What happened to high school?

I graduated from high school in 1983. It was a pretty good high school, and I learned a lot there. This was partly because of the accidental presence of some unusually good teachers and partly because California schools were well-funded at the time.

Every day I dragged my ass out of bed and got to school for morning classes. With lunch and a couple breaks I did school stuff until 3something. This was an iron rule. Some kids with more money left campus during lunch to go to a restaurant or something, but most of us just didn’t leave campus at all. When there was a hole in the schedule in senior year, I got stuffed into “study hall”, where I read.

We had a lot to do. There was homework every day, and assigned reading and exercises from our textbooks, which we took home. There were frequent tests and projects. At the end of junior senior year, too, there were a few Advanced Placement tests. Since I was doing pretty well academically I took AP classes and passed I think three of these tests. I worked harder and learned more in my senior year in high school than I did in my first quarter at UCLA.

If you left campus, it was likely someone would notice and you’d get in trouble. We had a legendary vice principal, Jack “Bring ’em Back” King, who would drive down to the beach and haul surfer truants out of the water, stuff them in his Chevy, and put them , dripping and sullen, in class complete with wetsuits. School was pretty serious business.

There were the requisite number of hack teachers and administrators, some classes that were worse than useless, a fair amount of wastes of time, and the other things one expects from that level of education, but mostly a student went there all day, learned all day, and went home and did homework for a few hours daily.

My friends from around here who are 30 or younger went to a different kind of high school, and I’m not sure why.

First of all, attendance is optional now. The kids may be in class, or they may be at home, or on vacation with their parents, or doing some project or other, or just… not around. Kids can barely attend some class the whole semester and pass it. I see high school kids shopping at some mall at 11 am on a Tuesday. If their parents are going to Maui for a few days in February, they just pull the kids out and go. One high school here instituted a “ski week” because everyone disappeared that week every year anyway, and tried to tack the days on the end of the year. There was no decrease in days lost.

Since Proposition 13 (please see my screed here from a while back if you don’t know what that is), there’s been less and less money for education. Quite often there aren’t enough textbooks for the students, and more often than not there aren’t enough for students to take them home. I don’t understand how you do math homework in that situation. The non-sports extracurricular activities, especially music, are gone, so those are off campus. There seem to be less classes generally, so junior and seniors have these big gaps in their days, and no one locks them up in the study hall. It’s easier to take classes in college simultaneously (this is a good thing!), so many students go back and forth between two campuses. And finally the enforced extracurricular activities like D.A.R.E., required “community service”, kareer kounseling krap, and whatever latest Young Pioneers thing is they’re being forced to do takes hours out of the school day.

It doesnt seem like there’s that much homework, either. Kids cram for the AP tests (which give them higher than perfect GPAs, another bizarro new thing), but their own classes and homework they view with scorn.

From my outsider’s eye it looks like kids from 14-18 are just doing less school overall, and not doing so in any structured way. Some of this is good news. Study Hall was a horrible waste of time, and going to college classes instead of high school ones must be awesome if you’re academically interested.

With all the blather about how our children is not being educatated, though, it’s weird to see the kids spending less time in school total, less of that time being taught, less homework, less resources to actually learn (hello, books?), and less supervision of any kind.

And the teachers just suck. Horribly. This whole train of thought was started by a high-school age friend telling me that her English teacher borrowed her Spark Notes for Samuel Beckett because she didn’t know that stuff.

33 thoughts on “What happened to high school?

  1. high school in new york in the early 80s is just like you describe HS in CA now, minus the mall-going. lack of text books, apathetic teachers, and lots of cutting (classes, not people) were all the norm. However, we had very few choices of AP classes (History and English at my school), and our school year was really long: early sept through june 30, w/ a week at xmas and easter.
    and we certainly didn’t read Beckett in the classroom.
    and yet my NYC-raised friends, many of whom did not go to college, have much more knowledge of general science and literature than my hipster good HS/good college moved from suburbia friends. i’m not sure why that is.

