Hero or zero: a US import to impound

7th January 2000 at 00:00
I WAS driving my daughter to school here in the United States when I noticed one of those annoying bumper-stickers with which Americans turn their cars into political statements. This read: "I am the proud parent of a Pioneer High School Honour Roll Student".

These boastful stickers are common but I took particular notice because I had just been reading an account of the final messages left by the Columbine High School killers. The transcripts of a video they recorded last April had just been released to the media.

In this message, recorded on the day they murdered 12 fellow pupils and a teacher, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold said they had been insulted and put upon by others in the school. Harris, who had moved around a lot with his military family, complained that he had always been forced to start again "at the bottom of the ladder".

The contrast between the misanthropic outsiders of Columbine and the lauded "honour roll" students was stark. Those who achieve in school are enthusiastically and publicly rewarded. When my daughter received good end-of-term marks at her junior high school she received an "honour roll" certificate. She was also rewarded with school shop vouchers for good marks in citizenship.

This is a country which, perhaps more than others, makes heroes of its school achievers, both academic and sporting. A successful quarter-back or basketball star is made for life and will be showered with university scholarships. America loves its honour rolls.

But what is the impact on those who do not shine? The Columbine killers expressed their hate for the school's athletes and others more popular than themselves. Even more revealing was their desire to be "famous", discussing which director - Spielberg or Tarantino - would make the film of their massacre. Their honour roll would be on celluloid.

The American education system has many virtues but it has pushed the price of failure, and the rewards for success, much farther. It favours school tests that rank pupils against their peers rather than measuring them against fixed standards of achievement. Every student knows where they stand in the class hierarchy.

Standardised tests rule here. They are taken early and often, determining class position and university chances. Children do not jst leave high school here they "graduate". But a small minority, 10 to 15 per cent, do not score well enough and are denied an honourable departure.

I had heard I would be coming to live here on the very day of the Columbine shootings. It did not seem the best time to tell my children they would be attending American schools for a term.

In fact their schools here feel very safe. My younger daughter's elementary school is sited in a public park and yet has no perimeter fence. Its response to Columbine was to install telephones in each classroom.

Yet American schools are now very jumpy. Almost every week, it seems, there is news of pupils making threats or being caught bringing weapons into school. Columbine itself was closed for the final days of term because of a threat posted on a web-site.

Just a few days earlier a 13-year-old boy in rural Oklahoma had repeatedly fired a handgun, wounding four fellow pupils. These stories are now so common that, unless there are multiple deaths, they do not always make the national front pages.

The result has been a toughening of discipline codes. My daughter's junior high school came down heavily on pupils after an incident involving the sale of marijuana. The sense of shock was all the greater when one of the culprits was found to have a small knife in their locker.

The state we are in, Michigan, has just passed a new sliding-scale of automatic school punishments ranging from suspension to expulsion. In Chicago a new zero-tolerance approach applies the disciplinary code seven days a week. If a pupil gets in trouble with the police at the weekend the school will take action on Monday.

But what is happening to the pupils? Increasingly they are being expelled. In Chicago alone the number of expulsions has risen from under 100 a year to well over 600.

In Britain we often feel we are on the same path, just a little further back, as American society. There are differences of course. Thank goodness we do not have the same gun culture. But we should be wary of letting a "praise-the-successful, zero-tolerance for the failures" approach create more outcasts who feel the only recognition they will get is through violent, attention-seeking acts.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent of BBC News

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