Exposing the Reality Gap:


Public Expectations and Boston Public

The High School Journal

December, 2003 -- January, 2004, pp. 7-15



State educational systems are intent on improving standardized test scores (Amrein and Berliner, 2002; Cimbriz, 2002).  Although program titles differ, their intentions are remarkably similar -- to improve student test scores and to hold educators accountable.  Many secondary educators are disheartened by this approach--not because they resist accountability, but because they recognize that many problems confronting high school students have little to do with standardized test scores (Mendler, 2001).  They see the irony of focusing on test scores at a time when students are confronted with,  "rising youth violence; . . . sexual precocity; a growing self-centeredness and declining civic responsibility; an increase in self-destructive behavior; and ethical illiteracy"  (Lickona, 1993, p. 9). 

High school teachers, themselves, are also facing new challenges: . 

When Evans (1996) asked teachers to list their priorities for school improvement, he found that teachers wanted:They complain about low levels of salary, support, and recognition; about deteriorating conditions in the schools, and diminishing readiness among pupils; and about growing demands made on them, both instructional and non-instructional. Many surveys have shown a sharp decline in teachers' morale and job satisfaction (Evans, 1996, p. 94).


more time to plan, and prepare and cope with change, larger budgets for books, and supplies, fewer nonacademic requirements, more support from parents and the public, and greater attention to, and control over students by their parents. (p. 81)


Discussions about the struggles of high school students and teachers, however, are absent among legislators and policymakers, who focus on raising standardized test scores – a focus which is naïve, and largely irrelevant to the realities of modern high school life.  Mendler (2001) noted,

"With teacher accountability increasingly tied to student success as gauged by test performance, many educators experience great stress in simultaneously getting kids to perform while addressing the burdens caused by a toxic world that so often impedes student learning (p. 4). 


Unfortunately, the gap between the expectations of policy makers and the issues confronting today’s high school students and teachers has become greater now that the federal government has legislated educational accountability:  

Throughout the 1990s, national, state, and local education leaders have focused on raising educational standards and promoting accountability within the educational community. In fact, the promotion of challenging learning standards for all students-coupled with assessment systems that monitor progress and hold schools accountable-has been the centerpiece of the educational policy agenda of the federal government as well as of many states (NASSP, 2002)


The struggles of students, teachers, and administrators same , however, are the topics of Boston Public (BP), the Fox network series set in fictional Winslow High School (WHS).  Plots  involveingst student problems, such as drug usage, deal with suicide and violence, racial slurs, sexual norms, abuse, and homelessness.  Episodes Episodes focusing on dealing with teacher issues, includee stress from professional responsibilities, dedication and perseverance to disenchanted youth, purchasing a home on a teacher'slow salarysalaries, the naïveté of beginning teachers, and tensions between administrators and teachers.  

Furthermore, by also portraying the confusion and dilemmas facing high school leaders, BP illustrates the gap between the public's proclaimed goal of improving test scores and the actual goal of schools striving to be perceived as legitimate in order to acquire resources and survive.  Ogawa and Bossert (2000) wrote,

. . .  the function of leadership from the technical-rational perspective is organizational performance and goal attainment, the function of leadership from the institutional perspective is social legitimacy and organizational survival (p. 47).


In its portrayal of the dilemmas of high school life, BP recognizes that focusing on improved test scores is the "technical-rational" goal, but legitimacy and survival are the "institutional" goals. 

As a metaphor for the realities of modern high school life, BP raises these and other important issues.  On the other hand, the state and federal policy emphasis on raising test scores and holding teachers accountable reflect the attempts of those outside high schools to control public education.  Sacks (2000) pointed out:

. . . educational considerations have been subordinate to the political and ideological motivations of politicians and business leaders.  These interests have wielded political power over schools in order to assert their control and demonstrate preconceived failures of the school system as the means to sustain that political control over schools (p. 8). 


BP does a service for all who care about the education of our youth by exposing this reality gap – the gap between emphasizing accountability for student test scores when those who teach and learn in these institutions are increasingly embroiled in issues of adolescent growth that have been ignored by families and communities (Evans, 1996). 

We live in interesting educational times.  Both those who want vouchers and competition to infiltrate American public schooling and those who push for more equal educational opportunity within our current system seek significant changes within schools.  The future of the American public education system may hang in the balance as legislators debate the supposed need for vouchers, increased teacher accountability, and higher student test scores.

