Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Are You Seeing at Your School?

Two great stories about public education and expectations for kids.
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.
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.”
What is make-up of the district?
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.

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.
But at a school board meeting, it all came to a head:
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?
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.”
But Irvington IS making changes by giving less homework during the week and none on the weekends.  Students themselves are promoting healthy changes.
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?

Your thoughts?

28 comments:

Charlie Mas said...

I think of the people who complain about how much they have to pay in taxes. We should have such problems.

Melissa Westbrook said...

And Charlie, I expected someone to say that. But I think the bigger picture is what are we expecting of kids and is this just the way of the world or should school be less of a race?

Anonymous said...

We can start with the SBAC. Pointless optional test. District trying to make it into a mandatory test by tying it to getting into HCC. And now there is the high school requirement that one year it must be taken. Be clear. These tieins are to get more kids to take it, for the benefit of government paperwork. The teachers in our schools do not use this test to help individual students or change class curriculums. What I am saying as the next year of SPS testing ramps up is don't do it. Just don't, aside from the one required year in high school. For the rest of K12 let your kids spend the day reading in the library or staying home-going to work with parents or doing public service or hands on projects. It will strike another blow for the silliness of the testing regime and more importantly will benefit our kids with time better spen.

NoCharters

Anonymous said...

I get the sense among new immigrants, education is the ticket in part because they don't have the American social network to get their kids ahead. They lack legacy standing, lack the golfing buddy who is a partner at the firm or know the guy/gal who knows so and so. Within the immigrant community, there's much sharing of info. Always a queen bee (or two) just like in any social group who guides the way having been there and done that. My sister sees this in her son's school in NOVA. She's married to a first gen herself and gets asked a fair bit on just about everything by FOBs (fresh of the boat -which when used among the newly arrived is a way of laughing at themselves, but not meant to be used by non FOB, unless you know them well).

There's also a glass ceiling which savvy first gens are quite aware of. That's why the new arrivals push so hard. The mantra is: here, you have to work twice as hard, be twice as good, to get there and that's a fact. That's why medicine, science, engineering, CS is pushed so hard. In these fields, meritocracy will get in you in the door or so many believe.

There's a no nonsense attitude about all this. It's a methodical process. It's not about IQ, but how hard you work and apply yourself to learn. You do that and you will get ahead. What people see as unfair prep, others see as part of the hard work they must do to succeed in this new country.

I am a 1st gen, but have lived here for over 45 years and it's always interesting to hear and read the different conclusions people have on the same subject.

reader


Outsider said...

Don't worry about Seattle. The elementary schools, at least, expect very little. My son is safely bored, and his mental health is assured.

Here is a different perspective on Asian immigrants: many were themselves hard-working top students with top scores, and that is how they got into top schools in the old country, which were stepping stones to American universities or the H1 visa. In many Asian countries, kids push to the limit in high school to get into the right university, and coast from there. University itself might not be so difficult, and the degree itself from the top-ranking university matters more than what you actually did in university. Parents naturally want kids to follow the same path that worked for them. Partly it's a matter of not understanding how the US is different from the old country -- that character and personal qualities matter more and formal credentials less; that American high school has traditionally been more of a social rite of passage and the heavy work takes place at university; that it's not smart to burn out too early.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Reader, your first sentence is reflected in the first story so you seem to be in step with what those parents may be feeling.

Anonymous said...

I will add many immigrant parents don't conform to the tiger parent stereotype. They are big on family (their extended ones where you'll find an aunt or uncle in every state it seems) and nuts about their kids. My sister who's born here laughs that in their house, it's she who's on her child's case about HW, sports, and music. Her immigrant husband is her opposite- laid back, always surfing the web, and totally happy playing Xbox with his son. I have friends who are thrilled over the HW rule and hated the pressure they went through as kids in China. They still emphasize the importance of hardwork in education, but aren't over the top about it. Some might have kids in Saturday 1/2 day class for remediation, to get a head start or cover concepts in greater depth while others have their kids play sports instead. I think whether a parent is the one supplementing or a tutor, Kumon, or epgy on line is used, it's all the same. But things get reported differently with a bias slant. This bias gets picked up, reported over and over, and immigrants get the bad rap.

reader

Anonymous said...

