The Frontal Cortex

The Virtues of A Mediocre High School

Needless to say, this is ridiculous:

Settled in the well-groomed Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, Derek O’Gorman worked as an insurance broker. His wife, Mary Ann, took care of their two girls, both stellar students at top-ranked local schools. But in 2005, when the family visited a nearby private high school they expected the girls to attend, they came away disappointed. After an extensive search, the O’Gormans found the perfect fit: the Winsor School. Winsor, famed for its academic rigor and participatory classes, is also known for the academic success of its 420 students: About a third of its latest graduating class went to Ivy League colleges.

The hitch: Winsor is in Boston. After months of debate, the O’Gormans sold their house. Mr. O’Gorman, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, quit his job, and the family moved to a small Boston apartment. It would take three months and most of the family’s savings before Mr. O’Gorman, 45 years old, found an insurance job in the new city.

The article in the WSJ goes on to describe how the O’Gormans can’t even afford to move their furniture to Boston, since all their money goes to pay tuition (about $56,000 a year). My only comment on stories like this is to note that there are important adverse effects to getting an “elite” high school education. I went to a magnet program situated within a big, urban public high school. While I had some wonderful teachers, and was offered plenty of AP classes, I was always jealous of my peers at posh private schools, who got to take all sorts of nifty electives. They’d have pottery class in the morning, followed by a seminar on Latin American Literature, and a course on the Philosophy of Math. My class schedule, in contrast, consisted of the academic basics: English, Math, Science, History, etc. My only elective was Auto Mechanics.

So what’s wrong with taking specialized classes in high school? I knew too many kids in college who, after having gone to fancy private schools, felt like college was anticlimactic. They didn’t want to take Art History classes because they’d already taken Art History classes. Physics for Poets? That was so 10th grade. What about Introduction to East Asian Religion? Meh. They already knew all about the Tao. Same with Plato. In other words, these private schoolers had a false sense of having been exposed to just about everything. Because they’d learned about it as a 16 year old, they didn’t have to learn about it again. College seemed redundant.

In contrast, I was hungry for everything. I couldn’t believe that such a range of intellectual disciplines existed. I had trouble whittling down my course list every semester. It wasn’t just that I was ignorant, although I was/am; it was that I was eager to enmesh myself in the pleasurable details of knowledge. High school had given me an outline, and now I got to fill in the blanks, and see how things connected. Unlike my private school friends, who sometimes seemed burnt out by school, I knew that I knew nothing, which is the ideal way to enjoy college.

The simple truth is that the vast majority of 16 year olds aren’t ready for Art History, or Buddhism, or Plato. (Their frontal cortex, for example, is still developing.) All they really care about is getting their license and gossiping with their friends. We should make sure to save some academic experiences for college, when the mind is a bit more ready to absorb them.

Comments

  1. #1 Melissa
    February 21, 2007

    It’s true. Having gone to such a high school, with yoga, glass blowing, and a zillion APs, I have found college to be incredibly boring. I guess that is why I’ve ended up in a field that never would be been taught in my posh high school- agricultural economics. Sometimes I’m a bit sad I got all my English and history classes out of the way in high school. There are more choices here and you are right about 16 year olds not being ready.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    February 21, 2007

    Yes, I would say the O’Gormon’s are O’Stupid. I am sure they could have found an elite school closer to LA!

    Although you make some good points, I am not sure I am convinced that elite schools are totally bad, a lot depends on how mature the student is. My kids had your experience though; AP classes in the basics, with good extra curriculars and a couple of electives. They are turning out okay, with my oldest getting his Masters this spring, and daughter at Northwestern, but I think they would have both enjoyed the Budha and pottery classes if they were offered, and been smart enough to know they were building a foundation, not a completed mansion. I would sort of hate to see them in saffron robes at an airport though…

  3. #3 chezjake
    February 21, 2007

    There is a place for the so-called “elite” schools, especially when public schools don’t provide meaningful opportunities for very gifted students. My daughter was bored stiff in 6th and 7th grade classes, despite attending a one-day/week gifted and talented program outside the local public school. She placed in the top 2% nationwide in the Johns Hopkins gifted and talented search while in 7th grade, and was offered a major scholarship to a local “elite” private school. She skipped 8th grade and still was at the top of her class academically all the way through her 4 years of private school. She was academically challenged in ways the local schools could never attempt, and she went on to her first choice college (Oberlin) where she continued to explore a very diverse curriculum, winding up with triple majors (biology, political science, women’s studies).

    If local public schools can’t satisfy the truly gifted, there must be places where their talents are recognized and their curiosity can be satisfied. Many of the dropouts from public schools are academically gifted but just plain bored.