    1. I graduated from an inner-city Rochester high school in 1985, and my experience was just the opposite. We had a surplus of idealistic teachers who wanted to do their part to help eradicate the poverty gap, or at least enough to teach the Honors classes and feed the students that were actually hungry for knowledge. I went to France on a Student Exchange program, I was the co-captain of a Math Team that squared up against much larger suburban districts and beat the tar out of the city Science Magnet school, got 3 AP courses and a scholarship for a semester of Calc 2 at the U of R, and in almost every other way I got a thoroughly excellent education. (Okay, I didn’t read Becket, but I’m pretty sure that the AP English students did.)
      And I can’t say enough bad things about the California budget process, except that Prop 13 is only the tip of the pusberg.

    2. I’m guessing that was public school. At my (private) high school, we had lots of textbooks and the teachers, while not uniformly good, were not particularly apathetic. And I never cut classes, but maybe I was an exception.
      And, hey, my high school had a famous murder case associated with one of our alumni!

  2. I went to Aliso Niguel High, which was brand-new the semester I started. We had Macs, inverted pyramid sky lights, and big cable TVs in every room. We also had a World History teacher who covered the Cold War with a viewing of Red Dawn (I think I noted this before), an AP U.S. History teacher who told us that President Clinton was a “political whore,” and a football coach/English teacher who spent daily class time pondering which of his colleagues might be “tinkerbells.” Around 10th grade I caught on that no one read beyond the first paragraph of homework essays, so I would fill up the rest with ramblings and gobbledygook. It’s a wonder I made it into college.
    I guess what I’m getting at is the poor quality of teachers is a truly staggering problem. And it’s not just money, because this was one of the most well-funded high schools in the state.

  3. I graduated in 76. All but of a few of the teachers at my Torrance high school fit into the “completely incompetent” and “obviously here for the paycheck” categories.
    I discussed this with my older sister, who is teacher, a few years back and she agreed that she had zero inspiration from teachers.
    I think you may just have been lucky.

  4. And this is why I get to teach college students who write things like “runned” (as in the company or country is “runned”) in midterm essays and who raise their hands during exams to ask, “What does ‘rigid’ mean?”

    1. Wow, you’d wind up in a English as a Second Language class in our colleges here if you wrote like that — the first test you write on entry is the English Placement Test and your first priority is to get up to a useful skill level. That is, English 100 is a pre-requisite for practically everything and your EPT score may give you pre-requisites for English 100.

      1. Would that it were so here! These kids are not ESL, and even more disheartening is the fact that they’re juniors and seniors, so we’ll be giving them degrees any day now. Here they are, at a University of California school, and a good number of them can barely express themselves in writing. This causes me heartbreak (and heartburn) on a regular basis.
        Like today! I get to grade papers. Wheee! It would be nice to think that the papers, which are written at home on a computer and can be proofread and revised, would have better grammar/syntax/style than in-class exam essays, but this is often not the case.
        Is it bad to start drinking while home alone at 10:30 on a Sunday morning?

      2. Is it bad to start drinking while home alone at 10:30 on a Sunday morning?
        …it’s only bad because you could have been drinking at 9:30.

      3. In my English 100 class papers were failed for comma splicing and a couple of other errors. They were failed for three or more lesser failings. The whole purpose of English 100 was to make sure that all students in the college could express themselves in writing because that’s what most of the rest of University was going to be about.
        I guess this is no longer the case? Or maybe it never was in your area and I just had a strict post-secondary school. Either way I am amazed, because pretty much everyone could pass English 100 even on their strict terms. One just had to want to, and “you have to go work at a gas station now” was enough threat to make us take the class seriously.