The very existence of this debate raises questions about the demise of public education, as we have known it.  Some doubt that the implementation of a voucher system would leave behind the students with nobody to advocate for them--those students who have the greatest need for a system that stands firm in its commitment to equal educational opportunity.  We question whether schools will be better places for children as state legislatures and the federal government insist that teachers be held accountable for higher student test scores.  

The fight is not over, but many educators and public school proponents feel exhausted.  They are against the ropes and not sure how long they can hold out against those who believe that school vouchers and test score based accountability will improve, not endanger, American public education. 

But we have found hope in an unlikely place – in the portrayal of the lives of those who walk the halls of Winslow High School (WHS).  Our hope is in the people they represent – all Americans who are committed to equal educational opportunity, even for those who live in poverty and who have special needs.  As former teachers and administrators we recognize and appreciate how the show depicts the gap between high school realities, and legislation aimed at holding teachers accountable for higher student test scores.

Although Bozell (2001) condemned BP as “soft porn for teens,” (p. 16) and “smart smut”  (p. 21), we find an accurate, sensitive portrayal of the issues facing today’s youth.   There is irony in the Parents’ Television Council (PTC) criticism of BP: “at a time when the politicians express concern for dismal standardized test scores and parents fear for their children’s safety at school, it is sad to see a program like Boston Public adding to the problem” (PTC Insider, 2001, p. 4).   We disagree with PTC on both points.  The irony is that, because of the realities of high school life, the political concern is of questionable value; and, instead of "adding to the problem," we believe BP ought to be given credit for portraying the real issues of high school life.

According to Taylor (2001), "Without doubt, the controversies presented on BP seem improbable. . . Nevertheless, the show's story lines, although greatly enhanced for drama and entertainment purposes, present scenarios that, at their core, parallel legitimate concerns in education law."  Furthermore, Lee (2000) points out, "Kelley (the show's producer) is unearthing much of his material from teachers themselves.  Some of it is shocking even to him."

High school policies and life have changed much over the last thirty years (Petronicolos, 1996), and BP illustrates many of these changes in its depictions of the struggles of students, teachers and administrators.  One purpose of this article is to describe how WHS is a metaphor for the realities of modern high school life.   Another purpose is to ask if, without acknowledging the complex social, psychological, and emotional issues that permeate every high school, emphasizing higher test scores and teacher accountability is likely to lead to significant improvement in high schools.  

When looking at WHS as a metaphor for high school life, several themes emerge.  We will discuss three.  One is that high schools have undergone a power shift.  A second is that, in a society where sexual messages are ubiquitous and increasingly provocative, the sexual norms and behaviors of teens have changed.   The third is that adolescent alienation continues to be a major issue confronting high school students. 


Power Shifton.  [Do we put this word in quotes?]

To illustrate a power shift in high schools, several BP plots suggest that teachers and administrators have lost power to students.  One television critic noted:

. . . teachers and administrators at the fictional Winslow High School are in positions of formal authority but actually face reversed power relations . . . as students take advantage of the ways the teachers’ hands are tied by lawsuits, district politics, and low status.  (Gamson, 2001, p. 38)


A student website, which ridiculed teachers, administrators and students, illustrated demonstrates this power shift.   Student Sheryl Holt published an underground website.  Claiming to be a school reporter, she insisted on her free speech rights.  This situation parallels the long-standing debate about administrative prior review of high school student journalism.  It also reflects how the context of that issue has changed.  Instead of involving school printing presses, and distributing leaflets on school grounds, the Internet provides instantaneous, no cost publication in a highly accessible, non-school environment. 

Throughout the country school administrators are confronted with unofficial websites (Conn, 2001; Matias, 2001).  The plots of BP suggest that high school administrators need to find creative ways to deal with the power wielded by technologically savvy students in this new environment.

BP also captured power bartering between administrators and students.  Bartering {This trade-off?) was portrayed in a student-bullying situation. Anthony Ward, a WHS student, was physically assaulted and harassed by a group of students.   He was trapped inside a locker and dangled out a school window.   Even after a public rescue by firemen, Anthony would not tell administrators who was bullying him. 

When Principal Harper realized Anthony would not tell on his harassers, Sheryl Holt was called to the principal's office.  Sheryl lived by the adolescent code of silence, but she eventually agreed to tell what she knew, bartering with Principal Harper, saying, “You owe me” (Kelley, 2000).     


Principal Harper's powerlessness was evident when he asked Sheryl why Anthony would not tell who was harassing him.  She replied, “Probably because he thinks you can’t do anything” (Kelley, 2000).  Many high school administrators, like Harper, are powerless to penetrate teen culture.   Therefore they "can't do anything" to address students' perceptions of their needs.

