Does high school haunt you?
December 8, 2001 7:57 PM   Subscribe

Does high school haunt you? Elinor Burkett spent a year in a suburban high school to get everybody's opinion on how this "typical" school was doing. How were your high school days?
posted by jacobw (29 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Boring and alienating. Mostly doodle-filled. I didn't even, technically, complete all four of them. Ahem. (By answering tough questions about things like "100% of 32?", I now have the legal equivalent of a 4.0 GPA. Or something.)

This book looks unenlightening, but fascinating. She has good points to make, that will never be heard by those that need to hear them.
posted by kevspace at 8:39 PM on December 8, 2001

Haven't read the book, but concur that lack of tracking is a bad thing all around.

Ironically, anti-tracking is at its most powerful in schools in mixed and marginal areas (where it tends to reveal serious gaps in preparation and success correllating to economic and racial alignments in the class) and in the wealthiest of areas (where highly educated and successful parents can't bear to deal with the idea that their Michael or Caitlin just isn't cut out for the Ivy Leagues).

I happened to grow up in a place which was economically and racially homogenous, while not being particularly bedeviled by psycho-yuppies: so tracking was taken as non-invidious and parents were willing to let their kids rise and fall on their kids' own actual talent and motivation.
posted by MattD at 8:48 PM on December 8, 2001

Would someone explain what tracking is?
posted by geoff. at 8:52 PM on December 8, 2001

Must agree on something the author said in her interview: the incessant pressure by adminstrators to "be happy," which results in the kids feeling emotionally hectored. To force people into nonalienation is in itself extremely alienating.
posted by Charmian at 9:02 PM on December 8, 2001

as part of a non-disclosure agreement I signed, I'm not allowed to discuss the particulars of my high school experience.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:24 PM on December 8, 2001

I got kicked out, post-columbine.

High School has no room for humor of any sorts.
posted by trioperative at 9:26 PM on December 8, 2001

Wow, what a great link. Fascinating. One of the things that is most interesting is that the author actually changed her mind about some fairly basic things during the course of her research, she didn't just try to make what she experienced fit preconceived notions. And that the community seems to be taking the book to heart, and trying to improve the school. Impressive. I should read the book.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:15 PM on December 8, 2001

Geoff, tracking is when classes are divided up by ability, so that, say, kids with a higher level of reading than their peers might be stuck in a more advanced English class while someone having trouble might be in a lower-level class, rather than just having a catch-all "nth grade English" class.

As for what she says.. definitely very true, at least in my experience. I graduated 3 & a half years ago from a high school in a relatively affluent suburb that was about as homogeneous as it gets & definitely see my experience mirrored in what was described in the article. Frequent cheating, parents who would do anything so their kids would get a good grade.. I hated high school. I'm definitely going to look into getting this book...
posted by zempf at 10:50 PM on December 8, 2001

wow, that was a really amazing article.

geoff -- i want to expand on what zempf said... tracking can mean dividing kids up at a pretty young age (generally 7th and 8th grade but based on even earlier divisions that take place in fifth grade when it is decided which kids are put in the higher math group) into the college track, the vocational track, and a general track.

the two major problems with tracking is that there is very very little possibility to "jump" from one track to another and that often kids get divided according to race. if there are racist elements in the system they lock kids into certain futures unfairly. the kids and their families don't get to choose, the teachers and the administration do. it can be a self-perpetuating system.

this 1998 article describes how tracking systems are evaluated and discusses many studies on the subject.

One of the big questions in the whole tracking debate is are you doing students who won't end up in college a disservice by providing them with a college-prep education? Is providing a rigorous college-prep track for everyone a mis-allocation of limited school funds?

Right now the best way for high schools to provide really rigorous courses with standards is to teach AP courses.

this education week article addresses many of these issues
posted by palegirl at 11:37 PM on December 8, 2001

High school usually went something like this:

Homeroom (aka 1st period) -- suffered through my first elective class, Auto Shop, listening to Mr. Barbie drone about the inner workings of a carburetor.

2nd period -- my second elective class, Auto Body, I rather enjoyed, and actually went on later to become part of the illustrious group of blue collars known as Certified Automotive Spray Refinish Technicians (aka an automotive painter). Nevertheless, and almost invariably, some of us would bring our vehicles into the shop to work on. At that point, someone usually posed the question, "Hey, you guys wanna go to the lake/my house/etc.?" Then, three or four of us would answer, "Fuck yeah, let's go!"

