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Studying the High School Experience

In a Q&A, IPR’s Simone Ispa-Landa discusses her forthcoming book examining a suburban high school

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Most ethnographers of adolescent life are really getting in at the student level—they're following the students. I was able to do that, but also understand where teachers and administrators are coming from.”

Simone Ispa-Landa
IPR sociologist

students in high school hallway

High school is a crucial institution shaping students’ life trajectories, but how does attending a large, diverse school affect that experience? In a forthcoming book, IPR sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa explores how students experience life at a multiracial suburban school and the way school administrators manage public pressure to reduce racial disparities in discipline.  

The book, under contract with the University of California Press, is based on a five-year, intensive qualitative study of a large racially and socioeconomically diverse public suburban high school. Ispa-Landa spent years interviewing students and observing interactions in hallways and student clubs to understand how they experienced daily life and dealt with issues like discipline, bullying, and harassment. She also spoke with school administrators and teachers to learn more about the incentives that shape what kinds of student problems they choose to prioritize and address. 

Ispa-Landa spoke with IPR about what she learned about the student experience and the challenges of serving a large and diverse student population.  

 This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.  

What made you interested in studying this particular high school?   

In some ways it’s an ideal case study for looking at the selves and relationships students can form in high school because it's a school with very strong leadership on equity—unusually strong leadership when it comes to racial equity—and really clear messaging to staff about the importance of relationships and trust. So, studying where and how things can go wrong at a school like this speaks to real challenges that have to do with the broader pressures and constraints that affect how school leaders are able to tackle the challenges facing students.

Was there anything unique about how you conducted the research for this book?   

It [the school] gave me unprecedented access, I think. Typically, when qualitative researchers go into schools, they do not have the view of what happens behind closed doors with superintendents and principals and other top-level administrators. I was lucky in getting what seems like unprecedented access to different levels of the school.  

Most ethnographers of adolescent life are really getting in at the student level—they're following the students. I was able to do that, but also understand where teachers and administrators are coming from. I was able to look at both sides of the story.  

When you write about how the school was trying to address racial disparities in discipline, it seems like administrators were also trying to figure out which population of students to serve. How did you see that play out?  

Because of accountability pressures and very well-founded concerns about how explicitly racial disparities operated, school administrators constructed Black male students as the group most in need of support. "The school is built and designed for White girls" was something I heard a lot. But, reality is always more complex. The overreliance on narrow data and metrics can lead to skewed perceptions of students and their needs. 

Are there any findings from the book you can share?  

found a lot of sexualized bullying. In the book, I talk about why that was so pervasive and why that was so hard for the school to address.

found that Black male students were simultaneously hyper-surveilled and controlled, but also there was a reluctance to authentically engage with them because teachers were afraid of appearing racist. So there were extremes—extreme control, and extreme pretending not to see. 

was surprised to find out that a lot of teachers mistrusted the administration and mistrusted how they went about trying to create equity. Part of their mistrust was rooted in feeling like the school was trying to play numbers games and showcasing data that didn’t match what they were seeing on the ground  

Teachers would say "of course, it's easy to go to the school board and have a big meeting about how we've gotten so much better at discipline because you told us not to write referralsThat's not meaningful change. That's cosmetics." In my book, I try to explain where both teachers and administrators are coming from when they express these views.

Do you think the issues you saw at this high school reflect larger issues going on within education? 

I do. The rise of accountability policies for more and more aspects of schooling is a nationwide phenomenon. It’s not just test scores anymore. And so, this creates a new context for administrators and is likely to shape the problems they see and notice across a number of new domains.  The kinds of accountability policies I'm describing are widespread. 

Simone Ispa-Landa is associate professor of Human Development and Social Policy, associate professor of sociology, and an IPR fellow.  

Photo credit: iStock

Published: April 18, 2024.