Skip to comments.New York Writer is Shocked by High School Teaching and Culture
Posted on 11/29/2001 6:07:56 PM PST by ex-Texan
Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High SchoolIn 1999, following the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the journalist Elinor Burkett became curious about what today's suburban American high schools are really like. She set out for the Midwest in search of a high school as typical and all-American as she could find, and settled on Prior Lake, a school on the outskirts of Minneapolis whose studentsmostly from middle-class backgroundstend to score well on national and state education tests. After persuading Prior Lake's principal to allow her to spend a year there as a close observer, she and her husband left their New York City home and moved to Minnesota where she threw herself into life at Prior Lake.
by Elinor Burkett
Review of Book/ Publisher: HarperCollins
Elinor Burkett, who at age fifty-five became a member of the class of 2000, reports on high school today through a journalist's eyes
"Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew..."
Throughout the year, Burkett went to as many classes, sports practices, play and music rehearsals, faculty meetings, teacher discussions, student bull sessions, and informal gatherings and parties as she could. She became a confidante of students, teachers, and administrators alike, and was permitted to sit in on parent-teacher conferences. 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.
Her year at high school convinced her that what passes for national dialogue these days about education and the state of our high schools bears little relation to how high schools actually work. Theories she had previously bought into about the unfairness of distinguishing among students based on academic ability, for example, were countered by her observation that in classes where students of all abilities are thrown together, the less able students simply rely on the smarter students to do all the work, and the more precocious students become bored and alienated. It also struck Burkett that today's rhetoric about using new curriculum requirements and testing programs to raise standards are beside the point when adults, both inside and outside of schools, prioritize the protection of teenagers' self-esteem over challenging them to achieve. Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew.
In Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School, published last month, Burkett recorded these and other observations from her time as a member of the Prior Lake community. Unlike many other books on the state of our schools, Another Planet reads more as a narrative, with a varied cast of characters (teachers, administrators, jocks, cheerleaders, goths, loners, and so on), than as a treatise. Her story opens with teacherssome veteran, others about to teach for the first timesharing their thoughts about the year to come and setting up their classrooms for the first day of school. By the time the book concludes, with the class of 2000's graduation ceremony, the reader feels intimately familiar with many people's struggles and accomplishments over the course of the intervening year.
Burkett's hope is that her account of a year at Prior Lake will offer readers insight and impetus for reform that reach beyond the usual platitudes. Craig Olson [Prior Lake's principal] took an enormous risk when he allowed me into his school, and the biggest part of that risk was that my readers would thumb through these pages and say, "Oh, that's just Prior Lake." Don't even be tempted. Well, go ahead and be tempted. But don't make it that easy on yourself or your schools. By every conceivable measure, from its test scores to its college admission rate, from the quality and dedication of its staff to its graduation rate, Prior Lake High School is a superior American high school.
And if that thought horrifies, you've gotten to the easy part. Elinor Burkett is a New York journalist who has written six previous books, including The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless and The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. Before becoming a journalist she spent thirteen years as a professor of Latin American and women's history. This year she is teaching journalism as a Fulbright Professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, Kyrgystan. She leaves today for Afghanistan to research a story on Afghan women.
She spoke with me recently by telephone from Kyrgystan.
How, if at all, did your feelings about your own high school experience color your impressions of life at Prior Lake High School?
There's no way that they couldn't color my impressions. I was immediately drawn to the kids whom I would most likely have been drawn to when I was a kid. And yet what happened very quickly was that I got kicked in the teeth by my own presuppositions. For example, I had gone back assuming that the jocks would be stupid, which is what I believed when I was sixteen. And then I met this boy I wrote about, Tony Lorenz, who was everything I would have despised when I was in high school. And he turned out to be one of my favorite students because he was a wonderful writerhe was the best poet in the school. So these kids kept forcing me to go back and look at my own high school experience, and say, Boy, I missed some really nice kids. I mean, some of the kids that I would have been really good friends with in high school and would have admired I now saw as surly, whiny, and full of themselves. Maybe that's who I was, too. I don't know. But the Prior Lake kids did a good job keeping me honest, because they were so good at knocking down my prejudices.
Read Entire Interview with Burkett
Just take a walk on a high school campus some day. You will see teenage girls dressing like street hookers .... teenage boys wear gang banger garb and no one appears to be serious about learning anything at all.
This explains the new media ad blitz by the NEA, "Public Education: An American Idea" , which pins the success of America squarely on the shoulders of the public schools.
I wonder how Ms. Burkett will enjoy being publically lambasted as a right-wing John Birch KKK kook, now?
She's not telling a lot of us what we didn't already know; she's just had her eyes opened (red pill) and wants to spread the alarm. Too late, too little.
Maybe Lynn Cheney will call her and give her a pep talk.
As with every aspect of life, education is what you make of it.
I would put you up against the liberal kid anytime! You are obviously very well educated and write better than most adults I know. Are you planning a career in writing?
Which is precisely the reason we've decided to homeshcool all the way through high school, unless our kids decide to go their Jr. and Sr. years to the local Math and Science Magnet school at which the kids are serious about learning. I always laugh when people opine about the fact that being homeschooled, our kids miss out on the 'socialization' of high school. Frankly that's one reason WHY WE DO homeschool, so they won't have to spend so much mental energy fooling with that crap! They could probably BOTH finish high school in 3 years if they wanted, that's how much time is wasted in regular school. I gave my daughter the option of going back to school next year for the 9th grade and she said precisely that; that it was a lot of wasted time sitting in a classroom!
Notice that she high-tailed it out of the US, all the way to Kyrgystan and now Afganistan.
PS If her husband also followed her out of the country, he is certainly devoted.
Unfortunately, the kid's parents would have screamed to the ACLU (or other far out organization), and the teacher or principal who had him refinish the desk would be on trial for imposing involuntary servitude.
Conditions were hardly ideal when my mother taught in the 60's and 70's. Yet the schools were still basically under control of the teachers.
Today the ONLY thing that seems to count is "self-esteem". And the teachers have no control of their classes.
You're joking, right?
OTOH my 24 year old assistant, though bright, articulate and reasonably competent has never read a book in her life! She is a HS Graduate (Government school of course) and even completed a year at the local community college.
Never read a book in her life. I was stunned when she told me. She explained that she had never been required to read a "Whole book" in school and , anyway, "Reading's so boring" she said.
as someone who doesn't own a TV and who goes through two or three books a month I simply couldn't comprehend.