When my parents told me to do all this "work", I told them to fuck off. They've tried to make me care for years, and I still don't. That's what these kids haven't learned - you've gotta draw the line somewhere. I don't care about being employable, and I don't care about money, and that's good enough for me.

Strategically, it's a big error to graduate from a high school like that because of the whole college quota system. Colleges don't like to take too many people from the same school anyway, so unless you're the best of the best it's really a bad idea. If you excel at a bad high school you look better "affirmative action"-wise anyway.

I have a feeling this links back to the whole "obey your parents" bit that the fundies pull. These nuts are ruining their kid's lives.
posted by Veritron at 12:12 PM on September 8, 2003


Strategically, it's a big error to graduate from a high school like that because of the whole college quota system. Colleges don't like to take too many people from the same school anyway, so unless you're the best of the best it's really a bad idea. If you excel at a bad high school you look better "affirmative action"-wise anyway

This might not be the best thing to bank on, but it's true. I never would have gotten into a top-ten school (at the time; they've managed to tank their rating pretty quickly) if I wasn't the lone, shining applicant from Trailerparkistan.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:36 PM on September 8, 2003


furiousthought: It depends on how small they are. My public magnet school was tiny, about 130 kids total. Bright kids who all know each other discover the virtues of collective action very, very quickly.

Heh. You're not one of my old high school friends are you? A whole bunch of the kids in my AP English class got busted for "collectively" writing up literary analyses. All it took was one person who forgot to change the sentences into "her own words," and boom -- the great scandal of CAMS 1995.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2003


I don't care about being employable, and I don't care about money, and that's good enough for me.

You should be an interesting little project in about 5 years.

I have a feeling this links back to the whole "obey your parents" bit that the fundies pull.

Yea... parents are stupid. Rebel.
posted by Witty at 1:13 PM on September 8, 2003


Oh, and cruel Asian parents are cruel Asian parents no matter what school their kids go to. You can find horror stories like Cecilia's portfolio at any California school. When the message gets across (in my opinion) correctly, you get people like me and my fiance, who are driven by a tremendous respect for intellectual pursuits and a (hopefully) healthy competitive desire to excel and make ourselves and our parents proud.
posted by synapse at 1:35 PM on September 8, 2003


Isn't someone going to say Blair Hornstein?! (There, whew)
posted by dirtylittlemonkey at 2:17 PM on September 8, 2003


Heh. You're not one of my old high school friends are you? A whole bunch of the kids in my AP English class got busted for "collectively" writing up literary analyses. All it took was one person who forgot to change the sentences into "her own words," and boom -- the great scandal of CAMS 1995.

Oh nonononono, I'm not talking about cheating. This is more labor-union stuff. Let me put it this way: why do your work collectively when you can not do your work collectively? As in, not do it at all. That's what I'm talking about. Much more effective as a long-term strategy too.
posted by furiousthought at 2:21 PM on September 8, 2003


Another anecdotal data point: two of the brightest kids in my high school class, at a middle-of-the-road suburban high school where athletics reigned supreme and college was something you thought about your senior year, completely burned out. One never finished, one left college after a semester. If someone's going to burn out, they'll find a way.
posted by transona5 at 2:51 PM on September 8, 2003


Public school student though she was, Blair was a product of the same system I mentioned earlier.

When getting into the right school by getting the right grades and the right SAT scores becomes more important than actual education, you produce the occasional monster. I am refering, of course, to Blair's dad. (and many of the parents mentioned in the article.)
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:52 PM on September 8, 2003


you produce the occasional monster.
Blair's dad
Point out these parents would not cheat the system though. Blair's dad as it seemed did try. Say this remembering a scandal at USC during the 80's. It was published students were able to buy their grades/test scores. Know many Asians whom passed on their acceptance there because of it and the University also lost its esteem among them in S.Calif.
They do want their children to be #1 which seems part of their culture which when it comes to kids may be a good "bragging right" as long as it it not taken to the extreme. The fine line in all this is how far is "safe' when pushing a child to learn and not cross a boundary.

If one is to push a child whom better, the parent or teacher? Does sound as this school's enrollment has both.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:18 PM on September 8, 2003


what marzenie99 said. I'm so glad i teach at a community college and not high school.
posted by notsnot at 3:18 PM on September 8, 2003


*steps back, shakes self off, gets off soapbox.

Joey Michaels - yes, you're right about the system. It can produce monsters. It's messy on all sides though. I mean, there are limited numbers of spots in most schools. While a talented artist who is terrible at taking tests should not necessarily be denied admission, neither should a hardworking geeky student who worked their ass off to get good grades and get a brilliant SAT score. Unfortunately, I've seen several people in both categories get denied under current admission policies.

What would be better? (I'm not trying to be obnoxious - I'm genuinely interested in hearing ideas)
posted by synapse at 3:41 PM on September 8, 2003


synapse: What would be better?

For from being obnoxious, I think this is one of the single most important questions facing education today. The short answer is, "I don't know - but I'm trying to figure it out, too."

Perhaps a system that focuses more on the student as an individual and less on the student as a series of statistics would only help colleges produce better graduates. Perhaps a portfolio review system coupled with aggressive interviews and essays - as time consuming as that might be - would work for some programs in some schools, while a rigorous math and science proficiency test would work better for other programs.

Ultimately, the standardized test coupled with the concept that all students must meet certain mathematical standards (grades) as teenagers in order to be successful in life does a disservice to the student, to the college and (in the long run) to our culture.

In the meantime, wiser heads than mine are trying to search for alternatives to the SATs, and that is sort of a start.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:40 PM on September 8, 2003


What would be better? Set minimum standards for admission that are fair for all sorts of talented kids. Make them sufficiently lenient that you have at least five times as many applicants as you have room for. Hold a drawing.
posted by kindall at 7:23 PM on September 8, 2003


Well, apparently, in Britain, they're apparently considering a lottery as an appropriate way of selecting students for university because it's getting to the point at which the abilities of the students cannot be fairly distinguished in any other way, because (due to increasing pressure to suceed these days...?) all the bright students are getting straight-As with great CVs.
posted by tucola at 5:29 AM on September 9, 2003


Using "apparently" twice within five words would exclude you from the lottery. Apparently
posted by tucola at 5:31 AM on September 9, 2003


Grade inflation will do that. When everyone is playing the system, the system ceases to be useful.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:09 AM on September 9, 2003


Somehow I'm under the impression that many of the comments in this thread (the pace being set by the very first one) are by people who are either hysterically misconceptioned, or simply jealous. I'm sorry to break it to you, but testing culture and diversity aside, good teachers, AP/IB classes, and high test scores on college entrance tests generally do correspond to a combination of high intelligence and diligence, and high concentrations of students with these qualities generally do constitute kick-ass schools. And by kick-ass, I mean hands-down excellence in all areas of intellectual and social performance by the student body as a whole.
posted by azazello at 6:21 PM on September 9, 2003


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