Written by Elinor Burkett and published by HarperCollins in 2001, this book explores the dynamics of a suburban American high school to address the author's quest to find out what is happening in the days since Columbine. The author carefully chose Prior Lake High School, in Prior Lake, Minnesota to be representative of the national situation. She spent one academic year there (1999-2000), surrounded by the teenagers, parents, teachers and administrators, listening to their complaints, recording their opinions and watching the social drama.
The book most heavily examines students at the extremes: the kids in the gifted-and-talented program and the ones in the "remedial" classes. The cultural geography of different social groups (the jocks, the nerds, the stoners, the band, the drama kids, etc.) is as starkly divided as ever. But the main question being asked is: What are the students learning?
The answer given by this work is that high school students in suburbia learn to manipulate the teachers and parents. They are products of "New Age" educational philosophies that put self-esteem ahead of knowledge, employ "experiential" learning and "fun" activities like skits and field trips rather than drills or memorization, and glorify athletics while ignoring academic achievement. The students have rarely been challenged mentally because the adults fear that failure will damage them. Students expect school to be entertaining because adults have programmed them to believe learning should be fun all the time. The children of baby boomers, today's students have been brought up by parents who want their progeny to avoid the bumps and traumas of their own childhoods, thereby sheltering them and prolonging their immaturity. These kids are surrounded by mixed messages: they are expected to behave like adults on one hand, while being treated like babies on the other.
The book shows that the adults are much less connected to reality than they think they are. In one memorable chapter, parents' fears of violence on the first anniversary of Columbine keep hundreds of kids home, while the kids use the day off to celebrate Pot Smokers' New Year.
My sympathies are with the teachers who are caught in the middle. Obviously, some of them are simply bad teachers, and some are products of the same grade-inflated, dumbed-down system they now serve, but most are honestly trying to teach the students. Caught between rabid parents and two-faced administrators (not to mention politicians who presume to dictate to them how to do their jobs), they often feel unsupported and besieged.
The bottom line is that if Americans really want to reform our schools, there must be consensus on what matters. Every school cannot be treated with a one-size-fits-all bandage because small, rural schools face different problems than large, suburban schools and poor, inner city schools. Do we want children to know reading and writing, math and science, history and literature, or do we just want them to feel good about themselves? Do we want teachers to babysit, impose dress codes, police kids' out-of-school behaviors? Or do we want them to teach, and expect parents (or the kids themselves) to take responsibility for the rest? I know how I feel on the issues, and after reading this book, so will you.