What Makes a Good High School?

Fred Wiseman Turns His Camera on Central Park East

By Stan Karp

What makes a good school? What information does someone need to judge whether a particular school works well or not? Why do some city schools succeed where others fail with similar students in similar settings? Can the things that make one school successful be readily duplicated and applied elsewhere?

These are some of the provocative questions raised by Fred Wiseman’s latest film High SchoolII. Unfortunately — but not surprisingly for those familiar with Wiseman’s films — the answers are a lot harder to come by.

Wiseman’s documentaries have always been a mixed bag. On the one hand, they provide an intriguing inside look at various institutions, from hospitals and welfare offices to modeling agencies and meat-packing plants. For over 25 years, Wiseman has taken his camera inside the places where people work and wrestle with the socially constructed relations that shape daily life. Ever since one of his earliest works, Titicut Follies, revealed the horrors of a Massachusetts prison for the criminally insane and established his credentials as an innovative filmmaker, Wiseman has used his documentary technique to explore experiences from basic training in the military, to everyday life in the Panama Canal Zone, hospital emergency rooms, and big city department stores.

Yet for all their gritty authenticity and non-commercial integrity, Wiseman’s films can also be inaccessible, even annoying.

They reject, apparently as a matter of stylistic principle, any narrative structure or coherent point of view. While his films are no doubt carefully constructed and purposefully edited, they often have the feel of raw footage (and some have lots of it — High School II runs a marathon 3 hours and 40 minutes). Wiseman’s cameras patiently allow for sustained, if not always compelling, conversation; for leisurely, at times, tedious, wandering through rooms, halls and offices. People come and go, often without identification, resolution, or even an obvious point. Just like real life, some might say.

Yet this refusal to impose an explicit analysis or even a narrative point of view on his institutional subjects is problematic.

Wiseman’s films offer a record of reality that often provokes viewers and provides lots of raw food for thought. But when it comes to understanding human relations and social institutions, the truth is found not so much in the undigested details as it is in the power and accuracy of the ideas that make sense of those details. And lacking those ideas, Wiseman’s films not only lack coherence, they sometimes overlook telling information that might have been included had the filmmaker’s ideas led him to search for it.

So it was with mixed expectations that this film fan and secondary school teacher greeted the news that Wiseman’s latest documentary was about Central Park East High School, in East Harlem, N.Y.

The film is a sequel to High School which was made in 1968 at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. That earlier film had turned the cameras on a repressive, authoritarian institution which seemed to pride itself on enforcing obedience and order in the name of education. In the midst of a society bubbling at the time with debate about civil rights, anti-war sentiment and cultural rebellion, the school was remarkable for its lifeless environment. Drill-sergeant disciplinarians, rows of blank-faced students, sexist home economics courses, and classrooms reeking of passivity and boredom brought back some of the worst nightmares of high school. The film provided cinematic support for many of the criticisms raised by the student and school reform movements of the ’60s and ’70s. (Nevertheless, in a telling confirmation of the ambiguity of Wiseman’s style, Education Week noted recently that Northeast’s teachers and administrators originally thought the film projected a positive image of a “good school,” until reviews denouncing its “overwhelming dreariness” came pouring in).

For the sequel, Wiseman, to his credit, deliberately chose an urban school that works wonders by comparison. “It seemed to me a lot more interesting,” he told Education Week, “to make a movie about a school that was working, than to make yet another movie about a place that was falling apart.” Given the “blackboard jungle” stereotypes circulating about urban schools, which are themselves reinforced by larger currents of racial and cultural division in society, Wiseman’s film, for all its short-comings, does a service by showing that high expectations and effective instructional strategies can help students of color achieve educational excellence. And, as indicated below, what we see of Central Park East in High School II does have some important things to tells us about how to make schools work.

A Complicated Choice

At the same time, choosing a fishbowl model like Central Park East has its complications. Central Park East High School is the secondary division of a group of schools started by educator Deborah Meier. In the mid-seventies Meier used her considerable energy, organizing ability, and a variety of progressive educational ideas to help establish a teacher-run public elementary school in District #4 in East Harlem.

Despite numerous obstacles, Meier’s educational vision took root and steadily grew, eventually expanding to three elementary schools. In 1985, Central Park East Secondary School opened. Today it graduates over 90% of its students (compared to about 50% for the city as a whole) and sends almost all of its graduates on to college. Central Park East was also one of the founding schools in Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and has spawned the Center for Collaborative Education to develop and disseminate its educational model. Meier has won a MacArthur Foundation grant and, more recently, has taken on the job of overseeing the creation of a number of new New York City public schools based in large part on the Central Park East experience.

