I got back home today to find a copy of Alexandra Robbins’ The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids on the breakfast table, apparently left by my daughter, a classic overachiever. It’s the tale of overworked, AP-laden high school students in an affluent Maryland suburb.
The book paints a true picture for a few students, but most kids are coasting, writes Jay Mathews in a Washington Post column.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national achievement test, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant the last 30 years. One of the reasons for this, many educators say, is that students, educators and parents have bought into the notion popularized by Robbins and other social critics that American teenagers have too much schoolwork and should be allowed instead to read for pleasure and watch the sunset and think deep thoughts.
Robbins’ book focuses on students at a school in the top 5 percent in family education, affluence and academic ambition, Mathews points out.
Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare.
UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute regularly asks about 400,000 college freshmen how much homework they did in high school. About two-thirds say only an hour a night or less. Remember, these are the homework habits of students who went on to college. The one-third of high school graduates who weren’t preparing for higher education were likely to have had an even lighter academic load.
And what of that overload of AP courses? Newsweek’s annual high school rankings indicate that only 5 percent of U.S. public high schools have students averaging more than one AP test a year.
Teen-agers tell survey-takers that they spend only 42 minutes a day studying, compared to about 3 1/2 hours a day on television and online. Mathews also points out that Robbins’ claims that elementary schools are cutting recess are wrong; the rise in teen suicides occurred in the 1980s and stabilized before the rise in overachievement, which Robbins says started about 10 years ago.
I completely agree with Mathews’ conclusion: “Our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little.”