Do U.S. students work too much?

Are U.S. students studying too much? Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman doubts the message of Vicki Abeles’ Race to Nowhere, a movie that’s sweeping affluent suburbs.

The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy.

. . . The movie’s recurring theme is that American kids are under intense pressure to succeed, forced to complete up to six hours of homework each night and therefore increasingly driven to mental illness. The movie is promoted with the tagline, “The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture.”

While movie highlights fierce college competition and a girl’s suicide after a bad grade, “the achievement is tougher to spot,” Freeman writes. Many of those hard-working students need remedial classes in college, the movie reports.

Abeles believes No Child Left Behind forces schools — even schools in upper-middle-class communities — to focus on prepping students for state exams instead of teaching critical thinking skills.  Kids “memorize and regurgitate,” Abeles says.

(When my daughter started ninth grade at Palo Alto High School, I told her she needed to change her schedule. “You have to take English,” I said. “And what’s this Critical Thinking class?” Critical Thinking was English, she told me.)

Freeman writes:

The premise is that state governments have designed standards so poorly that kids must spend time learning useless material, or too much material, which they are then unable to retain.

The problem identified by Race To Nowhere — kids under heavy pressure to succeed — has nothing to do with standards, testing or school funding. The pressure comes from upper-middle-class parents who want their high-performing children to get into very selective colleges. The competition is intense:  Students feel they need to take two, three or four AP classes at a time, earn high grades in every subject, excel in sports and extracurriculars, chalk up community service points and maybe cure cancer over the summer vacation. (Perhaps they can start girls’ schools in the mountains of Pakistan!)

These students don’t need test prep to pass the state exams. The test that counts is the SAT and parents pay for their kids to prep for that.

My daughter went through the college admissions frenzy at Paly High. It was crazy. Some kids are harmed by it. But the schools don’t create it, at least not the public schools. It’s the parents.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    They should re-title the movie The Asian Menace or What’s the Matter with Westchester or Stop the World – We Want to Get Off! That’s really what these parents are afraid of. They’re fearful their little darling can’t compete with the hyper-competitive Tiger kids. Upper-middle class sociological anxiety expressed in appropriate post-modern therapeutic terms. In prior generations they would have had their buddies at the elite schools set limits on the under of Asians they would admit to protect their class prerogatives. – Oh, wait – never mind. They DON’T have to compete if they don’t want to. SUNY awaits.

  2. My sister in law was telling me about our state’s poorly designed standards. Apparently Freshman Biology students, who have never had ANY CHEMISTRY are expected to be able to identify the chemical structures of the 4 DNA bases. No punit squares, no “ATCG”, but looking at molecular model (like in O-chem) and say “Guanine!”

    They don’t have to understand how heredity works, they don’t do simple pea plant and fruit fly experiments, they no longer dissect a frog, because that’s superfluous. Instead, they “think like scientists” which apparently means memorizing chemical structures without understanding what they’re FOR.

    Why? Because they have to be ‘college ready” which means that these inner city kids who are coming out of schools where they didn’t learn reading or math have to take AP Bio as FRESHMEN.

    Maybe all test-makers and standards -writers need to hole up with a copy of Dan Willingham’s book….. You can’t “Think like a scientist” until you actually have a chance to learn some science!

  3. Not sure that “it’s the parents” really makes sense. They are reacting to incentives, which they didn’t create.

    The thing is, those incentives didn’t come from the schools themselves either. Demographic shifts and globalization mean that students from all over the world are competing for the same top schools. Harvard isn’t just dealing with the best students in the US (or, with the best white male students with particular last names) as they used to, they’re now dealing with selecting the best in the world. That’s a great thing from most perspectives, but it also means that competition gets ratcheted way up. The same thing is happening at every level of business.

    I think the question is whether or not that makes sense. Kids are not businesses, and getting into the top schools is not necessarily the most important thing. Until we figure out how to hit the actual needs, without resorting to the “top schools are the best solution for everyone” methodology, the competition is going to keep getting worse.

  4. Sean Mays says:

    Is it actually AP-Bio, or is it just skipping the fundamentals to get to the “hard-core” gee-willikers stuff?

    I’m amazed what they don’t teach in bio: No Punnett squares – which is a nice motivation / application of quadratics, dissection is out. Computer dissection and computer chem labs cause we don’t want to do the “wet” work. I shudder to think of these kids as doctors or scientists. Heck, kids in my district often don’t learn what fermentation is! Which is a problem IMHO when you have lots of small breweries and bio-tech manufacturing as we do.

    But the schools don’t create it, at least not the public schools. It’s the parents.

