The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 4

The Role of School
in United States Adolescents' Lives

By: Barbara K. Hofer

A Typical Day for an Eighth-Grade Student

The clock radio clicks on and Gabe Marshall wakes to rock music from his favorite radio station. It is 6:30 a.m., and his parents and older sister are also up and getting ready for the day. Soon his father will catch the train to work, and his mother will leave to drop his sister at the local high school before she heads to her office. Gabe gathers his homework from his desk and places it in his backpack with other school materials and textbooks. After dressing, eating, and talking briefly with his mother about a permission slip he needs signed for a field trip, he waits for his neighbor Matt to meet him for the walk to the nearby middle school.

When they arrive at school, Gabe and Matt quickly locate their group of friends, gathered just outside the school building, a large concrete structure built in the early 1950's. When the bell rings at 8:00 a.m., students move inside, continuing their conversations, and head for their lockers to gather the materials needed for the first part of the day. Then they go to their 20-minute advisory period. In advisory class they listen to morning announcements, some from the principal over the school loudspeaker and others from the advisory teacher. She reminds the students of the upcoming registration for next year's high school classes and distributes information to take home to parents about the courses students can choose to take.

Although they are both eighth-graders, Gabe then heads off to algebra class and Matt to prealgebra. Because they are part of the same middle school team, they have most of their other academic classes together, each of which last 45 minutes, with 5 minutes between classes. In Gabe's class, students pass in their homework and then work in small groups on a series of problems. The teacher periodically intervenes to keep groups on task, provide further information, and summarize the material learned. During the next period, in English class, they work in pairs to edit each other's essays, and then the teacher introduces the next novel they will be reading and provides a worksheet to complete on the first chapter. Science class follows, and Gabe enjoys this most of all; the teacher is introducing them to chemistry, and Gabe likes the hands-on experiments and the way the teacher makes them interesting. Today they learn how bases and acids interact by combining vinegar and baking soda in the making of peanut brittle, which they also get to eat. At the end of class, the teacher reminds them of an upcoming test and provides a review sheet of questions to help prepare. Afterwards, Gabe rushes to his locker to store his books and then to the lunchroom, where he buys pizza and french fries before joining his friends for lunch. In the afternoon, Gabe has American history, band, and Spanish. When the final bell rings, he heads back to the boys' locker room and changes for an hour of soccer practice.

Gabe reaches home at 4:00 p.m., grabs a snack in the kitchen, calls his mother at work to check in with her, and then takes off to deliver papers. Gabe has had a paper route since he was 11. He enjoys having his own money to buy new games for his computer and to spend on weekends. When he returns home, he flips on the television and watches until his parents arrive home from work. They admonish him to begin his homework. He starts his math assignment and reads an assigned chapter for history, until his mother calls him to set the table for dinner. She tells him that there will just be three for dinner tonight, as his sister has theater practice and won't be home till late. After dinner, his mother reminds him to practice his clarinet, and then it is time to watch a couple of favorite TV shows with his parents. A classmate calls to clarify a homework assignment, and they talk for several minutes about other things and make plans to meet at a movie on Saturday. At 9:00 p.m. he heads upstairs to finish his homework and then plays on his computer for a few minutes before bedtime at 10:00 p.m.


One of the concerns in a comparative study of education is the role that school plays in adolescents' lives. In order to understand more about this role, we conducted interviews in three major urban areas during the winter and spring of 1995. In addition to talking with adolescents to learn more about their own perceptions, we also observed in classes, lunchrooms, gyms, and hallways. We talked with parents, teachers, and school administrators to learn their perspectives about this time of life and the role school appears to play. We were interested in what students do when they are at school, what they do when they are not, and how the two are related. We wanted to know more about the experience of schooling from the adolescent point of view, what other activities occupy their time and engage their interest, their issues and concerns, what they care about, how they approach the future, and how school fits into this picture.


Employing an ethnographic Case Study method, researchers conducted interviews and observations in three urban communities at five comprehensive high schools, a vocational high school, three middle schools, a junior high school, and an elementary school that houses grades K-8. Although these were described earlier in the introduction, brief descriptions are offered in order to provide context for the comments that follow from students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Table 1—School profiles

Metro City

Metropolitan School is a large, year-round, urban school for grades K-8. Less than 5 percent of the students were white, nearly two-thirds were African-American, and nearly a third Hispanic. The community was highly transient, with a student mobility rate over 80 percent, indicating the number of students who enroll in or leave the school during the school year.

King Junior High School houses seventh and eighth grade in a racially integrated middle-class community. More than half the students were white, and just over a third were African-American. Fewer than 1 percent were nonnative speakers of English. The student mobility rate is 4 percent.

Vanderbilt Middle School is located in a prosperous upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood and includes grades five through eight. The school provided elaborate resources for an almost 100 percent white population that was nearly all college-bound.

