March 7th, 2004

buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams, I

So I spent the last two weeks reading Edward Humes School of Dreams. A very enjoyable read. Humes spent a year at Whitney High School, California's top-ranked public school. The book does a good job of looking at the various factors of why the students succeed, and why the school succeed. To give you an idea about how this school excels, their average SAT score is around a 1350. It's an interesting read, and my next entries are going to deal with excerpts from the book.
buzzed, B&W

School Of Dreams: Banned Cells

So, apparently in California, there's a state law that ban's cell phones in schools. In the book Humes talks about how the principal at the school disregards the law, and he talks about how ubiquitous they are on campus. Apparently students actually text there. While SMS hasn't taken off in the States as it has internationally, it was interesting to me that students at this school were using it. I also think it gives a nice insight into the principal, pointing out that he doesn't enforce rules he doesn't agree with.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Essay I

Every so often - which is to say, every month - the local SAT prep academies send in full or half-page ads and inserts to my school newspaper, hawking their services with one time-honored advertising strategy: the score testimonial. Airbrushed portraits of smiling students proudly crown astronomically high SAT scores, sometimes complete with sweet, generic quotes about the wonders Academy X can work on your math and verbal skills.

I don't know if the proudly emblazoned "1400 Guarantee" and "1500 Guarantee" slogans are completely watertight, but every time I stuff the neon SAT ads between the inky folds of each newspaper, I find myself buying - if only for a second - into the new American Dream: the high SAT score. Even as SAT I lessens in importance, even as 1600s occur so frequently they don't surprise anyone anymore, the cachet of those fatal digits still remains untarnished. In lieu of villas on the French Riviera or stables of shiny Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces, students these days show off their brand-new SAT scores with all the awestruck pride of freshly minted millionaires.

And why not? In a world where the hard, cold numbers still count for something, the "right" score means at least a chance at the jackpot.

Interesting perspective from a girl about the SAT, and just what they mean. Gives some nice insight into how much college admissions are valued at Whitney, a school where Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (HYP) are seen as the holy trinity.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Being Korean

Interesting perspective of being Korean in America, though I don't really relate to much of it.

There's a saying in the Korean culture: "If you know file Koreans, you know them all." When I was young I didn't understand how that could be possible, but now I realize that Korean Americans have created a definition of their own, certain characteristics and habits that characterize them as "Koreans." And as much as I would like to be an "American," these characteristics have been branded on me through many generations of ancestors.

We are a race that is generally small in stature, and basically yearn to possess the abundant height of the Caucasian race. A 5'9" Korean woman will always be admired by friend and relatives for being tall and slender. Milk is our magic growing potion that makes our bones long and makes us grow. Every short Korean child is scolded by their mother at one time or another for not drinking enough milk. Unfortunately, though, many Koreans are lactose intolerant and thus take calcium supplements to compensate. Supposedly, riding a bike is supposed to help lengthen the legs. My dad, by order of my grandfather, has many a time tried to teach me to graduate from my training wheels, but he has had no success. I still can't ride a bike and hate milk with a vengeance.

Koreans, rich or not, tend to be quite extravagant. The key is, "One must look well off in front of others." When Korean men express their approval for each other's wealth they say, "You've Grown," which is figurative language for, "My, you're living well." A rich Korean man will buy a cell phone for his son's tenth birthday and a new car for his twelfth. His wife will indulge herself by getting her hair professionally blow-dried twice a week at a salon and by buying clothes and jewelry. Korean people are not typically known to be very stringent on the fiscal level. I think, however, that my parents cannot identify with this definition; they are quite stingy.

Looking "inferior" is greatly dreaded by Koreans as a whole. We are a race with a lot of pride. This most appropriately applies to Korean women - they are simply fierce. They have this natural instinct and urge to show off and brag about their mediocre child. Listen to a conversation between two Korean mothers and you hear things like, "My daughter is taking this class . . . my daughter is just so busy with SATs . . . oh, by the way, my daughter is receiving this award." You can just smell the animosity in the air, even though on the surface it may appear that they are holding a normal conversation. Of course, if our success or assets help make our parents feel "bigger" we're happy to help, but sometimes they need to realize that it just puts more pressure on us. I hear about a Korean boy that was accepted to Rice University in Texas, but ended up going to UC Berkeley by his father's will. When asked why he didn't allow his son to attend the school of his choice, he answered honestly, "My colleagues in Korea have never heard of a Rice University. What would I say to them?" That's Korean.