    I disagree, the schools DO create some of it. Rather than giving the student guidance and helping them pick a couple schools, kids today apply to more schools than the did (I don’t have firm data at my fingers) 30 ish years ago. If kids apply to twice as many schools, boom! the admit rate drops in half and suddenly it’s more “competitive” than ever. I’ve also seen kids apply to top schools who have near 0% chance to get in and less to graduate on the lottery principle – You gotta be in it, to win it. Are kids taking crazy schedules? Some. Crazy AP’s? You bet. Yet even Harvard has remedial math and English; something like 15% of the class. *boggle

  5. Sean– I’d say it’s DEFINITELY skipping the fundamentals to get to ‘College level” stuff. What some of the standards-writers don’t seem to realize is that science is a discipline that builds on prior knowledge. To understand the difference between plant and animal cells we need to first recognize what makes a ‘plant’ and an ‘animal’ — it’s useless to learn the structure of DNA when you don’t understand why heredity MATTERS.

    cells make organs make organisms is nice, but it helps to actually SEE how different organisms are put together.

    Middle/Upper class kids aren;t the ones who lose out– their parents will take them to science museums, summer science camps, etc. But for the kids whose only science is the stuff they get at school?

  6. Oh, YEAH!

    Science and math are where the skipping of fundamentals shows up – if you’ve missed them, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. I’d like to see ONE study that argues for a “rigorous” curriculum to strictly limit the sample to physical science and math.

  7. No, no, no, it’s not the parents

    It’s the poorly designed, project-based curriculum that never finishes anything nor checks to make sure students have really learned the material and leaves holes in students’ knowledge of pretty much everything being taught

  8. While I agree with a lot of what’s being said and the importance of teaching fundamentals, college textbooks don’t always (maybe don’t usually) teach genetics early – it’s frequently at the end. The class I teach begins with the molecules (protein, DNA,. carbs, lipids) and then builds from those, with the theory being that without understanding the basic properties of the molecules (hydrophobic, hydrophilic, charged, etc) then students won’t understand the properties of the parts of the cell, etc.

    We come back to the basic molecule structures as we introduce each new idea (What properties of lipids let the membrane keep water out? What properties of DNA make it possible to replicate correctly? How can ATP be involved in both metabolism and heredity?) Even my students who haven’t had chemistry are able to memorize a few basic molecule types/properties and it gives them a foundation for understanding how things work. This approach wouldn’t work for small kids, but it’s common for college students and probably works for high school students.

  9. If U.S. students work too much, I must live in a different country. I wish my students would spend a little time with math each evening. If it doesn’t happen during school hours, it probably won’t be done.

  10. The only time I saw that kind of work (6 hours of homework a night) was when my daughter attended BASIS charter school. At BASIS she had between 4 and 6 1/2 hours of homework a night, including all subjects. Previously, she had attended a parochial school and had maybe 1/2 an hour of homework a night. Students in the higher grades (5-8) at the same school didn’t have much more, and frankly I was appalled at this!

  11. Must be a California thing. My own freshman is in just-plain-bio this year and has done Punnet squares, dissected a few things (much complaining), gone on a field trip to see an autopsy, and I was recently informed — with much eye-rolling — that they were doing yeast sex that day.

    My own students max out the standardized test scores pretty regularly and they do nothing even remotely like 6 hours of homework a night.

  12. Most kids do far too little homework, as well as far too little in-school work. Even at “good” high schools in affluent, highly-educated suburbs, many kids pretty much coast. I can’t remember the title, but a graduate (from the 80s, I think) of Churchill HS in Montgomery County, MD wrote a book a few years ago about how much pressure the kids felt. I am very familiar with the school and others like it in the area and only the most competitive kids are working that hard; those trying to get into the most competitive colleges (which in MD includes UVA and UNC Chapel Hill; even in the VA suburbs of DC it’s very difficult to get into UVA – they won’t accept too many from the area – politics).

  13. Mark Roulo says:


    Perchance are you thinking of Alexandra Robbins’ book “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids”? She covers Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda (which is in Montgomery County, I think), Maryland.

    -Mark Roulo

  14. momof4 says:

    Mark, that’s the one. I was mistaken in thinking the book was about was about Churchill, which borders the Whitman HS district., but my kids played travel sports with kids from both schools (and many others) and attended another local school of excellent reputation. The book leaves the mistaken impression that ALL kids are racing and stressing.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’d have to say that the answer to this question is probably “No.”

    I only say probably because I’m not sure what the default quantifier is on a sentence like “X-es do Y.” Does it mean “All X-es”? “Most X-es”? “Some X-es”?

    Obviously not all US Students work too much.
    Just as obviously, some US Students do work too much.
    As for whether most US Students work too much, I’m going to take a look at my own students and say… no.

    On the other hand, my view is no doubt tainted by my interactions with my own students, who, while the VERY type of people who are of concern for working too much, are past the point where said too-much-work would have taken place. They’re in college now, feasting on the lackadaisical rewards of their too-much-work in High School, if too-much-work there ever was occurring.