Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Please visit an actual classroom before you make recommendations, IX

Responding to my previous post, FedUpMom underscores the disconnect between high pressure and high academic standards. Most people don't see this disconnect, however, and assume that when a school is high pressure, the source must be academics, and the answer must be diluting the academics with "whole child," social-emotional stuff. Totally overlooked are such alternative accounts as (1) the academics are not the only potential source of pressure, (2) they may be a source of pressure only inasmuch as standards are too low rather than too high, and (3) some of the popular remedies for pressure, like socio-emotional processing sessions, increase pressure rather than reducing it.

The latest high-profile news article to overlook the disconnect between high pressure and high academic standards is one a recent New York Times Weekend Review entitled Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick? In it, author Vicki Abeles, director of the movie Race to Nowhere, opens with a discussion of how Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine surveyed 2/3 of the 2,100 students at a Silicon Valley high school in Fremont, California and found that

54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.
This, Abeles writes, is part of a much bigger picture that affects the entire country:
Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life.
...According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.
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.
While there are hints here that more is afoot here than academic pressure (e.g., extracurricular activities), the illustration that accompanies the article suggests that the problem is entirely a function of a painfully crushing academic workload:

Naturally, the remedies that Abeles reports on are entirely about reducing academic demands. For example, at the high school she profiles
Teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. In fact, research supports limits on homework. Students have started a task force to promote healthy habits and balanced schedules. 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.
Abeles' take on this?
There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead. Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests.
But there are additional hints that the problem lies elsewhere:
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.
Perhaps the problem isn't out-of-control academics, but something that's interfering with academics.

As far as homework load goes, comprehensive, longitudinal surveys suggest that, with the exception of elementary school--where there's been an unfortunate (and rightly bemoaned) upward trend--students aren't being assigned more homework, or spending more time on it, than a generation ago:

Meanwhile, recent studies show college students studying less than ever--significantly less than in previous generations.

So then what are today's big stressors? Might today's homework be more stressful not because of its quantity, but because of its quality--or lack thereof? Might there be a record amount of pointless busywork or developmentally inappropriate assignments--ones that are easy yet tedious or convoluted and organizationally demanding; ones that fail to provide any sense of purpose or cumulative accomplishment? Might there be a record amount of mandatory, time-consuming, Common Core-inspired standardized tests? Might there be a sense that schools are doing a lousy job preparing people for lousy college prospects or a lousy job market?

Might some of the pressures be not academic, but social in nature? Consider the growing trend towards mandatory, heterogeneous-ability group work and social emotional learning sessions. Both of these are fertile environments for social tension and subtle shunning and bullying.

But one huge culprit, I'm guessing, is much less related to school: screen time. As a recent NPR report notes: "Most American children spend more time consuming electronic media than they do in school." Not including screen time in school or for school,
tweens log 4 1/2 hours of screen time a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. For teens, it's even higher: nearly seven hours a day.
And there is mounting evidence that, when it comes to social media in particular, the ramped up social pressures and cyber-bullying that come with constant online social exposure are a huge source of unhappiness, stress, sleep deprivation, and psychological problems--all the things that Abeles blames on academics.

That's not to say that toxically stressful academic environments don't exist. One good example is med school:
After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably
Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.
But, if Dr. Slavin were to actually spend time in K12 classrooms before making similar recommendations, he might find that K12 schools and med schools aren't quite as comparable as he supposes.


Anonymous said...

I agree that both the academic and non-academic aspects discussed above are part of the problem. However, one aspect of this issue is ignored, to the point that I've never read about it and that is the racial/ethic one. Black and Hispanic kids are being accepted to elite and competitive colleges with academic and extracurricular records far weaker than those of whites and, especially, Asians- which has made getting into such colleges a huge arms race for the latter groups. In addition, they are competing with foreign students. Back in the mid-80s, a black classmate of my son's freely admitted that he didn't have to take the same AP-heavy courseload, get as good grades or SATs, and he would be accepted anyway. I can't imagine he's the only kid to have been aware of that. A lot of kids don't have the opportunities their coursework,grades and SATs would have offered them, in the past. As lgm's comments illustrate, their schools are too often focused on the kids who can't or won't do that level work to continue offering those courses.

Anonymous said...

Having taught at a number of elite high schools in the US (as well as an international school abroad), I think that the sources of stress arise primarily from the following factors:
- High school is more stressful than it should be because kids are not adequately prepared for it. If kids have weak basic skills and they've never been taught to really study, then of course high school is going to be stressful. If the K-6 curriculum were strengthened, high school would be much easier.
- Kids do way too many extra-curricular activities, so they're spread too thin. If you're spending hours swimming every morning and evening, and you're doing a whole lot of music and drama, and you're actively involved in service, then of course, you won't be able to get all your academic work done easily. To ease the stress, kids should be encouraged to pick one or two extra-curriculars to focus on. Kids need more depth, less breadth. And more mastery, less superficial exposure. Depth and mastery are SO much more satisfying than superficial breadth and mere exposure.
- And finally, social media, too much screen time, too little time with parents (who are also very stressed), the breakdown of families, too much junk food, and increasing peer pressure all contribute to stress, depression, and anxiety. The fact of the matter is that our kids live in a stressed society. Perhaps it's 21st century living that's to blame.
It's easy to blame academics, but really, many kids that I work with enjoy rigorous academic work. It's everything else that makes them stressed.

C T said...

Our foreign exchange student just came home from school saying that only 3 students in her 10th-grade English class knew what a noun is. Our academic expectations are not too high.