The Central Park East schools have been subjected to frequent academic dissection and a variety of competing claims. Although Meier and Central Park East have always been committed to proving that progressive and democratic ideas could make public education better, in recent years conservatives bent on promoting school voucher plans or privatizing educational services have “claimed” Central Park East as a model, because it functions within a districtwide public school choice plan. (For an analysis of these often-distorted arguments, see the Rethinking Schools publication, False Choices). Other critics, at times, have faulted Central Park East’s teacher-centered practices for not more fully including parents in its governance and policy-making bodies.

However one views Central Park East, it is undoubtedly an important model struggling with both the opportunities and obstacles that the current ferment around public education presents to progressive school experiments. As Meier put it in “A Talk to Teachers” last year (Dissent, Winter 1994) “We’re living in an extraordinary moment when the political rhetoric that surrounds our work — especially among educational policy pundits — may be increasingly aligned with our own vision, when the number of our allies may be great enough not only to protect our work, but enlarge it, and when we have an excellent reputation from some of the unlikeliest sources to fall back upon. But even with all this going for us, we are always in danger. The biggest danger is the inevitable tendency to revert to the norm.” In the long run, some of the factors that will ultimately determine Central Park East’s success involve larger issues about society’s commitment to democracy, equity, and reform in public education, and about the strategies and resources needed to turn pockets of innovative excellence into systemwide improvement.

Unfortunately, virtually none of these issues or any of this context is visible in High SchoolII. In fact viewers aren’t even provided basic information like the number of students in the school (about 450), the grade levels involved (7-12), or how the students came to attend Central Park East (each had to navigate an admissions process that raises thorny issues about limited access, “creaming,” and the pros and cons of public school choice systems.) The lack of information about both nuts and bolts issues like these, and the larger reform context within which Central Park East struggles to survive and reproduce, makes the film less useful than it might have been to the ongoing debate about public education.

Instead we get instructional episodes, classroom vignettes, excerpts of staff meetings, and pieces of parent and student conferences. While they manage to tell us a lot about Central Park East, they don’t add up to everything we need to know to make an overall assessment of this seminal educational project. Nevertheless, much of what they do tell us is good news.

Perhaps the most impressive characteristic consistently on display in the film is the high quality of communication between adults and kids. In all sorts of school situations, instructional, disciplinary, or advisory, lots of effort is put into developing communication skills, and using those skills to examine ideas and conflicts.

Students are asked to explain concepts, defend positions, and marshal evidence, instead of filling in the blanks with rote answers. There’s lots of small group and one-on-one instruction (enough to make the average public school teacher wonder how the student-teacher ratios which make this possible were attained. Where are the standing-room-only classes of 30-40 all too typical of NYC’s public schools?) There are concerted efforts to break through the game-playing and evasion that often characterize student-authority conflicts in schools. There is evidence of sustained attention to all the aspects of a young person’s life that go into creating a positive learning environment, including after school tutorial services, personalized counseling and “advisory” groups, sensitivity to personal and family situations, and access to social services.

Respect for Students

There also appears to be a high level of respect for students and for their ability to learn. Expectations and obligations are named explicitly in ways that encourage students to take responsibility for educational situations that are shaped, at least to some extent, by mutual negotiation. “It’s a very good thing, communication” says one teacher, after suggesting a student phone next time he’ll be late. It’s a better response than the usual late passes filled out in triplicate or threats of detention, and it appears typical of the Central Park East climate.

These relatively enlightened attitudes are not simply the product of well-meaning, sensitive teachers. They reflect the application of a number of progressive educational ideas (codified to some extent in the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools.) These include such things as viewing the teacher as a “coach,” rather than as the center of the instructional process, and seeing the student as a responsible, productive worker capable of in-depth effort and active participation in designing the educational program. They also include a project-oriented approach to learning, performance assessment based on portfolios, presentations and demonstrations of mastery, instead of standardized tests; and collaborative planning and flexible use of school time.

At Central Park East, the curriculum is organized around five “habits of mind” designed to prepare students for a life of intellectual activity and inquiry. Summarized simply, these “habits” seek to develop the intellectual capacities of young people by asking repeatedly, in all curricula areas, whose perspective is being presented, what’s the evidence, how is a particular thing connected to other things, what if things were different, and, finally, who cares and why does it matter. Though these concepts, like all ideas, can be fetishized, High School II shows their usefulness as a way to organize curricula and engage students in purposeful academic activity.