In the Korean culture, a student is strictly a student. He or she is not expected to do chores around the house or run errands - their job is simply to study and get good grades. Very different from Caucasian, Americanized homes where usually the children take a big part in house chores, in addition to their studying. Likewise, a Korean student is not expected to pay any part of his/her college tuition. In many cases their grandfather will pay half of it and their parents the other half. On the other hand, many Caucasian children would have to work between jobs in college to help pay for their tuition. Credit card debts are a big issue for college students. Many will still be working jobs to pay them off after college. But Korean parents, with a little scolding, will pay the off for you. Money comes quite easily into the hands of Korean children, perhaps because every holiday is reason enough for twenty bucks here and there from relatives - New Year's Day, Christmas Day, then there's birthday, for getting an award, and the list goes on.

Besides the pressure to be tall or a super whiz kid, being a Korean teenager is not too bad, once you're in touch with your Korean side. Living in Cerritos for almost thirteen years, I think I can tell a Korean when I see one, and as much as I would not like to be, I realize that I am just another one of those typical Korean kids.

While some of the issues, such as the emphasis on school and being only a student are cultural, I wonder about the cut-throat competition between parents. Is this an Asian thing? I think the emphasis she places on status symbols is more a first generation Korean thing, that they have to prove they've succeeded in America.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Dances

Humes talks about how the students frequently pull all nighters, but in reality that's their socialization time. The kids study in groups, with parents complaining about how much money is spent on pizza for these all nighters, while they waste time on the Internet, chatting on IM, and just goofing off. He mentions a particular example of the prevalence of IM where a girl is asked to a dance through IM. This is mentioned in the passage where he talks about how atypical these kids are, that most of them have never dated, that you won't see couples in the halls of the school. The Korean girl also has the issue that the guy that asked her is Caucasian and her parents wouldn't approve. The severity of the situation is illustrated by the fact that even though this is her first dance, and she's said yes, she ends up ditching the boy so she doesn't have to deal with a new event in her life, nor with her parents questioning her.

Another girl makes two picture albums, one with a Korean guy that she shows to her parents, and a second with her actual date.

To go to the dance, a guy has to convince his parents that it's "required" to go to the prom. "If it's a school requirement, then it's okay, as opposed to just doing it for the fun of it. There are certain things in my house we just don't talk about, and sex, and dating are at the top of the list. If you bring them up, people just walk away." Crazy stuff these kids do to get their high scores and acceptance to HYP.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Admissions

Whitney is competitive to get into. It's grades 7-12, and it's a magnet school that only takes students who score high enough on an entrance exam. The community values acceptance into the school, with Humes providing examples of just how far parents will go to get their children admitted:
"I'm very wealthy," one father assured the principal during one especially tight admissions year in the eighties. "I'll be happy to make a large donation once my son is admitted. What amount would you like?" A mother with a child on the waiting list, meanwhile, took a different tack: "I'd do anything to get my daughter into Whitney," she said, closing Beall's office door, leaning close to him, and staring meaningfully into his eyes. "Anything."
On one hand it's awesome to see parents that involved, on the other what kind of values are they teaching?
buzzed, B&W

Schools of Dreams: Quote

Or, as wise-beyond-her-years seventeen-year-old Cecilia observes, "When your family moves from another city - or another country - so you can go to Whitney High School, the pressure is on. And you better not screw up."

Another example of how much some parents value this. In another part of the book, Humes talks about parents calling from India, trying to figure out what they need to do so their child will be able to attend Whitney.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Drugs and pressure

The book talks about how the drug problem is much less at Whitney than other schools. It's believable, but it goes on to tell the tale of one student, who gets addicted to meth (so he can pull all nighters), and eventually walks out of class because he feels like his heart is going to explode and goes to talk to a teacher/counselor. Again, pros and cons. It's good that the student feels comfortable enough to talk to a teacher/counselor about this, but the intense pressure of the school has pushed him to use speed.

Humes also mentions that DARE hasn't been proven to be statistically significant. I didn't realize that there was no proof that DARE had any impact. Silly how such programs continue, either because of momentum or that parents believe they keep their kids of drugs. Maybe it maintains support because parents think that "oh, DARE will educate my kids about drugs, I don't have to do it."

While the extreme pressure push some to drugs, others start failing on purpose. Humes constantly talks about the pressure the kids go through from their parents wanted them to attend prestigious schools and become lawyers and doctors. Some of the students don't want this, nor do they want the rigor that Whitney provides, and they start failing out of the school on purpose, so that they'll get sent to the regular high schools in the area. How crazy is that?