Evans (1996) commented on principal powerlessness:

They become principals in part to "make a difference," to right wrongs and correct flaws that chafed them as teachers, and to assert a vision of schooling as it should be.  The first great shock awaiting them is discovering how little power they truly have (p. 150).


BP suggesteds that teachers have also lost power.  A poignant point in one episode occurred when, dToward the end of the episode inuring an assembly to help students deal with the death of a teacher, another student took the stage , a manifestation of student power, and said:

These teachers can’t help us.  A lot of us are doing drugs; we think that we need to be having sex to count for something.  Faculty tries to motivate us with dreams of college and making money.  They don’t have a clue of what we are, what we need.  And almost every one of us feels empty. . . and I think what a lot of us need to do now is come together and pray.  Maybe we should turn to Him because, let’s face it, these teachers, our parents – they can’t do anything.  They’re useless (Kelley, 2000).

[You may not agree, but I think this is redundant and interrupts the flow of the plots.]

In these and other episodes, BP illustrates that students exercise power, administrators have little power, and teacher power is dead.  A power shift has occurred in high schools, which is one reason why today's schools are different from those of a generation ago.  

Zirkel (1999) pointed out that, in 1969, Supreme Court Justice He [Al’s edit:  Should it be Zirkel on Black?]Black warned of the potential for a destructive change in student-teacher relationships:

One dissenting opinion, written by Justice Black, characterized the majority holding as ushering in "an entirely new era" in the student/school relationship -- specifically, one of "revolutionary . . . permissiveness. . . fostered by the judiciary."  Black predicted that, as a result of the majority's decision, "some students in Iowa schools, and indeed in all schools will be ready, able, and willing to defy their teachers on practically all orders" -- a particularly troublesome prospect "since groups of students all over the land are running loose, conducting break-ins, sit-ins, lie-ins, and smash-ins" (p. 34).


Although we do not wish to return to the days before 1969, Black's dissenting opinion accurately predicted what has happened in some high schools. 

This development was recently captured by editorial cartoonist Dick Wright.

Cartoon here. (We have copyright permission to use a recently published Dick Wright cartoon, which depicts this very change.  See enclosed.)

            A different kind of power shift is represented in recent BP episodes -- administrators gain power when their efforts lead to higher student test scores.  Curriculum and Instruction Assistant Principal Ronnie Cook's status rose after WHS standardized test scores improved.  A recent episode portrayed her glowing in the media spotlight brought by higher test scores, illustrating that both the media and administrators have independently embraced an exaggeration of the public interest in student test scores. 

As Ms. Cook was receiving her accolades, veteran administrators Harper and Guber, were in the background, receiving no recognition for their administrative roles.  This scene reflects a new reality --  high school administrative power and recognition are tied to achieving higher student test scores.  The work on complex, thorny student and staff issues (issues without a bottom line) get little notice, unless something goes wrong.  


Acceptance of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors

BP has been criticized for its portrayal of  situations, in which there is sexual  misconduct among students, and between teachers and students.   Although BP sensationalized sex in its previews for the first two seasons, the show's actual portrayals of these situations were not as provocative as the previews suggested. 

e.  (MOVED)


WHS students take a casual attitude toward sex (Booth, 2001), while the adults are distraught over the consequences students take so lightly. Lauren Davis, a popular teacher saw two of the student government president candidates engaged in oral sex in the school stairwell.  When the male candidate later dropped out of the election and gave his support to the female who performed the sex act, Ms. Davis realized the election and the sexual encounter were related. 

Both students denied wrongdoing, and asked Ms. Davis not to tell what she saw.  The female candidate explained,  “Everyone does it.  It is not as if we were kissing or doing anything intimate” (Kelley, 2000). 

Ms. Davis insisted that the students see the guidance counselor, but the female candidate continued to deny any wrongdoing. Even after her parents were contacted she explained to Ms. Davis, "You people don't even know what it is like in here.  You don't have a clue. . . Kids practice sex in high school, Ms. Davis” (Kelley, 2000). 

These comments suggest that even teachers in the schools, are unaware of new teen sexual behaviors and attitudes.  Adults need to be aware of what is popular among today's teens as the first step toward helping young people deal with sexual pressures.  Holmes (1999) reported:

The Washington Post's front page recently carried the headline "Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex."