Strangely enough, I can't tell you what other classes I had throughout the rest of the day...
I quit going, after my Sophomore year. Aaahh, the memories.
posted by lizardboy at 3:11 AM on December 9, 2001

I dunno... she violated the prime directive. She went in as an observer and then "she became so well integrated into the scene that at the end of the year the seniors asked her to speak at their graduation and invited her to attend future reunions as an honorary member of their class. " I think she tainted her subject matter by becoming involved.
posted by Counselco at 3:42 AM on December 9, 2001

Word to parents: do not yank your kid out of a lifetime of upper East coast private schools, drag him to Texas, mumble something about adjusting to the real world, and sentence him to adolescence-without-bail in a North Texas public high school.


*multiple choice, all true.
posted by Opus Dark at 5:06 AM on December 9, 2001

My high school experience was most unusual: I was a "homebound student" because of my health. Not "home-schooled": the San Francisco school district sent a teacher to me, two or three hours a week; I also took two college correspondence classes. I managed to graduate and go on to SF State College for two reasons: first, I loved to read and wanted to learn; second, my politically adept mother kept after the school system so that it met its obligations to me. Looking back--35 years later--the social isolation was very unfortunate. An introvert by nature, I became very isolated and solitary.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:52 AM on December 9, 2001

I would just like to point out on the tracking issue that I like it in get the more motivated/gifted children into a more accelerated group.
But, at the same time, I found that when I was in honors classes, I was more motivated than in the classes I wasn't in honors classes.
I think if there had been serious tracking and I had been placed entirely in non-honors/regular classes, I would not have learned anything, would not have enjoyed high school at all, and would not have excelled.
posted by jacobw at 7:28 AM on December 9, 2001

I agree, jacobw. I was in an honors history course in 9th grade, but due to my lack of interest/motivation, I came rather close to failing. Based on my performance in that class, I should have been "demoted" to the lower-level "college prep" history class the next year. My teacher fortunately understood that this would completely destroy any motivation I had, and managed to keep me in the honors level.

And I must say that I actually learned to enjoy and appreciate history class. Had I been in the lower level class with a group of complete morons (I mean, those in the honors class weren't all that great to begin with), I would have despised every moment of it.

Unfortunately, even the honors level in most of my other subjects (math/science, basically) was rather slow and boring, so I jumped ship after two years.
posted by whatnotever at 8:34 AM on December 9, 2001

"The Prime Directive: As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Starfleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation."

I believe Elinor Burkett did not violate the Star Trek edict against interference with other species. In any case, I think respectful participation in a culture brings a researcher understanding far beyond mere observation. An example: anthropologist Tanya M. Luhrmann's fascinating "Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry." "Her research for this book spans a decade, in which she attended resident training seminars, observed clinical assessments, conducted in-depth interviews with residents and patients, and drew on her own experiences and training as a therapist."
posted by Carol Anne at 8:55 AM on December 9, 2001

re: tracking. Our middle school gave us a test at the end of 7th grade which pretty much determined what track we'd be put in. It really only determined when we'd start algebra but if you didn't make it into the "advanced track" it devastated your hopes of taking any other of the advanced classes. They didn't tell us that before we took the test, so I spent the test doing what any other testosterone laden teenage boy would do - flirting with the girls. Cut to the end of 9th grade, where I realized I'd been shafted and all out lied about my prereqs so that I could take honor classes. Either no one cared or they caught me and decided not to press the issue, but I went to college and most of my friends didn't.

Now here's the kicker; I got Bs in those honors classes. Had I stayed in the non-honorers classes I probably would have got As in those classes. They had the grading system set up so that an A in an non-honors class was worth more than a B in an honors class. I would have graduated higher in my class had I not taken honors classes. I also wouldn't have thought college was a possibility until the day I found out my rank (too late), and wouldn't have learnt anything because those classes weren't trying to teach you anything, just increase your self-esteem.

re: "the in crowd" - her comment about joining all the clubs and what not is so true it's scary. I was a "loner" till Senior year, when I got a car which let me join all those clubs, go to football games, etc.. Suddenly I began hanging out with all those "in crowd" people, who before wouldn't even give me the time of the day. Hindsight. *shrug*
posted by jwells at 9:06 AM on December 9, 2001

I like that this particular experience, unlike the usual academia treatment of high school, shows that school has become to much of a damn "empower everyone" and not a "learn this shit" experience. I could count the days on my hand where high school actually challenged me, making me lazier and less likely to try.

As I've posted before, the less motivated people seemed to be to work it seems the more interested the school was. "Honors? You smarty-pants can fend for yourself. You think you're so high and mighty? Here, live among the morons!"

