In the public discourse over the future of public education in America, success stories go largely unreported. So says Edward Humes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who spent a year hanging out with the students, teachers, principal and counselors of Whitney High School of Cerritos, Calif., the top high school in the state, to gather material for his new book, School of Dreams.
Cerritos is an inland suburb of Los Angeles, far from the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills. The 1,050-student body at Whitney, grades 7 through 12, is composed of the top 20 percent of the district's elementary and middle school students who compete for placement there. Two-thirds are Asian-American.
The building is run-down and inadequate in many ways, but the culture of academic excellence is persistent throughout. Whitney routinely turns out seniors with near-perfect SAT scores who are courted by elite colleges.
But in the age of standardized testing and accountability measures that are designed to sniff out failure, Whitney shares the same pressures as other American public schools to look great on paper, whether or not that is an accurate measurement of actual learning.
At Whitney High School, Edward Humes came to know kids whose parents pressured them to pursue scholarships in science and math and scorned their love of art. He followed the drama of William, a senior tweaking on amphetamines who trusted the counseling staff enough to come in and ask for help.
The Independent spoke to Humes from his California home about School of Dreams and the state of public education in America.
Indy: With dropout rates rising and funding crises in public schools, why the persistent focus on more standardized testing? What purpose do the new state tests adapted under the Bush administration really serve?
Humes: The tests exist for political purposes and are not used in any prescriptive way that I can see. My observations in School of Dreams were in a school where dropout and failure problems weren't really the issue, but the looming role that standardized testing is taking in public schools is a huge concern.
[The kids at Whitney] get top scores, but at the same time the tests represent an absolutely worthless education tool. They don't test what's going on in the classroom. They're enormously expensive.
Getting beyond accountability, you have an entire culture like Whitney where test scores are the deal, and where if you look at how our policies are set now, standardized testing determines whether a school is good or not. We have a situation where at the very best we're raising a generation of test takers, but not great learners. We have to ask: Is that what we really want for our children?
Indy: These tests mandated by the federal government, ours in Colorado is the CSAP, are supposed to measure the school's improvement at teaching basic standards, as I understand it. How are they actually used?
Humes: They aren't really used as teaching tools. If they were they wouldn't be sent to some company across the country for scoring then sent back to the school months later, after the student has already moved on to the next grade.
Here's my concern: These tests really are designed to focus on the floor, not the ceiling. They measure the most minimum level of competency. The tests are used to point fingers at failing schools; they really aren't used to identify success.
It's not about what we can learn from a school like Whitney. People move from all around the world to live where their kids can go to this school and most people in California have never even heard of it. For all our accountability measures, we don't care about successes.
Indy: Does this attitude really endanger public education?
Humes: I think so. We used to have the Blue Ribbon Schools program, a great process where we looked at innovation in the schools, the things the students were doing, yes, test scores too, but massive packets to analyze what schools were doing exceptionally well. That process is out the window. It's now the No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the so-called Texas Miracle. We've confused giving tests and pointing fingers with real education.
There is a perfect storm of events that are endangering public education as we know it. First, we have a nationwide funding crisis. Some schools are now addicted to private fund-raising efforts by parents. In some cases, money raised by parents is used to pay for staff. Once schools become dependent upon that, a lot of equity issues come into play that are contrary to the values of equal education for all.
Second, there are policies in place that put requirements on schools that many will not and cannot meet. Alternatives will have to be offered -- private schools, vouchers. I'm afraid that there are really some people whose intention it is to change the fundamental nature of public education.
Indy: What works at Whitney High School?
Humes: Many things. Whitney is not that run-down building; it's the culture of the place, the mentoring of students. The faculty [is] really good at trying to bring everyone along. The counseling office is one of the strengths of the school. In the book, I focus on Ms. Wold who was one of the first students at Whitney 25 years ago. Her office was really the heart of the place. The academic environment is extremely stressful with all-nighters, sometimes very little sleep, an overwhelming workload. The school, to its credit, acknowledges this and tries to support the kids.
What's different about the kids at Whitney is, first of all, they're choosing to be in this very tough school -- that factor alone changes everything. As a group, their parents are people who have made education the top priority with everything else secondary, reinforcing the same culture and attitude in their kids -- some by choice, some by coercion.
Indy: What needs to happen to change attitudes about public education and the public perception that everything is broken?
Humes: I think of the '70s litter campaign with the Indian chief and a big tear rolling down his cheek, or the Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign of the '80s that invented the idea of a designated driver. We really need something like that now, a huge marketing campaign, to change the public attitude about public education. If every school has the culture and the attitude of academics first, then every school can have the kind of success that Whitney has seen. It's not about money or the neighborhood; it's about commitment and valuing education above all else.
It's not rocket science.
Edward Humes is the author of Baby E.R. , No Matter How Loud I Shout, Mississippi Mud and Mean Justice.