      4. This is not the case. I’m not sure about the “no longer,” because I went to a UC in the early ’90s and did not have to meet any sort of written English requirements.
        I will note that some universities, and the UCs in particular, have been getting dinged recently for graduating students (particularly in the social sciences) who cannot write. There have been some efforts to rectify this. Sadly, here the “effort” is a required writing course that is listed as an upper division course. It should be the first thing students take, as with your English 100, but instead the class is usually populated with juniors and seniors. Oftentimes, because it’s a relatively odious course, students leave it until the last possible year or even term.
        But as we’ve noted, much of the problem is not the strictness of the post-secondary school. It’s the preparation the students are–or as the case often is, are not–receiving in high school. This is not to demean high school teachers, because I know there are as many good teachers out there as there are bad. But the curriculum in many schools is such that grammar and writing is seen as something like riding a bike: You learn it once, and you’re done! Then you just practice it in different formats a whole bunch of times. I’ve tutored high school kids who didn’t know what a “pronoun” was. I just had a 21-year-old college student argue with me about a sentence I marked as a run-on; she told me it simply had multiple ideas in it, while I tried to explain to her the concept of the comma splice. It’s as if I’m speaking a whole different language sometimes.

      5. And you teach at a school that has a more stringent writing requirement than most UCs, even. Don’t they still require Writing 39 of all undergrads, etc?

      6. Holy shit, you’re right. I forgot about Writing 39!! Partly because we didn’t have it at the UC I went to, and partly because I block out the fact that this is a requirement and I STILL get students who write like the ones I teach.
        , check this out:
        “Writing 39A, Fundamentals of Composition
        Students must have taken the UC Analytical Writing Placement Exam in order to be eligible to enroll in Writing 39A.
        Students who have not met the UC Entry Level Writing Requirement prior to their first quarter enrollment, must satisfy the requirement during their first three (3) quarters at UCI. Students may satisfy the requirement by enrolling in Writing 39A, or Writing 39AP & Lab (depending on placement), or a Humanities Core section designated S/A. In any of these courses, students must earn a letter grade of C (2.0) or better. Writing 39A may be taken on a letter grade basis only. Pass/not pass is NOT allowed for any section of Writing 39A.
        Students who have not completed their Academic English/ESL requirement may not take Writing 39A or Writing 39 AP & Lab. If there are any questions about Academic English/ESL status, inquire at the Academic English/ESL Office, HIB 201.
        Writing 39A, Fundamentals of Composition sections are open only to students who received a placement result of “WR 39A” via the UC Analytical Writing Placement Exam, OR who earned less than a “C” (2.0) grade in a prior enrollment in Writing 39A.”

      7. Oops – the point I meant to make is that, requirement or no, the strictness mentions in his required English 100 course is obviously nowhere to be found. Sometimes I think the “requirement” exists to appease those who want to say students can write but who don’t want to actually go and check up on what happens in the course.
        Guess who’s procrastinating from grading today!

  5. Here in the boondocks of NY its what it was and it forever shall be.
    Attendance wasn’t optional, if you missed more than x mumber of days per month the Attendance Officer was obligated to file a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) Report on you with the County. Some exceptions were made for extreme sickness, none for family vacations.
    The High School was located about 15 miles from nowhere. So it didn’t matter how rich or poor you are, you could not leave campus without a car and even then there was no place you could drive to and back in a period’s time. So no one left campus for their breaks.

  6. feh – these kids nowadays with their fancy-schmancy malls & Maui vacations!
    When I was their age, I had to spend my Senior year smoking pot & playing pinball at the bowling alley!
    …where are my reading glasses…?

  7. I’m hesitating to write a comment, since I’m a (middle school) teacher, and my sister is a (n elementary school) teacher, and my brother-in-law, ditto. Even my cousin is an elementary school teacher.
    I graduated from high school in 1984, so same era. I think my school was comparable to yours, from what you describe*. I had excellent classes and learned to write very well, partly due to inclination and partly due to the straitjacket of five-paragraph-theme-writing Sophomore English classes and the sacrosanct Junior Theme assignment. Only a few of my teachers were useless and people I had contempt for, at the time. Many of them were superb.
    I think it’s something of a blanket statement to say that “teachers just suck”, even now. I’ve seen high school English teachers who are like what your friend described; it was partly what made me decide to become a teacher. But most teachers I know are working very hard and care very much. It may be true that some people with extremely good brains and strong skills don’t become teachers any more because it seems pretty clear that many people have contempt for teachers, as evidenced by our pay, sometimes our conditions, and by the assumptions that underline legislation like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka “No Child Left Behind”, which seem to be that the decline of American education is DUE to teachers.
    I think it is far more likely that the decline of American public education is due to the sort of defunding you wrote about in your entry on Prop 13, the devastation of inner city communities since the 1980s — deindustrialization, the crack cocaine epidemic, and, thanks to Clinton et al, the evisceration of the social safety net. I know it’s almost cliché, but I also wonder about the impact of video and television, just insofar as they make reading less … necessary for entertainment. I don’t know about that, but I’m interested in whether it’s a factor.
    *one difference… it was actually much easier for me to be absent for a lot of my high school education and nonetheless pass with high grades. I cut a lot. I was also out for something like one-third of my senior year with various illnesses, and still got good grades and college credit for my five AP classes. Now, that wouldn’t be possible, because if you miss ten days in any semester, whether it’s excused, for family reasons, or even for illness, you flunk, or so I am informed. I can’t imagine there are not some loopholes, but that’s the official policy.