Whether students are researching and debating immigration policy, cooperatively solving physics problems, or discussing how to respond to the Rodney King verdict, there’s a community of values operating in the school which sustains individual and collective educational growth.

Another positive is the frankness with which Central Park East addresses difficult issues that more traditional schools ignore or pretend don’t exist. When one African-American student has repeated conflicts with school authority a white administrator asks, “Do you think of this as a white school?” which in turn leads to an unusually direct conversation about the student’s identification with or alienation from his instructors, and how that affects his experience in the school. Likewise, a teen mother is engaged in real discussion about the difficulties of balancing school, social life, and parenthood with neither culturally insensitive disapproval or pollyanna-ish encouragement.

A similar willingness to confront difficult issues is evident among the staff.

At a teachers’ meeting on setting standards for student performance, teachers debate how to address the demands of Advanced Placement college tests. One argues against adapting to such requirements, contending, “That would make us a traditional school. Part of our school is about changing what reality is.” Another teacher responds that she, too, has no great love of the AP test but, “I want to make sure that our children can at least go to college and not have to take remedial courses in writing and reading and can compete on the same level with kids from private schools and suburban schools.” The discussion frames debate about how to include a literature requirement at the various levels of student development, and again suggests that Central Park East teachers reflect together on the implications of various issues and are empowered to take action that will directly impact on school programs. Much lip-service is paid to “empowering teachers” these days, but few will find the environment of teacher empowerment at Central Park East similar to their own experience.

Another issue raised at several points in the film involves the connection between the values of progressive education and those of political activism. Do the concerns for equity, democracy, and critical thought evident in various aspects of the educational program translate into real activity on those same concerns in the outside world?

Wiseman’s hit or miss approach again leaves viewers unable to draw a reliable balance sheet, but there are some suggestive, if contradictory, indications.

Staff Reflection

In one scene we see a young woman discussing her recent internship at the stock exchange firm, Lehman Bros. Her “can do” enthusiasm for being a “good employee” and hopes for a “stable position in the firm” with a name that will impress her friends is pretty familiar stuff these days as high schools feed students dubious “dress for success” versions of corporate values.

Similarly, there is a lengthy scene of a student-teacher writing conference about an essay on whether Columbus was a Renaissance man. The exchange is strikingly long on concern for the essay’s organization and structure and short on substantive discussion of Columbus and his imperial legacy. (Of course, it’s impossible to know if such a discussion occurred outside the eye of Wiseman’s camera, or was left on the cutting room floor, or in fact never did happen.) But scenes like these suggest that there is much that is still pretty conventional at Central Park East. At the same time, Wiseman was filming in the days following the explosive response to the verdict acquitting the police officers who beat Rodney King. The response at the school ranged from writing outraged essays in the classroom, to organizing school-wide forums, to participating in outside marches and rallies. Student meetings showed young people willing and able to articulate their various options thoughtfully in ways that testify to the space Central Park East apparently gives young people to stand up and be heard.

The staff, too, is seen discussing the complexities of mixing student activism with its educational mission. One exchange contrasts the lack of thought that went into planning an in-school activity in response to the verdict with the care that a comparable educational activity would have received.

Again, it is difficult to grasp the whole picture and not all voices are heard, but there’s clearly a level of reflection and serious purpose at work. As Meier says, “In a way we don’t think through the question of what kind of activities are legitimate and powerfully appropriate for a school to do to help kids see themselves as political activists. … We need more formally to think through the issue of how to make students feel their political citizenship.

That’s not using kids for political agendas, that’s part of our responsibility, to make them powerful political actors. But there are places in that agenda that get complicated. There are borderlines between our role as helping kids be political actors and using kids for our political agendas, the extreme, and there are a lot of grey areas in-between where it’s not easy to tell.” In the end, the discussion, like many of the issues raised in the film, is unresolved.

Many viewers, especially teachers, will find High School II worth watching for its realistic portraits of school and classroom life. Those interested in education generally may be encouraged by the success it shows. But, in the final analysis, the film does not do justice to the complexities of Central Park East and the issues of education reform which over 3 1/2 hours should have made possible. On that score it falls short of the high expectations many have come to associate with Central Park East High School.