The pressure is unreal though, with two prime examples being two female art students. The art teacher (who ends up spending thousands of dollars of her own money for art supplies for her classes) talks about how these are some of the best students she has seen in all her years. When one girl approaches her parents about going to an art school, her father throws her portfolio into the street, where it's run over by cars, and yells at her, asking how she plans to succeed as an artist? The other girl secretly applies to art schools, but ends up going to UC Irvine, which has no art program of note, even though she gets accepted at some of the most prestigious are schools in the country, because she can't confront her parents.

The release these kids have from the pressure though is that they view their school as a community. It's less than 200 students per grade, and they say things like "I feel safe here. I feel like I can be myself here. That it's okay to be strong academically and it doesn't make you a nerd. That what I'll miss. Kids here say, 'Oh, we have no lives,' but then when they leave, so many people say they miss the life here."
buzzed, B&W

Schools of Dreams: Rand

So, the teachers run this experiment paralleling Rand's Anthem, dividing the kids into castes. It's amazing how the students react. During the discussion before the experiment they all talk about how it would suck to be labelled, to be stuck somewhere, to be judged. Yet, during the experiment, when the "useless" have to weed around the school, they rebel, and during the following discussion they make a comment like "That's the gardeners job" showing how elitist they are. That on one hand they can say they wouldn't like the discrimination, but they don't yet see that they are the ones who discriminate.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Yale Admissions

At Yale University, the Whitney visitors asked about one of their top students who had been rejected. The admissions officer pulled out a page from the thick application packet, a multiple-choice form filled out by the young man's counselor. He pointed to the one question concerning the student's leadership ability. It had been checked "good."

"That put him out of the running right there, " the admissions officer said. "You didn't mark excellent."

Absolutely absurd.
buzzed, B&W

School of Dreams: Misc.

So, Humes touches on a lot of other topics in the amazingly readable book. He talks about grade inflation, with nine out of ten Harvard grads graduating with honors, and 70% getting grades of B-plus or better in all their classes, compared to 15% in 1950. The College Board found that the number of seniors with GPAs in the A range rose from 28 to 41 percent from 1991 to 2001, but that the SAT scores for this group went down.

He touches on tech in education, and Whitney is a testbed for Intel. (The school received 15 SMART Boards, along with tons of other software and hardware). He talks with teachers who realize that for it to succeed it has to be integrated, not gee-whiz, and that it has to be available, that it can't be something that's on a cart, that a teacher has to schedule to use. You have to reduce the barrier to the educator if you expect them to do something new. (Not true solely of educators - most people are like this - why change if it's working?) Tech is also mentioned in that Whitney kids use online term paper databases, while teachers are using TurnItIn, an anti-plagiarism site. (I knew colleges were doing this, the fact that high schools have to is amazing.)

He takes a decidedly anti-Bush position, when describing Neil Bush's (GW's youngest brother I think?) visit. Apparently Neil is working with Ignite Learning, and believes in multiple intelligences, and develops interactive software that teaches students with things that appeal to their type of intelligence. Humes bashes the theory of multiple intelligences, talks about how the students criticize Bush when he says that learning in a textbook style isn't necessary, and he makes Bush seem to be confused when a student talks about a genuine joy of learning, that while some of it is tedious, that it's worth it in the end. The software is attacked since it doesn't work for the first half of the year, and when it does, the students end up playing with it, going through all the intelligence presentation styles, and then the teacher still needed to teach. (He does cut a little bit of slack by pointing out that the teachers seem to believe the software may be helpful for at risk students, but not for the high achievers at Whitney.)

And there's just interesting little bits of information. It seems like the school is basically an open campus, where the students are getting Starbucks in the middle of the day to stay awake (this includes the junior high age kids have espressos and crazy stuff), and the fact that graduation tickets have been eBay-ed in the past. Or he talks about how most of them aren't ready for college socially, that the dorms are almost always a culture shock. (Whitney started a retreat this past year for students, to address the issues of sex, drinking, partying, etc that most of these kids haven't experienced before.)

Overall, I just thought the book was entertaining, and interesting. It also struck a nerve, since it seems that while the kids do so well, that many of them are doing it for their parents. They work so hard to get to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but it seems very few know what they want. Humes talks about how some see college as an escape, that while they go to prestigious schools, they make sure they're far away, so they can finally start being their own person, not their parent's puppet.