School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School – Edward Humes, 2003

Whitney High School, in Cerritos, California, is a magnet public school whose students get higher SAT scores, pass more AP exams, and get into more elite colleges than most private school students. Families move to Cerritos from countries halfway across the world in order to give their children a crack at this educational opportunity. Humes spent a year at Whitney High, and the result of his immersion is this compulsively readable book.

Whitney students are bright, but that’s not enough. They work incredibly hard and crazily long hours, fueled by caffeine and sometimes speed, to live up to the expectations of their parents and their teachers. (How has this pressure become so socially acceptable?) Whitney teachers are caring and skilled, but many of them feel overwhelmed by the needs of students and the demands of administration. Despite the pressures and problems, though, almost all of them love to learn and love to teach, and what they achieve is remarkable. Competing feelings of excitement and frustration swept through me as I read. Humes introduces us to many memorable characters, from the gifted artist whose parents won’t hear of her studying anything but science, to the administrator who has the task of juggling funding and demanding parents along with running the school.

An interesting thread the book explores is the role of technology in education. There’s a great moment when Neil Bush (George W.’s brother, head of a company that makes education software), visits the school and argues that the educational system is broken because it’s too hard and has to be made more fun.

No one really wants to study calculus, [Bush] says triumphantly, calling it a prime example of being “forced to study something a kid thinks terribly useless and obscure.”

“I like calculus,” Kosha answeres, looking him in the eye. “It instills critical thinking…It’s definitely a challenge, but it forces you to think in critical ways.”

The Whitney students who meet with Bush think that high expectations help students master difficult material and learn to enjoy it more than dressing it up (which inevitably waters down the content–the software Bush is peddling ends up being useless for the classes who try it because it covers so little that it bores the students).

School of Dreams reminded me of my high school years in the French educational system, where there are 4 tracks: A (literature), B (business), C (hard sciences), and D (applied sciences). A ridiculous self-reinforcing tradition has come into existence, which ranks the four by perceived intellectual ability. All the “smart kids” are funneled into C whether or not that’s their love, next-smartest go to D, then B, with A taking the rest. Many of the Whitney students are similarly pushed by their parents into the hard sciences–if you “can” do calculus, you’re supposed to go that way because it’s the “hardest.” But how many kids who don’t grasp the concepts immediately are shunted out of math before they get a chance, because little was expected of them? One of the most heart-warming stories that plays out over the school year is the project assigned in Rod Zilkowski’s honors physics class. Mr. Z decides to devote a quarter to one project: a rocket built from a film canister and powered by Alka-Seltzer.

Mr. Z goes on to explain that as they work on this project for the quarter, there will be no homework and no tests. There will only be weekly updates on their progress, in which they will teach him about their findings, then answer his questions about their experiments.

The students work in groups, and quickly it becomes apparent that the “best” students, Group 5, are slacking off without the structure of tests and papers. Mr. Z cajoles and prods them, but for them the project ends ignominiously–they’re not even up to presenting their work to the professional engineers who are coming in to evaluate the projects. It’s Group 4, three girls who’d been struggling in the class and whom Mr. Z had worried about, who take the lead, and it’s a triumphant moment when their canister rocket hits the target they specify, three times in a row.

This is a great read and a great ride: exciting, involving, thought-provoking, scary, and exhilarating by turn.

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