Academic journal article High School Journal

Why High Schools Don't Change: What Students and Their Yearbooks Tell Us

Academic journal article High School Journal

Why High Schools Don't Change: What Students and Their Yearbooks Tell Us

Article excerpt

High school yearbook students from five schools in a large suburban school system were surveyed and interviewed to investigate what was meaningful and memorable to them throughout their high school experience. The yearbooks they produced were analyzed to confirm their responses and gain more information about their interests and priorities. Chang's (1992) elements of adolescent ethos, including getting along, being involved, and gaining independence, provided a conceptual framework. Transcripts of focus group interviews, surveys, and yearbooks were examined and analyzed for references to rites of passage and intensification embedded in the high school program and described by Burnett (1969). Yearbook students in this study articulated the importance of the adolescent ethos elements described by Chang (1992). Relationships with friends and acquaintances emerged as students' primary focus. They equated growing up with accepting responsibility. Students identified markers of independence similar to those described by Chang (1992), including driving, having a job, and taking responsibility in extracurricular activities. Additional markers of independence suggested by these students were receiving mail from prospective colleges, earning the trust of adults, and experiencing the death of a classmate. Students' comments, supported by yearbook text and pictures, indicated the presence of and importance attached to high school rites of passage and intensification. Students demonstrated a lack of interest in their academic work through their oral and written responses and the minimal coverage they allotted to academics in their yearbooks. Students' descriptions of academic as compared to their yearbook classes, along with the importance of the adolescent ethos and rites of passage, offer clues for meaningful high school restructuring from students' perspectives.


"High school is a kind of secular church, a place of national rituals that match the stages of a young citizen's life. The value of its rites appears to depend on national consistency" (Sizer 1984/1992, p. 6).

The Immutable Nature of the High School

Societal upheavals and paradigms shifts, including the move from a factory to a service-based economy, have marked American society in the last 50 years. Since the 1980's these shifts have been accompanied by loud and incessant calls for the restructuring of public schools. More recent attention has focused specifically on the high school program and students' behavior during the senior year (National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001). Students' lack of academic engagement, low achievement, and their inability to function successfully either in college or in the workplace have been well documented (Giella and Standfill, 1996; Maryland Higher Education Commission, 1996; American Youth Policy Forum, 2000). In spite of exhortations for change, the American high school continues as an institution that has remained almost impervious to the monumental shifts that surround it (Goodlad, 1984; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; Powell et al., 1985; Sizer, 1984/1992; National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001).

Support for the Status Quo

Most American--high school graduates could enter a local high school today and recognize its elements from their own high school experience. "The grammar of schooling," the shifting of students in groups of 25 or so, often by grade level, from teacher to teacher and subject to subject according to a prescribed schedule, usually punctuated by the ringing of bells, would be familiar (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p. 86). Homeroom, students grouped by grade for instruction, and classrooms geographically arranged by department or subject area would increase their comfort level. Visitors who left their high schools decades ago could negotiate crowded hallways at the change of classes filled with chattering students, some in cheerleading attire, noting posters and announcements taped to the walls about the upcoming big game and the next school-wide dance on the calendar. …

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