People wonder at the difference in rigor between Washington Middle School HCC and the two Northend sites, HIMS and JAMS. It's influenced by a different demographic with different expectations for how hard kids should work, and a different approach to teacher respect, too.

open ears

Anonymous said...

@ open ears, would you clarify please?

Anonymous said...

Not sure what @open ears is trying to say, but we have found the expectations at JAMS are low for what should be advanced classes. My child is stressed by the idea of not being prepared for the increased demands of high school, not by current school work (which is too easy).

Jet City mom said...

Its ironic that so many come to the US, presumably because of past emphasis on innovation, ingenuity, and independence.
But they don't seem to want their kids to learn how to make their own judgments, because in order to do that, you have to be comfortable making mistakes.

bubba said...

In reading the initial prompt/post I empathize with the pressures that students face-- this so unfortunate. Ideally "learning" should be challenging AND rewarding/meaningful/fulfilling. Yet, what leaves me equally uncomfortable and questioning is how this manifests itself in the pressure that educators & those involved/dedicated to the education/outcomes of face. The pressure is not only felt by children, but by those responsible for student outcomes. What is being done to address the needs of teachers? Their mental/physical/psychological needs-- it is high stakes, high pressure job, one that is under much scrutiny. As a parent of a child that fits the profile of the conversation and as a professional in the educational field, I wish that the health of educators was an area that was of interest to those interested in the outcomes of children...

Anonymous said...

If you look at the Eastside, you will find similar cultural differences as mentioned in this article, but of course it varies. Seeing the different approaches does make you think about how to balance the importance of academics with the rest of life. Personally my overall goal is to inspire my children with a love of learning, and then they can take it from there.

BT

Melissa Westbrook said...

BT, I think that the issue is the pressure some parents are bringing to bear on this school that other parents don't want (more homework, pressure drifting down to elem/middle).

If you were a parent at this school, how would you advocate for your position? Not do all the homework? Do what they are doing in Irvington with the kids working for more breathing room?

It is probably better to have parents who care (think of those PTA dollars) but the principal must be torn between "harder, harder, harder" and "calm down."

Anonymous said...

On the east coast, if you are Asian and applying to colleges, you have to out perform your Asian peers which means you have to triple down to beat the quota. And yeah, there's a quota. Not just in the elite schools, but top state schools. People get life isn't fair and are good at applying that life's lesson. Saying immigrant aren't "comfortable" making mistakes is just BS. They are judged way more harshly with stereotypic high expectation and your post, jet city mom, shows the way.v

reader

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a good part of the blame for the stress and depression experienced by today's high schoolers rests squarely on the shoulders of our country's colleges and universities. The traditional high school experience with its accompanying struggles, risks, and (yes!) spectacular episodes of failure have been completely lost in the single-minded drive towards college admissions, with its hyper-focus on perfect grades, stellar GPAs, AP classes, extracurriculars, and the like. Kids who feel the pressure to present colleges with perfect and unblemished transcripts don't challenge themselves by trying new things, exploring different classes, or ways of thinking that might risk a B or C. When they get to college, this shows up in a lack of critical thinking skills, not to mention the kind of intellectual risk-taking that colleges and universities are looking for.

And this in addition to the emotional and psychological toll it takes just to get through high school these days.

(Many Asian and other cultures do indeed place a high emphasis on standardized testing and memorization, as evidenced in the Chinese and Korean "cram schools" many children attend after "regular" school. But ironically, in some places, people are beginning to realize that this emphasis within the curriculum is leading to a lack of the critical and original thinking that leads to future entrepreneurship, scientific breakthroughs, etc, and are beginning to de-emphasize standardized testing and rote memorization skills in favor of a "more Western" curriculum. While we go in the opposite direction.)

BOTH colleges AND high schools need to work together to find a solution in this country. One possible solution, already implemented in some schools, is to simply agree to put "a cap" on the number of AP classes kids are allowed to take. That way kids are allowed plenty of opportunities for academic challenge without going overboard.