While the statistics may be improving, sexual practices among teenagers

are becoming increasingly dehumanizing. Consider the phrase "hooking up," a casual reference to casual encounters that is part of the American collegiate vocabulary. Now primary-school students are describing their sexual experimentation in the same impersonal terms. A high-school junior explained to the Atlanta Journal in May that "risky behavior is just something to do when you're bored. Like, um, sex, smoking, stealing, doing drugs. It's just something to do" (p. 48).


High school educators are in a position to help students and families address new norms of popular culture. 

Another teenage sexual norms issue was portrayed in a different episode.  Principal Harper refused to allow the cheerleading team to perform what he considered an inappropriate competition routine.  One of the girls argued, “We don’t do anything they don't do on TV” (Kelley, 2001).  Principal Harper countered, “I realize that, Laura, but TV sells sex.  I don’t think it is right for a high school cheerleading team to do that” (Kelley, 2001).  The cheerleading routine was sexually suggestive in a way that was unacceptable to Mr. Harper. 

When this same issue hit Beach High School in Savannah, Georgia, the local school board became involved.  Russ Bynum (2001) reported that some school board members believed cheerleading and dance squads were emphasizing sex appeal over school spirit.  Others thought the girls should be left alone. 

Do schools have a responsibility to hold the line against the influence of popular culture?  Schools have a significant impact on adolescent sexual behavior (Gaston, 1994; Kirby, 2002).  Even if, "Shaking your rear end is really common in cheerleading" (Bynum, 2001), it may be true that, as Principal Harper thought, some dance gestures and routines are inappropriate for high school performers. 

BP provides a service by reminding adults that, for whatever reasons -- more exposure to sex in the media, different norms for student sexual behavior, or changing norms in the larger society – the sexual behaviors and attitudes of today’s high school students are different from those of earlier generations (Hersch, 1998). 

It is disappointing that Parents Television Council (PTC) seems to deny the realities of modern teen life (PTC Insider, 2001) while emphasizing student test scores.  In contrast, BP confronts and dramatizes the realities of modern adolescent behavior; thereby illustrating the gap between public expectations for higher student test scores and the realities of modern high school life. 


Student Alienation

Another theme running throughout the series is that students experience alienation instead of community.  Several WHS students are confronted with intensification of the “belonging” issues typical of adolescence (Osterman, 2000).  

For example, an artistic student experienced a dilemma related to taking Ritalin.  When he took his medicine his behavior was acceptable to peers and teachers, but he lost his music ability.   In order to be more accepted by peers, he stayed on his medication.  Unfortunately, being accepted meant he was with friends when their car crashed, and he was killed.  BP dramatized the cost students sometimes pay for "fitting in." 

Alienation is also depicted in a plot about Christine Banks, a heavyweight girl, who was recruited by the coach to wrestle on the school team.    Her father discouraged Christine from joining the team because he was afraid she would suffer further humiliation because of her weight.  Eventually, however, she became an important member of the team.

Prior to a critical match Christine wanted to quit because her boyfriend did not want to go out with a girl known as "The Blob."  Both the wrestling coach and Principal Harper, however, reminded her that she did not have to allow name-calling adolescents to keep her from accomplishment.    They challenged her to find the confidence and determination to achieve and fulfill her obligation to the team. 

During the heavyweight match, student spectators held signs and chanted, "Go Blob."  After winning the match, Christine approached the microphone and told her peers, "My name is not 'The Blob.'  My name is Christine Banks" (Kelley, 2001).  In this scene BP beautifully portrayed the dignity of this high school girl, who overcame her alienation with the help and encouragement of key adults.  Christine's strength, reflected in her ability to ignore the cruelty of peers, was inspiring. 

A final example of adolescent isolation is the relegation of underachieving students to “The Dungeon,” an alternative education classroom symbolically located in the high school basement.  Harry Senate, their teacher, taught life lessons and connected education to the lives of "Dungeon" students.  His purposes conflicted with those of other WHS teachers, but he had good reason to take this approach.  Many of these students felt alienated from academic purposes, and some were obsessed with suicidal thoughts. 

Jamale, a "Dungeon" student, told Mr. Senate he was picturing how to commit suicide.  In response, Mr. Senate formed a “suicide club."   When Jamale's mother found out about the suicide discussion in class she asked the teacher:  "Can you tell me how you get him to open up and share these things" (Kelley, 2001)?  Mr. Senate represents teachers who pay attention to student needs and establish relationships that invite students to "open up" about difficult issues in their lives.

