The costs and benefits of studying vary across students because interest in any given subject varies, ability varies, parental pressure varies, and rewards vary. This heterogeneity means that some students break the "minimize studying" norm. When they are a small minority, they cannot avoid feeling denigrated by classmates. In the top track and at schools where many students aspire to attend competitive colleges, they are numerous enough to create a subculture of their own, with its own norms denigrating those who do poorly on tests or who disrupt classroom activities. This is the structural basis of the "brains" and "preppie" cliques found in most American high schools. Most high school students, however, are in cliques that denigrate studying. At some school awards ceremonies, some in the crowd jeer as students are called to come up to receive awards (Suskind, 1994).
Peer pressure was discussed in my interviews of school staff members and students in England, the Netherlands, and France. The French educators I spoke to reported that peer pressure not to study occurred sometimes but only in some lower secondary school classes, not at the lycee serving upper-middle-class students that I visited. In lower secondary schools the pressure appeared mild by American standards. In upper secondary schools, particularly in the math-science line, the peer pressure was to excel. Discussions with Dutch and English students and educators produced similar observations.
Most American secondary school teachers do not feel individually accountable for the learning of their students. This lack of accountability for learning stems from (1) the rarity of examinations that assess student achievement in particular subjects relative to an external standard and (2) the fact that most secondary school students receive instruction in a given subject from many teachers. Only coaches, band conductors, and teachers of advanced placement classes are exceptions. They teach in environments where student achievement is visible to parents and colleagues and, as a result, feel accountable for outcomes.
In France and the Netherlands, by contrast, upper secondary students are grouped in small classes, take most subjects together, and generally are together for two or more years. Fewer than three teachers share responsibility for preparing each class for the external exams. In the Netherlands, where schools are small, many subjects are taught by only one teacher. Since important rewards accrue to those who pass or do well on exams, everyone takes them seriously. The number of students taking and passing each exam is public knowledge within the school and among parents. Exam results influence teachers' reputations. Responding to such informal pressures, upper secondary school teachers strive to prepare their students for the external exams.
American teachers also are expected to ensure that most of their students pass, but they are free to accomplish this goal by lowering the passing standard.