back to high school

Around 1985, Eccles and Barber asked 10th graders in Michigan to identify themselves with one of the characters in the recent Hollywood movie, The Breakfast Club. All but five percent readily placed themselves in precisely one of the following categories: “jock,” “princess,” “brain,” “criminal,” or “basket case.” Each type of student spent most of his or her time with others of the same self-ascribed category. Students’ identities at 10th grade were strongly predictive of outcomes a decade later. The princesses attended college but drank. The criminals did drugs and dropped out. The brains were sober and successful in college. Those who participated in the performing arts did well in school but had higher rates of alcohol abuse and suicide attempts.

If we allow students to self-associate, given the norm in a modern American high school, they are likely to segregate into groups that reinforce social stratification. Students have too much choice about peer networks, but not enough obligation or opportunity to work with others unlike themselves. In various qualititative studies, including my own last year, students complain about being in a “bubble” (their word), isolated from other types of people.

If we try to build democratic communities in schools, through such concrete means as student governments, public performances, websites, or scholastic newspapers, these products will be produced by particular peer groups for their own friends. They will not benefit the student body as a whole.

This study is an argument for more radical school restructuring.

Sources: Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Bonnie L. Barber, “Student Council, Volunteering, Basketball, or Marching Band: What Kind of Extracurricular Involvement Matters,” Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 14, no. 1 (January 1999), p. 31; Bonnie L. Barber, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Margaret R. Stone, “Whatever Happened to the Jock, the Brain, and the Princess? Young Adult Pathways Linked to Adolescent Activity Involvement and Social Identity,” Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 16, no 5 (September 2001), pp. 429-455.

5 thoughts on “back to high school

  1. Meelar

    If it would be possible, a link to that research you did would be interesting–I don’t recall reading that entry and a quick search of the site turns up nothing.

    Also, one of the biggest roots of this phenomenon is ability tracking in classes–for example, my high school had 4 separate levels (trans, prep, accel, honors) for each subject, and these tended to segregate peer groups further. If you want to reduce this and can’t muster a radical change, this would be a good place to start (note that I make no judgement as to whether this is advisable).

  2. Peter Levine

    I’m sorry–you meant my own focus group research. I didn’t write it up in great detail on this blog, but I conducted focus groups of about 75 current undergraduates at the University of Maryland. Harry Boyte has also found evidence of a “bubble culture” (and student discomfort with it) in Minnesota.

  3. Meelar

    OK. Specifically, I was wondering how universal this “bubble” complaint was, and also how it varied depending on social status or group–would self-described “brains” be less comfortable outside their peer group, e.g.?

  4. Peter Levine

    Via email:

    I am one of the students feeling deep discomfort vis-a-vis the segregation and stratification that takes place in educational institutions. Nevertheless, I often wonder what would be the some of negative consequences of the radical alternative in the direction u seem to be suggesting.

    “Students have too much choice about peer networks, but not enough obligation or opportunity to work with others unlike themselves.”

    What do you speculate would be the outcome of increasing the obligation to work with others unlike themselves, for example?

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