When you treat the smartest kid in school (who turned out to be my best friend) the same as you treat the laziest, you have a serious problem.
posted by owillis at 9:14 AM on December 9, 2001

I went to high school. Sometimes.

Freshman year started off right, with a crippling to my self esteem "Damn, you're ugly." Thanks John, really needed to hear someone say that since I'm only 14 years old. Why don't you pop that zit on your nose before you call me names?

Had I think a total of three dates during high school, two were last minute prom things. Senior year is mostly a blur, riding around skipping school with a bowl of weed.

My junior composition teacher called me the best writer in the class (what happened there?), the math teachers just called me ("where are you?"). The disciplinarian had my mother's work number on speed dial.

In the beginning I only wanted to fit in. In the end, I only wanted out. Needless to say, I didn't go to college. The only 'A' I received was from first period Gym class my junior year, when I would walk into class 10 minutes late with coffee and a doughnut. The P.E. teacher knew I didn't care, and he didn't mind.

Kids can be so cruel. Not that I blame John for my remarkably poor sense of self-worth (there are plenty of other contributing factors.), but I was fine before then and I can look in the mirror now and honestly i'm not a bad-looking guy. I didn't need to hear that, and having led a sheltered life before then, it really worked a number on me.

I shoulda decked him.
posted by schlaager at 10:49 AM on December 9, 2001

Tracking (streaming we used to call it) worked pretty well in my school. You got put in sets from the age of 12 depending on the results of the first end of year exams. There were about eight sets for each subject. You could be in set one for English and set five for maths if that's where your strengths lay and the set you were in would be reassessed at the end of every year.

Everyone took their exams together and the sets had no bearing on the results. I can't think of a much better system that that. The teachers had a variety of sets to teach and taught the same material, the only differece being the standard of the pupils in each. I did miserably in my first maths exam, got put in set five but worked my way up to three and ended up with an A.

I have no idea whether this is still the system at my old school, but it would be a real shame if it wasn't.
posted by Summer at 11:04 AM on December 9, 2001


My experience of streaming was that it was part of the mechanism by which middle-class parents could keep their children separate from working-class kids. Probably my school, though, which was trying to carry on as though it were still a grammar school, treating the non-grammar-school kids as an embarrassment to be kept out of the way (twenty years later things are much improved, I'm glad to say).

(I'm sorry, I can't find a good link to explain that last sentence - basically, at one time, British schools were divided into Grammar schools and Secondary Modern schools, the former academic, the latter vocational, entrance for the grammar schools by a test at 11. Mightn't have been so bad if there had been some flexibility, for those who had just had a bad day when they did the test, or who were late developers, but there wasn't. It was a very effective way of separating the already-middle-class and wannabe middle-class children from the drones. During the 60s and 70s, this system came under attack, and in many parts of England and Wales, there came to be only one kind of school - the Comprehensive - which combined all kinds of pupil. Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that, but that's the gist. The fundamental theme of educational policy ever since has been governments of both persuasions trying to find ways for parents to easily keep the oiks away from their nice clean darlings, with varying success.)

My problem was that I wasn't very good at A levels - did them twice, with diminishing results. Sad, really.

I imagine that these days they're so busy preparing the kids for tests that they don't have enough time to teach them anything anyway.
posted by Grangousier at 1:15 PM on December 9, 2001

Oh, by the way, my description of British Education policy is incredibly biased. Thought I should make that clear.
posted by Grangousier at 1:17 PM on December 9, 2001

When you treat the smartest kid in school (who turned out to be my best friend) the same as you treat the laziest, you have a serious problem.

What, the smart kids can't also be lazy? Dumb kids can't work hard?

The approach reminds me of a book I read (in high school, no less) by a sociologist, Donna Gaines; she spent months hanging out with some metalheads and hardcore fans and produced a very sympathetic portrait, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead-End Kids. The most vivid detail I retain from that book is that the metalhead kids started warming up to her when it was revealed that she was a Motorhead fan.

I'll be interested to see what she says about kids who aren't looking to go to college after high school, as they're the ones who I think are really least well served by the experience.
posted by snarkout at 1:21 PM on December 9, 2001

I understand what you're saying, Grangrousier, which is why I remain a supporter of what they now call the bog-standard comprehensive. I've had the grammar vs comprehensive argument many times with my mum. Streaming within one school is one thing, partitioning the oiks and the swots into two separate schools is totally another.
posted by Summer at 1:29 PM on December 9, 2001

I wasn't part of the "in crowd" at my high school. Surprise. While everyone else was listening to new wave and punk music, I was still hopelessly lost in the sixties, toting around a cassette Walkman playing the Ventures and Beatles.

