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Defining Student Success

The Role of School and Culture

Lisa M. Nunn

Publication Year: 2014

The key to success, our culture tells us, is a combination of talent and hard work. Why then, do high schools that supposedly subscribe to this view send students to college at such dramatically different rates?  Why do students from one school succeed while students from another struggle? To the usual answer—an imbalance in resources—this book adds a far more subtle and complicated explanation. Defining Student Success shows how different schools foster dissimilar and sometimes conflicting ideas about what it takes to succeed—ideas that do more to preserve the status quo than to promote upward mobility.

Lisa Nunn’s study of three public high schools reveals how students’ beliefs about their own success are shaped by their particular school environment and reinforced by curriculum and teaching practices. While American culture broadly defines success as a product of hard work or talent (at school, intelligence is the talent that matters most), Nunn shows that each school refines and adapts this American cultural wisdom in its own distinct way—reflecting the sensibilities and concerns of the people who inhabit each school. While one school fosters the belief that effort is all it takes to succeed, another fosters the belief that hard work will only get you so far because you have to be smart enough to master course concepts. Ultimately, Nunn argues that these school-level adaptations of cultural ideas about success become invisible advantages and disadvantages for students’ college-going futures. Some schools’ definitions of success match seamlessly with elite college admissions’ definition of the ideal college applicant, while others more closely align with the expectations of middle or low-tier institutions of higher education.

With its insights into the transmission of ideas of success from society to school to student, this provocative work should prompt a reevaluation of the culture of secondary education. Only with a thorough understanding of this process will we ever find more consistent means of inculcating success, by any measure.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Series in Childhood Studies

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: Three High Schools with Three Distinct Ideas about School Success

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pp. 1-14

Deshawn, a high school freshman, sits with me for an interview during his lunch break.1 It’s a Tuesday in January, but Deshawn is not at school. Instead, he is at his internship, where he works from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, busing tables, running the cash register, and learning the ropes of food service at a popular lunch café in a busy suburban shopping and business...

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1. Alternative High: Effort Explains School Success

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pp. 15-29

Alternative High is a small school. It is also a new school, opening just two years before I began my research in 2005. At the time I started my observations and interviews, the student body consisted of only freshman and sophomores, fewer than one hundred students in all. The school’s design and mission is based on a school reform effort that was launched on the East Coast, although...

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2. Fearing Failure at Alternative High

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pp. 30-44

Students at Alternative High are very concerned about avoiding failure. In this way they are different from students at the other two schools I studied. At Elite Charter High, the topic of failing a class rarely came up in my interviews; instead, students are focusing on how to reach the highest levels of school success. At Comprehensive High, where C grades are the minimum level...

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3. Comprehensive High: Effort Is Helpful, but Intelligence Limits School Success

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pp. 45-59

Comprehensive High’s campus covers a city block. The main entrance opens off a busy thoroughfare, and the school is sandwiched among large six- lane boulevards that feed miles of strip malls, restaurants, supermarkets, auto repair shops, and the like. Although Comprehensive High is considered a suburban school, the surrounding landscape does not have the quiet residential peacefulness...

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4. Separate Worlds, Separate Concerns: AP versus College- Prep Track at Comprehensive High

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pp. 60-74

Comprehensive High’s Academic Performance Index (API) score at the time of my research was slightly higher than 700 but nearly a hundred points below California’s goal of 800 for all its schools.1 By comparison, the state’s average API that year was 687, meaning that the school’s standing was a bit higher than average, although it remained well beneath the state goal. As I mentioned...

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5. Elite Charter High: Intelligence plus Initiative Bring School Success

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pp. 75-88

Elite Charter High is located in an upper-middle-class, largely white, residential neighborhood. Although it is a high-performing school with much to be proud of, it is not the star of its district. Another high school upstages it dramatically in terms of academic performance, placement of graduates in elite colleges, and state-of-the-art facilities. As one might expect, the district boundaries around...

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6. Competitive Classmates at Elite Charter High

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pp. 89-106

Many students at Elite Charter High believe that they can have a happy, balanced teenage life or straight As, but not both. They are under extreme pressure to achieve high academic success, and they worry that attaining straight As might require them to sacrifice their emotional and mental sanity. Jenny, whom we met in chapter 5, derides her schoolmates’ emotional investment in...

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7. Beyond Identity:Consequences of School Beliefs on Students’ Futures

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pp. 107-126

Beliefs about school success influence not only students’ success identities but their future in higher education, and a school’s cultural wisdom can boost or compromise students’ pursuit of higher education at elite institutions. In this regard, the advantage and disadvantage inherent in the beliefs about school success at Alternative High, Comprehensive High, and Elite Charter...

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pp. 127-130

The ideas that formed this project bgean long before I was an academic sociologist. Freshly out of college, I joined the Peace Corps to teach English in Latvia on the Baltic Sea. In a small town called Limbaži I set about trying to learn teaching norms in a Latvian high school. It was not easy. I was faced with an entirely new set of ideas about how to grade student work. My Latvian colleagues believed...

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Appendix A: Identity Theory and Inhabited Institutionalism

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pp. 131-136

Investigating student success identities offers a useful bridge between the work on identity done in social psychology and cultural sociology. As Tim Hallett, David Shulman, and Gary Alan Fine show, symbolic interactionism (one important strain of social psychology) lays a foundation for inhabited institutionalism’s focus on “the constitutive role of people in...

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Appendix B: Methodology

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pp. 137-140

During the 2005–6 school year, I conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with fifty-seven students, approximately nineteen at each school.1 The interviews ranged from about forty minutes to more than two hours long, but most lasted about an hour and a half. I recorded and transcribed each of them verbatim. My interview respondents were students in classrooms in which I...


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pp. 141-158


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pp. 159-168

Index, About the Author

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pp. 169-176

E-ISBN-13: 9780813563633
E-ISBN-10: 0813563631
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813563626
Print-ISBN-10: 0813563623

Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 2 figures, 1 table
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Series in Childhood Studies
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner, Ph.D., Founder of Rutgers University Center for Children and Childhood Studies See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 878923602
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Defining Student Success

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • High school environment -- United States -- Case studies.
  • High school students -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Prediction of scholastic success -- United States -- Case studies.
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