Stress at the top

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.”

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  1. I think you are absolutely correct. American schools perform near the bottom when compared to schools throughout the world. Our nation’s ability to compete internationally is continuously weakening. (I live near Detroit which has not in any way benefitted from the growing national economy. Is our nation’s economy really doing ok?) Our current high school students are going to have to ensure that our nation remains strong both militarily and economically. To do this, they must be prepared for the challenge. As teachers it is our responsibility to ensure that they are. I’ve always found that when you have high expectations for people they live up to them. Let’s increase our expectations and demands of our high school students.

    Andrew Pass

  2. I too, live in an affluent Maryland ‘burb of d.c. And i have to tell you, in my travels, I’m stunned at how different things are out there in the mid-lands. STUNNED. Here, getting into college takes on a life of its own. There, it just wasn’t as all-consuming.
    Is that good or bad? i’m not sure. I do think the pressure here is a BIT over the top.

    Thoughtful post. Thanks!

  3. Perhaps the reason the pressure is so great on students that are interested in getting into the best colleges is precisely because expectations are so low in general. It’s much harder to identify the very best people when you don’t test for it. For instance, my kids went to a K-8 private school that does have very high expectations, but because of requirements, they also give standardized tests every year. By the time the kids are in 8th grade, all of the kids max out the test results. This doesn’t mean that the kids aren’t normally distributed on various measures of ability, just that the tests are too easy.

    A test like the SAT is so easy that it doesn’t discriminate (in the set of kids that study) between the kids that are really smart and those that are just pretty smart. So this means that a not so bright kid can go to Harvard if they work flat out in high school, although when they get to Harvard they might not get much out of it because they can’t work any harded than they have been. But it also means that a really smart kid has to not make any mistakes on anything, else they’ll wind up looking less desirable than the not so bright kid.

    This is the kind of pressure that I see around here, and it’s really counterproductive. At our local high school any “more advanced” course is forced to admit anyone who wants (really, anyone whose parents want them) to take it (because otherwise the parents with make a giant stink), and they can’t flunk 95% of the kids (an even bigger stink), so the course isn’t really more advanced. By now we don’t have anyone to teach these classes anyway, because it’s too discouraging, and as a result the upper limits on student achievement are bland AP courses, and 40+ kids a year end up with 8-10 such courses when they graduate. Since the school can’t really stretch the best kids, there is this undifferentiated mass of overachievers. If the schools really sorted people by ability, everyone would learn more, and it would be okay to make a few mistakes, which would reduce a lot of the pressure.

    Of course I don’t know how to do this in practice, but I do know that it can’t be done as long as we insist on combining “purely objective measures” with “preserving self-esteem”. In the meantime, my oldest kid has dropped out of high school to avoid this nonsense, and is learning advanced undergraduate level material as a high school sophomore, and feels no pressure at all…

  4. Reginleif says:

    Wow, a media figure drumming up a “crisis” based on her observations of her own social circle. How novel. /sarcasm

  5. Matthew’s conclusion is dead on; my sons both went the AP route through high school, but I quickly saw that the material they were covering was far below what I had had in a midwest high school in the late 1950s. (Admittedly, there were academic tracks in those days.)

    Even at the AP level there was little reading of original sources, very little actual writing, and the AP math didn’t go any further than the standard math of years ago.

    We need less artificial self-esteem and more actual content.