Sophomore year: Got harassed for being one of the first males to have a pierced ear. (This was Utah, 1982, so equate it with the rest of the country circa 1972). Beat up one of the jocks for picking on an acquaintance from art class for being a "faggot". Learned that the bishop's daughter was usually the easiest lay in the school (anyone with the slightest exposure to Mormon culture knows this). B+ average without trying.

Sidebar, re owillis: "When you treat the smartest kid in school...the same as you treat the laziest, you have a serious problem." I was possibly both.

Junior year: Further ostracized for wearing snakeskin pants and teasing my hair like the glam metal bands. Got lumped in with the "parking lot crew", even though I didn't drink, smoke, or do drugs. Met my future (and present) wife. Continued to do as little as possible. Wrote comical poems to amuse the other students in my AP English class. Still a B+ student.

Senior year: Electives all day long. Probably hung out with lizardboy. Utah had (has? I don't know any more) this crazy system where there were seven periods in the day, yet only six counted towards graduation so Mormon kids could take seminary class during the day, thus I found myself with enough credits to graduate mid-year. Didn't. Hung out in the auto shop all day long instead, using my journalism class "press pass" for the three periods I wasn't actually supposed to be there. Slept under my car a lot. Collected the lost tool fund from the other students in shop class and bought a Pioneer tape deck for my car with the cash instead of turning it in. Graduated in the top 10% of the class, without a frickin' clue about what I was going to do to support myself.

Ah, the fond memories.

Crap, now my posts are getting as long as ZachsMind's (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Now, to swing back on-topic. I think Ms. Burkett may have had a field day with me.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:40 PM on December 9, 2001

All I really remember about streaming was that in some cases it was a joke (like year nine social studies, where the advanced class did exactly the same work as the lowest class), and that advanced maths classes always seemed to have a higher proportion of kids who didn't care about school than lower ones.

That said, I still think streaming is a really good idea, at least for the advanced students. I was always pretty good at school, and the one year when our class wasn't streamed, I was bored and frustrated out of my skull.
posted by eoz at 8:12 PM on December 9, 2001

I hated High School, plain and simple.

Now, there were things that managed to give me some pleasure, like:

-Playing video games in computer class instead of programming.
-Playing video games in math class on my calculator
-Leaving school to go home and play video games
-Playing card games before, during, in between, and after class
-Pirating thousands of dollars worth of software over our school's very-newly-installed T1 (yeah, that was fucking cool), and having a Hotline server on all the time with our teacher's permission
-Fantasizing about going to college and leaving high school behind
-Not doing my homework (although this became a real pain in the ass when I really needed to do it)
-yadda yadda yadda....

While I hated High School, I knew it was "good for me", and I figured going to college would let me do what I wanted. Well, I ended up going to college for a year and a half, and that wasn't a fabulous experience - I'm now looking for a school where I can actually do what I want. It might actually happen.

So by now, I think it's clear that I'm a nerd who likes to have fun. What do I now? Make music, DJ, go to raves, work. Think about building a little media empire that doesn't suck. lol, I dunno. I've always loved learning, but High School was more about jumping through hoops - hoops that I really didn't give a shit about.

yadda yadda yadda....
posted by ookamaka at 10:50 PM on December 9, 2001

What, the smart kids can't also be lazy? Dumb kids can't work hard?

Very true. In my situation it wasn't, or didn't seem to be.
posted by owillis at 11:47 PM on December 9, 2001

Where I grew up I had a similar experience to Summer and Gangrousier. There was a local Grammar/High School which was where the smart (ie, middle class) kids went and the local Comprehensive where everyone else went.

For their own reasons, my parents sent me to the Comprehensive, even though I comfortably passed the exam for the Grammar school. All of my friends from Primary school went to the Grammar school.

Looking back on it, I think my parents regret the decision. My exam results were far worse at both O level and A level than they should have been and I was too geeky to really fit in, even though there were smart kids there. Fortunately I don't think a "Jock culture" exists in British schools, at least not in any way the same form as what we hear about with American schools. True, the "rugger buggers" could be a pain at times, but nothing too bad.

My experience of tracking is the same as Summer's and I would say that it's absolutely essential if you're ever going to achieve anything. There's just too large a range of abilities in the average school for one class to fit everyone.
posted by salmacis at 6:01 AM on December 10, 2001

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