Unless our colleges help lead the way by changing their admissions practices, though, it seems to me that kids, parents, and high schools will continue to do whatever they think will please them in order to get in. And that is (currently) "the best grades in the most challenging courses available to them," in addition to a full load of extracurriculars, clubs, athletics, volunteer, internship, and work experiences, "outstanding" artistic achievement, and on and on and ON. Which means a country full of depressed, grade-obsessed, stressed-out and time-deprived kids.

Forgive the rant-):

-parent

Patrick said...

Parent, agree with your rant. But possibly the ultimate source of the pressure is how hard it is to get a decent job now without a degree from a prestigious college.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, what happened at our former elementary school on the Eastside was that teachers would assign a certain amount of homework but were under pressure by many parents to assign more, even though it was already a high performing school as far as test scores go. Our teacher told parents that she would only assign what was developmentally appropriate and that parents who wanted more homework were free to seek outside resources, which they did. Still, there was definitely strong pressure from the principal on the teachers and kids to perform well on MSP testing, so a great deal of time was spent prepping the kids. After elementary school, many of the 'need more homework' parents will apply to advanced programs such as Bellevue International School, where they pile it on. The kids give up a lot of extra-curricular activities to focus on academics but the pay off could mean a full scholarship to a highly ranked college. It's one way to get ahead, but I feel that it has to be a good fit for the child. Some kids love it, while others are overwhelmed and stressed. As far as my elementary aged child is concerned, he is actually much happier at his 'lower performing' school in Seattle. There is more recess and less pressure, but still lots of learning. So in answer to your question, yes, I would refuse to do extra homework that went beyond a reasonable expectation for the grade level. If the school insists on giving extra, then it should be optional. As far as I know, there is no legal standard for homework, is there?

BT

Lynn said...

parent,

Amen. The psychological toll the pressure to be a perfect candidate for college admissions takes on children is overwhelming. I know a shocking number of teens who are medicated and receiving counseling for anxiety and/or depression - one of my own included. This is certainly in some part due to more awareness of mental health issues on the part of parents but is I believe mostly related to our expectations of them.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think people who just see 1 dimension note of kids and cultures are the one lacking in critical thinking!

I just don't get the high/low expectations people have of different folks with different strokes (in this case, the immigrants). You know, you'll find all types-personalities, behaviors, beliefs, motivations, within what appears to be a homogeneous group, but it reality- is anything but homogeneous. Just because popular press reinforces this one view, doesn't mean that's all there is. For example, Chinese education system has huge disparity, just like here. There are good and bad qualities, just like here. Very complex to talk about, just like here. It's not a one note thing, just like here. It helps to actually speak with a teacher or two from there just to get an idea, and it's just one snapshot at that. Even talking to a "western" teacher who taught in China provides you only his/her experience, usually in big city, in a better school like JSIS with connection which is why westerners are there to begin with, not rural or poorer schools.

Sheesh, this isn't earth shattering if you just think about it. Just look within this district to see how complicated education is. Is it so surprising to understand a whole county might be too? But hey, if people who like critical thinking,but can't seem to stretch their brain beyond their own beliefs and can't see this paradox ( to put it kindly), that's on them.
reader

Anonymous said...

While I'm piling it on, I'm beating this stupid stereotype of Asians not valuing the arts, creativity, etc. as more BS (it can easily be another racial/ethnic/religious group with the usual stereotypic marker). Please read the book by Paul Kalinithi, "When Breath Becomes Air."

That's like finding out there are no good non-whites actors to qualify for the Oscars this year.

Is that really true? Or maybe there are plenty! But movies aren't made with them in mind. So lack of opportunity is one source. Then there's the who are the Oscar members who nominate and vote for this token epitome of American creativity and performance? Find out for yourselves and see who control the movie studio, the pipeline, and who are Oscar members. Don't be surprised if their makeup reflects why you see what you see and what you don't see. If you are a Martian or can't believe I might just be bias/racist, then sure I can see why you might think the Oscars is spot on.