  4. #4 Shauna
    February 21, 2007

    Different people are better served by different types of schools. Perhaps most people are better off “getting their license and gossiping with their friends” but there are a significant number of people stuck in public schools who would love a better education. I ended up dropping out of high school because I was so bored with it – I would skip classes and walk to the nearby Barnes and Noble and read all day. I read books about Reconstruction and ancient Sumer, black holes and the limbic system, economics, politics, and yeah, trashy fantasy novels too. It actually sounds idyllic but I felt really guilty about lying to my parents, and so trapped by the school system. I ended up going on anti-depressants, but really, it was dropping out of high school that helped me the most.

    Do I love college? Absolutely. Do I appreciate it more because of what I went through to get here? Maybe. Was it worth it? Not at all.

  5. #5 Blythe Sumner
    February 21, 2007

    Regular high schools are for dullards. If you can’t go to an elite private prep school, go for the internet schools. All conventional high school will teach you is how to fail conventionally.

  6. #6 ChemJerk
    February 21, 2007

    As someone who teaches at a semi-elite school (public magnet that attracts the top 5% students in the county), I can tell you that my school often falls short of its elite reputation. We do have great students, several great teachers and a strong curriculum (at least on paper), but we often succeed despite ourselves. The biggest reason for this accidental success is a kind of “Lake Wobegon Effect” displayed by almost all of the administration and many of the faculty. Essentially, far too many adults in my school confuse good behavior with academic excellence. The end result is that the kids are not as intelligent and educated as their transcript might suggest. I suspect that the truly elite schools suffer from this effect all the more. So, many elite school graduates fail, not because they’re bored after being exposed to it all in high school, but because their strong and diverse transcripts stand in opposition to reality.

    Of course my experience is only anecdotal, but I know several examples of grade inflation that arise from an administrator offering the “Johnny’s a good boy” argument. It goes like this: (1) Johnny is a good student, (2) Johnny works hard and (3) Johnny would probably be getting A’s if he were going to his local public school, so Johnny should get the benefit of any and all doubt regarding his grade at our school. The end result is that it is difficult to distinguish between a good student and a truly great student based on academic performance. This then encourages students to bust their behinds doing a 1001 extracurricular activities to produce a unique and competitive profile for their college apps.

  7. #7 Agnostic
    February 21, 2007

    You’re right that the parents are stupid. To my knowledge, no one has studied whether different types of high school “add value” or not — superficially, they don’t do any such thing. The kids they attract are already smart and motivated to achieve. So, the expectation is that, short of the teachers ruining their brains with shock therapy or something, the kids will be smart and motivated upon graduation — and thus get into good schools.

    If the elite schools were worth as much as they charge, they’d take a smart, motivated kid and turn them into a genius. Obviously, they don’t do this.

    Another possibility is that they’re trying to keep their kids away from schools with lots of poor Blacks and Hispanics, just for safety reasons (even well-to-do Blacks and Hispanics do this). But you can easily move to a place where there isn’t such a problem. It might imply a longer commute, but that’ll be nothing compared to — FIFTY-SIX thousand dollar per year tuition? Jee-zus!

    And as you and other commenters have hinted, kids who are smart and curious are unstoppable; they’ll hang out in the library, Barnes & Noble, etc., so elite schooling is unnecessary. You want them to have unimaginable resources to study art history, eastern religion, etc.? — buy them membership at the nearest elite university library. At George Washington University, it only costs $250 per year, and you get to take out 10 books at a time, get full access to their library & computers, as well as have journal access in the library (though not from home). That’s less than 1/2 of a percent the cost of tuition at some jackass boarding school.

    And with the internet, they can join any number of discussion groups, or watch video lectures from MIT’s Open CourseWare site, and so on. Hell, if the kid really knows their stuff, they could even email the author of the paper / book they just read. Beats gabbing about it with your peers.

  8. #8 yolio
    February 22, 2007

    Yikes agnostic!!

    “Another possibility is that they’re trying to keep their kids away from schools with lots of poor Blacks and Hispanics, just for safety reasons (even well-to-do Blacks and Hispanics do this). But you can easily move to a place where there isn’t such a problem.”

    There are about 101 less racist ways to state that the parents want to avoid violent schools. FYI, even poor black and hispanic parents want to avoid sending their kids to violent schools.

  9. #9 shelby
    January 18, 2008

    This is rather belated, but I would just like to note that I am 16 years old and not at all interesting with gossiping with my friends. (I think it’s kind of immoral.)

    I think a strong basic program with challenging but not completely esoteric courses is ideal. Also, some high school students may be ready for a couple of interesting electives. (One can’t just go around making huge generalizations about the development of something as complex and mysterious as the brain.)