I had read this first story in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago and it's quite the divide. In one New Jersey district at an elite high school, high school parents are divided over how much rigor/pressure students should get. On one side, mostly Asian parents who want that push. On the other side, mostly white parents.
The issue of the stresses felt by students in elite school districts has gained attention in recent years as schools in places like Newton, Mass., and Palo Alto have reported clusters of suicides.
This fall, David Aderhold, the superintendent of a high-achieving school district near Princeton, N.J., sent parents an alarming 16-page letter.
The school district, he said, was facing a crisis. Its students were overburdened and stressed out, juggling too much work and too many demands.
What is make-up of the district?In the previous school year, 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. And on a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “Coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”
The district has become increasingly popular with immigrant families from China, India and Korea. This year, 65 percent of its students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007. Many of them are the first in their families born in the United States.They have had a growing influence on the district. Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.
With many Asian-American children attending supplemental instructional programs, there is a perception among some white families that the elementary school curriculum is being sped up to accommodate them.What has the superintendent done?
They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.But at a school board meeting, it all came to a head:
Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.
But the division has become more obvious in recent months as Dr. Aderhold has made changes, including no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a “right to squeak” initiative that made it easier to participate in the music program.
Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, told the crowd that Dr. Aderhold was attempting to hold her and her children back. At one point, a visibly upset Ms. Yin, who moved from Chengdu, China, to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry, shouted to the room filled with parents, “Who can I trust?”The opinion page at the NY Times also saw this question come up via author/director/producer Vicki Abeles who directed and produced the documentaries, Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure. Her piece is entitled, "Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?"
But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in cooperation with Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., a once-working-class city that is increasingly in Silicon Valley’s orbit. He had anonymously surveyed two-thirds of Irvington’s 2,100 students last spring, using two standard measures, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The results were stunning: 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.
“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” he told the school’s faculty at a meeting just before the fall semester began. “It’s unprecedented.” Worse, those alarming figures were probably an underestimation; some students had missed the survey while taking Advanced Placement exams.In summary:
Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.
Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believe that their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.How young?
But Irvington IS making changes by giving less homework during the week and none on the weekends. Students themselves are promoting healthy changes.At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.“I’m talking about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are coming in with these conditions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who works with pediatric associations nationally. “I’m hearing this from my colleagues everywhere.”
And for the past two years, school counselors have met one on one with every student at registration time to guide them toward a manageable course load.I'm not sure with the about 400-1 number of students to counselors in most SPS high schools that this could be done.
What IS the right amount of "push" by schools and parents? I think the example in New Jersey is fascinating because it seems all the parents want their children to be "high achievers" but the difference is how you get there. Is pushing sooner going to toughen kids up for the world today?