Back to School

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

Another Planet

Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School Click the title
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by Elinor Burkett
336 pages

In 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 students—mostly from middle-class backgrounds—tend 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.

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 teachers—some veteran, others about to teach for the first time—sharing 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.

—Sage Stossel

Elinor Burkett
Elinor Burkett

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 writer—he 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.

Were there some students whom you would have liked to talk with more to get their perspectives, but who were not very receptive to you?

The kids who were most socially confident—the kids who ruled the school—were extremely accessible because they had tremendous social confidence. They weren't shy, and they weren't worried about what people would think about them. So they were no problem to crack. For the kids who were outsiders, the fact that I would go to them and say, "So, I hated high school, too. Is it as bad as when I was in high school?"—I think they were thrilled.

The hardest group to crack were the loners, because they're not a group, and they never hang out at school. They were so heads down, scurrying through the halls, that it was not the right environment to interview them. So I had to find them—quite literally—outside of school. I started almost systematically looking for them at work. Most of these kids had part-time jobs at stores in the mall or at the QuikMart Gas Station. So I started hanging out wherever they worked and talking to them there.

I think most of the kids were really excited that some adult had moved all the way from New York to do nothing but spend the year listening to them and hanging on their every word. So I don't think there were any kids who majorly locked me out. What was most extraordinary to me was how open the kids were and how much they wanted to talk. I'm old enough to be some of these kids' grandmother, so I didn't think they would be quite this open with me. But in fact they seemed flattered by the chance to speak for their generation.

Very early on in the year it became almost a competition. Kids would come up to me in the hall and say, "There is such-and-such an activity this weekend, is that the kind of thing you want to go to?" And whatever it was, I always said yes. I just made myself so ubiquitous—I have never worked so hard in my life.

They were very quick to begin to invite me to parties. It was cute—the second party I was invited to, the boy who invited me said, "I have been authorized to invite you to this bonfire, but everyone wants to make sure that you're going to feel comfortable, because there's going to be drugs." And I was like, "Well, I've probably been around a lot more drugs than you have! The question is whether you're comfortable having me there." So there was a lot of testing to make sure that I wasn't going to tell on them. But once that was through, they let me in.

Did you try to learn something about teen culture before you started?

I was really lucky. I had an assistant, Ivan (who has since died, and to whom the book is dedicated), who was my best friend. Ivan had worked his whole life in the music industry. He managed bands for a long time, along with the first punk club in New York, and he was the director of the Grammys. He was a person with AIDS. When he began to get really sick, he quit his job and moved to Minneapolis with me. He knew more about youth culture than anybody I've ever met. He devoured it his whole life.

The first day of school, as Ivan and I walked through the parking lot, he went through all the bumper stickers on the cars and said, "Now, this sticker means this, and if you have this sticker, this is who you are and where you fit in." I really needed that kind of guide, because it very quickly allowed me to figure out who was in which group. Or we'd be walking down the hall and Ivan would say, "Now, that kid is wearing FUBU. And this means that he's got money because FUBU is not cheap," and so on. So I had a very good guide who did youth pop culture 101 for me.

Do you think that your presence (in classrooms, at parties, at faculty meetings, etc.) affected the behavior of the people you were observing?

It has to. Any reporter who says that his or her presence doesn't affect anything is lying. The closest thing to a guard against that was how long I was there. It seemed to me that if I was ubiquitous enough for a long enough time, people couldn't keep acting special on my behalf. I think it probably made the most difference early on, when the kids were misbehaving more than usual around me, which was their way of showing off. But by the end I was so much a piece of the wallpaper that if I didn't go to an event, people would say, "Oh, where were you last night?" I just became a normal part of the scene.

Having talked with and observed high school students, teachers, and administrators at length, it would seem that you would be uniquely qualified to offer suggestions about ways in which suburban high schools might be improved. What thoughts do you have on reforms that could realistically be made?

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, actually. The reality is that our kids don't know anything. I was particularly struck by this after September 11. By then I was already here in Kyrgystan where I'm teaching college students. And here they start college a year earlier than students start college in America. I walked into class a week or two after September 11, and my students asked me questions like, "Do American students understand that what's happening in the Islamic world is just like the Enlightenment in Europe?" Or they would talk about the Crusades. They were asking questions that were so smart—that showed so much understanding of history, of geography, of geopolitics that I could have wept when I thought about the kids at Prior Lake, who don't even know where Jamaica is. So I think the biggest message that I am trying to carry to everybody is, This generation of kids is as nice and smart as any other generation in U.S. history. Kids don't get "worse" from one generation to the next. But we are so overly concerned with things like self-esteem training and other stuff which the kids are the first to make fun of and tell you is total and utter nonsense, that we have forgotten that we are disempowering them by not teaching them the things that they really need to know.