    1. I agree. It’s unfair to direct all the blame at the teachers. Are there crappy teachers? Yes. But as you note, there are many excellent ones as well. I’m also pretty sure that some of the crappy teachers were once of the good, well-meaning, caring variety, but years of structural beat-down does get to you after a while.
      In addition to your defunding argument, I think part of the problem as well rests with the curriculum requirements and the emphasis on testing.
      On a side note, for those of you who have never taught – when you have to grade papers and grammar assignments, it becomes significantly more difficult when you have a large number of students (as many middle and high school teachers do) and no support. Sometimes assignments and curricula end up reflecting this impossible workload. Grading is the worst part of my job. I loathe it.

      1. I agree with you absolutely; teaching to the test is the pressure everyone is under now. What amazes me is how rarely we, as teachers, gather our experiences and synthesize what’s going on with the coordinated attack on public education. Can I add you as a friend? Also, here’s my own rant on at least part of this subject, from last spring.
        Slingshot article on Oakland schools

      2. Yes, please do! I get to sympathize/discuss/synthesize with other TAs and grad student instructors, but never with teachers at other levels.
        Reading the article now. Great so far!

      3. Slingshot
        That Slingshot article of yours is so clear that it hurts.
        Lately, I’ve been tempted to consider all of humanity as slowly but steadily “losing the plot”, like some aside in <a href=
        where whole cultures just slide into fecklessness while blankly wondering what the hell happened, why things worked okay for a while and failed forever after.
        But in your article, I can find at least a speck of optimism: it’s not a mystery what’s happening. The governments are obviously and completely screwing up the schools. We can still make observe and understand that, and that means the situation might be fixable.
        But merely as an aside, I still keep idly wondering: how do we explain this mess to our present and future selves? Was there great malice somewhere that caused a mad slashing of education? Or was it obliviousness and mismanagement, a quirk of bad luck, maladaptive demographics, and learned helplessness? Or, as the song goes: How did the chewing gum lose its flavor, on the bedpost overnight?

      4. Re: Slingshot
        To my mind everything derives from the budget cuts, first here in California and then nationwide. Once that happened, and the pay for teachers and cash for programs melted away, the rest just logically followed. Teachers were blamed for declining standards, their pay became worse, “standards” were imposed politically leading to bad testing metrics, extracurricular programs with social goals were added that took away from teaching hours, and teaching itself became the lowest priority. I know some people with good training and very strong work ethics who are teaching in California now, but very few of them plan to do it for life. And they seem to be the exceptions to a rule. Present company excepted, many of the teachers now are people with bachelor’s degrees and not much else who have said to themselves “well I can always teach”.
        I can’t blame them. They’re at once blamed for everything wrong, underpaid, and forced to go through lockstep curricula dictated by red-faced idiot legislators. The one thing we need most in the schools we’ll never get, and that’s enough funding to get the job done right.

    2. I think the quality of teaching has declined, mostly because of funding. There are obviously still good teachers, but the dive in salaries followed by the near-random hiring of new college grads as teachers hasn’t been good for teaching quality. The same people who cut the funds in the first place are now enthusiastically blaming teachers and their unions for the ensuing problems, which is nauseatingly dishonest.
      If the schools around here are any indication, that ten day rule is not enforced at all.

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