Principal Steven Harper later approached Mr. Senate with parent complaints about the suicide club.  Mr. Senate responded, "Tell those parents to come see me.  Steven, these kids are feeling isolated.  They want to talk.  I'm just trying to allow them to" (Kelley, 2001).  Although Principal Harper replied that students in the "Dungeon" needed basic math and reading instruction, he allowed Mr. Senate to continue.  Principal Harper mouthed the concerns of many in the education establishment, but he realized that, for these students, there are more important issues than standardized test scores. 

In powerful, dramatic ways, BP asks adults to compare their adolescent experiences with the struggles of today's teens.   BP takes advantage of these adult memories as it dramatizes how times have changed, and how today's culture contributes to student alienation.

Although adolescents have always needed to belong, meeting this need is even more important now (Deci, et al, 1991).  With both parents working, adolescents are often home alone for long periods of time.  Hersch (1998) wrote:  “Being separate at times is quite different in degree from living separate, unknown lives” (p. 399).  Many of the student problems at WHS reflect this level of isolation.  Rather than blaming parents for this, high schools can contribute to a sense of belonging (Osterman, 2000).  BP illustrates how difficult this is, however, when high schools are expected to improve student test scores.

            WHS students and teachers function within an out-dated school structure that does not help students become part of a community, where there is a sense of trust and safety (Furman, 1998).  When students are alienated, their academic interests are likely to be diverted by their need to survive. Learning is social (Dewey, 1958; Bandura, 1977).  Instead of emphasizing test scores, educators ought to build structures that take advantage of the social nature of learning.  Unless these structures are built, significant improvement is unlikely from legislation focused on improving student test scores. 

Harry Senate is an example of how good teachers connect with their students even though modern high schools make it difficult to do so.  This connecting may be sacrificed, however, now that policymakers have defined the classroom as a place where teachers prepare students to score well on standardized tests.  According to Mendler (2001),

"they (educators) simply do not have the time it takes to "connect" with kids, because of the time taken from academics.  Yet we know that the need to belong is as essential to learning as the need for food is to survival" (p. 6).  


BP reminds us that, perhaps, if policymakers directed more attention to student needs for belonging and community, students would be better served.



Policymakers equate higher test scores with higher student achievement.  This attitude, however, has narrowed the focus so much that other pertinent issues have been ignored.  As the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone (2001, p. 10) said, "Politically, high-stakes is the easiest thing to do. . . But it leaves untouched all of the key variables that explain why students do well or don't do well."  Unfortunately, too few policymakers share Wellstone's insight. 

Across the country educators are putting most of their efforts into what they perceive as the public's expectations for higher student achievement.  At the same time, however, teachers regret teaching to the test, administrators dread the publication of their scores in local newspapers, and students suffer most of all through higher drop-our rates, increased suicides, and disenfranchisement from school life.   By continuing to stress improved test scores, high schools such as WHS will be perceived as legitimate and will survive.  BP asks, however, whether significant improvement will occur without dealing with the tough issues facing today's students.

Demographic data suggest that the issues confronting today's youth are more serious than adults imagine.  Mendler (2001) wrote:

Public schools are the only community institution that must receive and educate every child within their boundaries: every learning, physically, and emotionally disabled child; everyone who is abused, neglected, undernourished, or without guidance; every substance-abusing child; and any child who was affected in utero by a drug-using mother.  At the same time that we are awed by the great technological achievements that occur daily--and seem to offer great advances in medicine, education, and communication--children are more alienated than ever (p. 5).


Furthermore, Troy (2003) reported that 14.4 million students of the public school system live in abject poverty, and 7.2 million come to school hungry each day; 6 million have disabilities for which public schools must compensate; 2 million are abused and neglected at home.  BP captures how these facts lead to the issues that affect the lives of high school students and educators.

Intrator (2003) pointed out that today's students present, "a challenge undreamed of in previous generations of educators" (p. 187).   If this is the case, student achievement should be defined more broadly than what is reflected in standardized test scores.  BP reminds us that high schools remain places where power is out of balance, student sexual attitudes and behaviors are outside acceptable norms, and high school students continue to be alienated.

Still, legislators and policymakers define student achievement more narrowly than ever before by holding allegiance to standardized test scores.  When will they also address the social, emotional, and economic dilemmas facing students and teachers? 

BP portrays the fundamental gap between public expectations for schools and the realities that dominate American public high schools.  It is not surprising that this series has been criticized.  If it did not offend people, it would not be a realistic portrayal of high school life. 










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