Before I got to Prior Lake, I had bought into all of the arguments against tracking—I thought tracking was evil and awful; Boy, did my mind get turned around! The most intellectually capable kids in this high school were the most disaffected. They had no realistic sense of how smart they were. So their ability to plan their lives was extremely cramped. I saw no upside to schools having gotten rid of tracking. I mean, I realize that tracking used to be done poorly sometimes, and obviously I don't want racist tracking or anything like that. But I think we have gone too far in trying to protect these kids' feelings. The truth is, most kids do not feel bad if other kids are considered smarter than they are. Their parents feel bad—their parents can't stand it, but I have yet to find a regular public high school where being the smartest kid is better than being the prettiest girl.

Furthermore, I did find that the teachers were better than I expected them to be. It wasn't just that they worked harder than I thought they would. They were also smarter. But we have pushed and pulled them from one fad to another—from the new math, to the new new math, to the new new new math—so that they don't know whether they're coming or going. We need to stop that.

The amount of time that kids spend actually studying is ridiculously low. These kids had managed to convince every adult around them that their tests were too hard and that they had too much homework. But it was a crock! They laughed at the adults, because they had managed to convince them to make the tests easier and to give them less homework. But the kids really are not doing much homework, and they're not reading books.

The notion that everything has to be fun is definitely something I would change about today's high schools. There is tremendous pressure on teachers to make all the classes and all the activities fun. When I was in school, nobody cared if it was fun. They cared if I learned something. Many of the kids I've talked to who just graduated a year and a half ago say that the teachers they remember most fondly are not the teachers who were the most fun, but the teachers who kicked their asses. Because these kids need to know how good (or not good) they are, and how far they can go. We are doing them a disservice by treating them as if they're delicate flowers who cannot do some hard work.

Do you think that most of the teachers at Prior Lake would have liked to impose more rigor?

Certainly more than half the teachers would have liked to. But the parents would not let them get away with it. The single thing that startled me the most was the change in parents. When I was growing up the rule of thumb in schools was that it was the adults against the kids. That doesn't mean that my mother would never believe me if the teacher said I did something and I said I didn't. My mother would listen to both sides. But many, many parents today will never listen to the teacher's side of the story, or to the administrator's. So the teachers are in an impossible position when they give the kids homework, and then parents come in and say, "My kid doesn't have time to do all that homework. He's in X, Y, and Z activities, and he has a part-time job." (Not, of course, because he needs the money, but because he wants a nicer car!) Well, I always thought it was the job of kids to go to school.

The teachers simply do not have support from the parents in raising standards. My favorite quote in the book came from the principal when I was asking him about standards. He's quite desperate to raise standards. But he said, "Well, who's my constituency? Every parent says they want to raise standards, but the minute Johnny gets a C, suddenly they're not so hot about the idea."

Why do you think that parents have changed so much since previous generations?

We live in a very, very competitive world. And parents obviously want the best for their kids. So they want to make sure that their kids have the best transcripts, and they're overly protective about it. I also think it's because these parents are part of the anti-authority generation. The first authorities that they ever rebelled against were their teachers and their schools. And they're still doing it.

It's a total nightmare for these teachers. One of the best teachers in the school taught advanced-placement literature, among other things. And there was a kid whose parents were probably more concerned with grades than any other parents in the school. The kid was under such pressure at home that he cheated routinely. It was a joke among his peers. Everybody always knew that he was cheating. He copied his final paper for A.P. literature and composition off the Internet. And the teacher nailed him. The parents came in and the father said, "How dare you call this cheating? He was using the Internet as a resource! And if you try to flunk him on this paper I am going to sue you to the Supreme Court!" So if you're the teacher, maybe the first eight times you fight the parents. But then, little by little, you give up because it's just not worth it to take these people on.

I didn't meet one teacher there demoralized by the low pay. But I met dozens of teachers demoralized by abusive parents who were not willing to let them do their jobs by holding kids to higher standards, or by making them work.

Do you think that the sorts of programs that politicians are talking about these days, like educational testing and national standards, could be helpful in instituting a return to rigor?

The problem is that most of those proposals are dealing with lower grades. And the stuff Minnesota has come up with so far to try to raise the quality of high school education is ridiculous in the extreme. The new programs have nothing to do with the reality of teaching. They just reveal the ignorance of the politicians who've created them. Most of the teachers know how to do their job. But people don't let them. Parents don't let them; school boards don't let them; politicians don't let them; principals don't let them. And the problem with a lot of student testing is that parents help their kids cheat. At the better high schools in America, parents routinely buy the teacher's book for subjects like calculus. And they give their kids the answers to all the tests and the homework. They also buy them very expensive prep courses, which is another form of cheating.

These high schools are to a large extent a mirror of adult society. And if they don't look so pretty, then we need to start taking a look at ourselves. Unless adults are willing to cop to that fact, then I'm not sure that we're going to be able succeed in improving our schools. Because I don't think the high schools can be better than the rest of us. If we live in a world where "getting over" all the time is considered to be a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and if kids see their parents doing it, then why wouldn't they do it themselves?