Uptown High School, a large urban high school built around 1910, is in a highly transient low-income neighborhood that is one of the main ports of entry for immigrants to the United States. The 2,000 students represented over 50 nationalities and more than a quarter were enrolled in classes to learn English as a second language. The drop-out rate exceeded 20 percent. Per-pupil expenditures averaged $6,600 annually.

Springdale High School served 2,800 students from primarily middle to upper-middle-income homes in two communities. Two-thirds of the students were white and over a quarter were African-American. Nearly 90 percent of the graduates continued their education after high school. Per-pupil expenditures averaged $10,300 annually.

Hamilton High School is a large comprehensive high school of nearly 3,000 students that serves two diverse communities bordering a metropolitan area. The school's campus is extensive, resembling that of a small college. The student population included nearly even proportions of white and African-American students (45 percent) and the remainder were primarily Hispanic and Asian American. One-third of all students were considered low-income, but many others were from quite affluent families. Roughly 80 percent of the students continued their education, and the drop-out rate was below 3 percent. Per-pupil expenditures averaged $13,400 annually.

South Central Vocational High School is a vocational school located between two housing projects in a neighborhood of abandoned buildings. Many of the 700 students, who were nearly all African-American, had been suspended or expelled from other schools in the city. School security included metal detectors, uniformed police on duty throughout the day, and surveillance cameras in the hallways. Less than one-quarter of the students graduated. Per-pupil expenditures averaged $6,000 annually.

West City

West Middle School is located in a low-income section of West City, a neighborhood of small single-story, plaster homes with chain link fences and often with iron bars on the windows. The school served a population that was three-quarter Hispanic, 17 percent Asian, 3 percent African-American, and 1 percent white. Sixty percent of the students have limited English proficiency and 85 percent were low income.

West High School is located in a low-income district of West City. The diverse student body included 43 percent Hispanics, 38 percent Asian, 7 percent white, and 5 percent African-American, with several other groups represented among the remaining 7 percent. The percentage of students classified as low income was 37 percent, and 46 percent had limited English proficiency.

East City Area Schools

East Middle School is an immense, modern school built within the last 5 years, located in a rapidly growing suburban community. Student achievement in math and science was average for the state. Close to 90 percent of the students were white, and under 10 percent were African-American. The portion of students eligible for free lunches was 7 percent.

East High School, built about 20 years ago, is a large split-level structure that was overcrowded; 7 trailers served as an annex to the school proper. Student achievement on math and science tests was in the middle range for the state. White students made up just over 60 percent of the student body, and nearly a third of the students were African-American. The portion of students eligible for free lunches was 14 percent.

In Metro City, William Foraker and Mavis Sanders conducted the majority of the interviews and observations on the topic of schooling and adolescent's lives. This work was supplemented by additional fieldwork conducted by other members of the research team: Douglas Trelfa, Roberta Nerison-Low, and Carmen Maldonado de Johnson. In East City, William Foraker and Carmen Maldonado de Johnson were the primary researchers, and in West City, Gerry LeTendre and Sally Lubeck filled this role. The data from this collection of interviews and observations were analyzed by Barbara Hofer, who had been involved in the design phase of the study and who conducted further fieldwork in the primary site following initial analyses of the data.

The field research includes transcribed interviews with students from 8th through 12th grade, including 49 students from Metro City, 7 from West City, and 6 from east City. A smaller number of parents were also interviewed: 19 in Metro City, 4 in West City, and 1 in East City. Fifteen teachers were interviewed in Metro City, 4 in West City, and 3 in East City. The research team also interviewed administrators, including principals, assistant principals, and curriculum directors; there were 11 such interviews in Metro City, 6 in West City, and 1 in East City. In addition, classroom observations, primarily of math and science classes, were conducted in 25 classes in Metro City, in 2 classes in West City, and in 4 classes in East City. Written material provided by the schools, generally regarding school policies, curriculum and scheduling, were also included in the analysis.

The adolescents who contributed to this study and their parents, teachers, and school administrators appeared open and willing to share their views and experiences with us. They were aware, however, that we were researchers from a university, collecting data for a national study, and we do not know to what extent this may have affected their responses. We met with the participants in classrooms, teachers' lounges, in the hallways, and in homes. Interviews with students were arranged through principals or teachers; most were conducted individually or, in a few cases, as group interviews. Principals also recommended parents and teachers to be interviewed. This process may have restricted our access to a broader range of students, and within each of the schools we may have been more likely to have interviewed and observed those most engaged with the school.

We did not interview students in rural areas, and while our sites were carefully selected, they cannot be presumed to be representative of all U.S. cities. Within these limitations, we have provided our best interpretation of the role of schooling in the lives of adolescents in the selected communities where we lived during this period of time.


[Individual Differences and the United States Education System (Part 4 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 2 of 4)]