Honestly, people shouldn't be so threatened by stereotypic tiger parents, look around you, they don't control the US. They are workers. If colleges and employers say in the press they want STEM grads, that's not because of stemy Asians or Russians, that's because they want to beat the competitors and make lots of money. It's political and polarization is used by politicians and the education industry to find easy answers and dollars (which benefit them) to complex problems.

reader

Anonymous said...

Spelling Correction.it's Paul Kalanithi who's the author. I've recommended this book to some of my patients and colleagues for other reasons, but his writing is beautiful, IMO.

reader

Melissa Westbrook said...

Reader, this was not about pitting parents against each other and I regret that you took it that way. It's about what is the balance and who decides? That the lines at one school did split racially between Asian and white parents is indeed not indicative of each individual parent.

Jet City mom said...

I was responding to the article, not to what I have observed in Seattle.
I would also disagree that you need a degree from a " prestigious" college to have a successful life, or to have impressive numbers to get into said college.

Anonymous said...

This is about stereotypes which get repeated over and over. It doesn't matter if it's reported in a news article or on a blog or at playgrounds or dinner party. I challenge this story as if people are locked into just 2 simplistic ways of thinking. (This isn't necessary a journalist's fault. There are challenges to news reporting. I know that first hand @ work and see what gets reported in the news. There are lots left out because of confidentiality, who's being interviewed, politics, time and budget constraint, etc. Sometimes they don't have the complete story or are plain wrong.)

I'm going to call out the stereotypes. Maybe it makes people uncomfortable. But to those Asian kids who are being stereotyped as if they are just a bunch of drones, trained monkeys to take tests well, that's insulting. To imply they or their parents can't appreciate beauty or be creative and artistic as if they lack emotion and sensitivity, are party poopers, living sterile lives - it's all a convenient way to look down on a huge group of people. To set them apart. To ignore they are in reality composed of individuals and groups full of contradictions, hard to generalize beyond a geographic area of origin- even that I've gotten wrong. I have worked with Kenyans and S. Africans who are E. Asians by race and Mexicans whose grandparents came from Japan.

Many posters get upset and rightly so when they are tarred as being elitist and selfish for placing their kids in APP or spectrum. People don't like branding even if it appears a compliment. Parents clash over this, over school bell, over charters and everything else. People will clash over this too and shouldn't be afraid of it!

Maybe people don't see themselves as bias or racist because that's hard to do. In Seattle, it's a bad thing to be. I'm have biases and prejudices. I have to challenge my own assumptions all the time. I'm glad when others do it because I learn and it's a relief to know that's possible.

If readers here want critical thinking, then practice it.

In addition, to be a scientist or in technical field doesn't mean a person can't be creative or appreciate the humanities. I would argue the opposite. To commit to research or prove a theory requires thinking side ways, backward and upside down. There's creativity along with accepting plenty of failures and many times starting over. That's just the nature of learning and human curiosity.

If people think it wrong to want to get into the best program or recruited to a better sports program because that's against your idea of learning or a college education, fine. Don't fault a whole group just from reading 1 news article . You don't know their stories. And certainly don't make it an Asian thing or for sports, a black thing. I have good friends ( in all shades) who went to college because of sports. They weren't all star, recruited to no name 4 year colleges, played, got injured, transferred to another program, and eventually graduated with degrees. It was their means to get what they thought was important to them, a college education and a better life. I admire that.

reader

Anonymous said...

As for needing impressive numbers to get into colleges. For Asians, that's an ugly reality. Articles and books have been written on this.CC lights up on this subject. Lawsuits filed. Maybe my child or yours may not have to think about this, but my nephew and his cousins will. They will be competing against each other for that 10% quota @ U whatever. They and their parents take it in stride. That's the good thing about this type of experience, people learn to roll. They and their parents are used to having their fear and concerns dismissed as silly, without merit, and shallow. It doesn't stop these kids.

reader

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Typing too fast between jobs here. My Kenyan and S. Africans friends will kick me for getting it wrong. Their families emigrated from S. Asia some 100 years ago.

reader

Leslie Lim said...

I read your blog.I thought it was great.. Hope you have a great day. God bless.

Rica
www.imarksweb.org