You explain, toward the end of the book, that you settled on Prior Lake as the kind of high school you wanted to write about "with the demographics of Littleton in mind." Was it the Columbine tragedy that inspired you to undertake the project? And if so, did your year at Prior Lake affect your understanding of what happened at Columbine?

My interest in education goes back a long way. I was a college professor for a long time and watched the students become less informed every year. But Littleton pushed me over the edge into doing a project like this.

After my year at Prior Lake, the one insight into Columbine I think I can provide is that when I was in school (and I'm fifty-five years old), all of the things that everybody says about Columbine—that the bigger kids beat up the little kids, and the popular kids get all the favors, and all that stuff—well, all that was true in my school, too. Those things have always existed in American schools. So the notion that they explain what happened at Columbine just seems ridiculous to me.

But back then, nobody cared how I and the other students felt. Of course our parents cared how we felt. But the school was not overly concerned with our emotional well-being, nor would our parents have wanted it to be. The school was more concerned with the quality of our education and what we learned.

There is an incessant pressure on kids today to be happy. There's an emotional tyranny to it. If the kids don't fit in, they get called in by teachers and administrators very regularly, and it's like, "What's the matter? Get with the program! Have school spirit. Join some clubs." The most angry and alienated and disaffected kids that I met in my year at Prior Lake were kids who felt emotionally hectored to fit in, both by their parents and by the school. There were days when the level of emotional hectoring of the kids bothered me to the point where I felt like if I were one of them I would have wanted to strangle somebody.

In the end, those kids at Columbine committed suicide. And maybe the question should not just be, Why did those kids want to kill everybody else? The question should be, Why did they want to die? Those were some pretty unhappy kids. But you're not allowed to be unhappy in high school. If you're not with the program, they send you to therapy, they medicate you out of it. They don't leave you any room to just be a surly teenager.

What do you think accounts for the failure to recognize that some kids just aren't going to like high school?

Probably half the teachers at the school were there because they loved high school themselves. And I think that's a problem. Because as long as high schools are run only by people who liked high school, you don't have anybody for the students who hate high school to talk to and to identify with. Of course, that may be unfixable, because why would you want to go teach high school if you hated it yourself? But I do think that if there were more people around high schools who had not loved their high school, a wider diversity of the kids would feel understood, and high school would end up serving them better. I think the fact that Craig Olsen, Prior Lake's principal, had been kind of a geek himself in high school really, really helped. Because the kids who didn't fit into the mainstream of the school felt like the principal understood them, and they felt less alienated than they might have otherwise.

Have you gotten feedback on the book from any of the teachers, students, or administrators that you wrote about? How did they feel about your portrayal of them and their school?

First there were the personal reactions. There were people who loved how they were portrayed, and people who hated how they were portrayed. And, of course, the people who hated how they were portrayed complained loudly. Now there's a much more serious discussion going on. I just got an e-mail the other day from one of the teachers who said that there are a group of pastors in the community who are demanding that the school board have a public discussion about the issues the book raises. Nothing could thrill me more. People in the community are saying, "Oh my God, our kids don't know enough, we need to do something about this."

There was a wonderful moment when I went back to Prior Lake on my book tour. Some parents had a reception for me with teachers, students, alumni, and other parents. The principal came, too. And the alumni got him into a corner and started just giving it to him about how little they learned in school, and how they "got over" all the time, and how easy it was, and how they always pretended it wasn't easy, and why did the adults believe them? He sat them down and said, "Okay, so what are you going to do about it? You're members of this community. You're alumni. Help me." So they've started a discussion group about how the alumni can help the school raise standards.

There are people out there who really want to do this, but they just don't feel like they have enough political leverage. And, actually, I do have another really concrete suggestion. The way we fund schools is a travesty. By making it a local community issue, school funding is always going to be a popularity contest. The parents who are the angriest at a school at any given moment are the most likely to show up and vote down a bond issue. That is just a hell of a way to run an education system. Schools constantly feel that they have to pander to parents who will get mad at them because they gave a kid a bad grade. That doesn't do our kids any service. I think that if we removed some of that financial control from the local electorate, then the administrators would have a lot more backbone in fighting against the parents.

Do you intend to keep tabs over the years on the students you wrote about and see how their lives develop?

There are kids that I can't imagine I won't always know, because they became my friends. Like the bad boy who I never thought I would be friends with who's in the Marine Corps now and who I hear from regularly. And Nick, the incredibly talented writer who wants to write professionally. There's a core group of about fifteen who I'm in touch with regularly.

The summer right after my husband and I came back to New York there was a constant parade of kids from Prior Lake coming up to visit us. I gave more tours of New York City than I ever thought I would. It's a little harder now because this year I'm so far away. But these kids gave me an immense gift. It wasn't just the gift of a book, or the gift of a better understanding of their generation. When you go back to high school at my age, your own old demons are all relived. And I got to go back to high school and do it differently the second time around. And that was really really really fun.