Screen time is a huge problem. Through phones, tablets, gaming devices, and laptops, students are constantly consuming media. Generally--unless they're reading books on those devices--this time is doing little to increase their real-life skills and often much to damage their developing sense of self. And they keep consuming that media late into the night, which is bad for their bodies, too; I'd go so far as to say that parents who love their teenagers should turn the wireless/data plans off at midnight every night.

lgm said...

The problem here is A. Good ol boy parents who put their children in the highest level classes, because being g.o.b.'s of course they are the best and they will get the top grades so they can get in to Columbia and Vassar. B. Poor usage of class time.

A. results in watering down courses to the point that those wishing to excel on the Regents Exams must buy supplements to cover all the units omitted. The grading scale favors g.o.b.s...we have had entire quarters where the grade is based on in class participation. Reworking tests gives B students enough points to look like A students. Students who arent g.o.b. dont get picked to contribute to discussion. We end up with most of the top ten students not qualifying for a NY State Excellence Award, which is the state recognition for the students with the highest average on all their Regents Exams.

B. Significant class time is used for remediation, even at the level above Regents. Those who dont need review and reteach still have to do the associated hw. The truly good students are able to excel at sports or music because they are using the review/reteach time to knock off the hw for a different class. They will learn their supplementary material on their own in time to grab a 5 on an AP exam and ace the R. Exams. They will also have SAT section scores that start with a 7 or an 8. They go to state schools, or smaller privates, as they cant get g.o.b. recommemdations and they dont have the level of stem coursework or ecs available to obtain admission to top tech schools.

FedUpMom said...

Hmm -- none of this discussion feels like it's about the world I live in, or the problems I encounter with my kids as they move through our school system. Vickie Abeles is not wrong when she talks about stressful levels of homework; where I live that's absolutely a problem.

Here's an example; the fancy private schools where I live require 3 years of team sports in high school. Why? It looks good on your college application. A friend of mine with a son at one of these private schools says her son would begin his school day at 7 a.m. Classes were over at about 3 p.m. Then he had his sports practice till about 7 p.m.; he would come home, have dinner, and do homework for at least 4 hours. On a really good night he was asleep by 1 a.m., to get up at 6 a.m. This is considered normal.

For me, the question of high or low academic standards isn't even the point. I don't see any standards, or none that I care about. The purpose of school K - 12 isn't to learn anything in particular; it's to create a good college application and high test scores. The teachers don't know what it would mean to be well-educated in the subject they teach. That's not even the point.

I might have to take my rant to my own blog --

FedUpMom said...

Vickie Abeles is talking about a particular subculture. If it doesn't happen to be the subculture where you live, I can see that it doesn't resonate for you. I happen to live in that subculture, and I absolutely see what she's talking about.

If "high academic standards" means "kids get into Ivy League schools", then I live in an area with high academic standards. At the same time, I can see that kids who do everything "right" -- and get into those competitive schools -- can still emerge with not much in the way of actual knowledge and skills, along with serious mental health problems.

lgm said...

If someone could remove the above comment I would appreciate it. The internet provider is having difficulty maintaining service and that makess it difficult for me to write and edit.My apologies.

Katharine Beals said...

Hi lgm,

I'll remove your comment but I hope you'll repost it with edits--it's an important comment!

Hainish said...

@lgm, How are students getting into Ivies if their Regents exam scores are weak?

lgm said...

I think the point I want to make is that a public school will always have students who are under prepared and wish to surpass the prepared. It does not matter if its Stuyvessant or a rural school. Its maddening to certain parents that their children cant succeed as 'the best', due to their lack of ability to learn, or to learn enough, via the classroom. They wont advocate for that prep to happen in school, lest others outshine theirs, but they will pay a tutor to see that it happens out of then is an arms race for the best tutor or coach or private music instructor, except for the rare children who are profoundly gifted. Those who dont want to compete, then cry foul. In my grandparent's generation, it was the jewish who were perceived to study all the time. Now its Asians, or in districts like mine that dont have either (jewish go to private school, Asians wont stay in a district with no AP), its 'the rich'. The admin plays politics, until the right constituency is grabbing the top spots in class rank, and the academics are dumbed down to where they can get 100s.Voila, the right students have taken tne highest level of coursework the school offers! For my district, that means courses that would attract the academically inclined, who like to think and will succeed at a rate producing significant disparate impact, have been dropped. There are still students who study till midnight after two swim practice sessions daily, and play an instrument at a very high level. Usually they struggle greatly in math and science and find regents level difficult.They wont be in a serious major in college. But by golly, they won! Prevented the competition from getting the class rank, the coursework, or the ecs to attend a high ranking STEM school.

I would prefer to see students who arent prepared out of school have access to a way to become prepared in school. Let them stay until they are 21.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer to see students who arent prepared out of school have access to a way to become prepared in school. Let them stay until they are 21.

Sometimes I wonder why our society is so determined to push everyone through in 13 years, regardless of any learning or environmental difficulties a child faces. My son competes in gymnastics and is repeating a level and nobody thinks anything of it. His scores at meets this season compared to last are much better. If he'd been passed along, like many kids at school, he would've had a terrible season at the new level because his foundational skills were too weak. Instead, he got another year to shore up the weaknesses and will be able to do well when he moves up, rather than drown.

Anonymous said...

I should add that at the lowest two levels of boys competitions, repeating a level is fairly common, particularly for younger boys, so it doesn't have a stigma. Likewise, I have read that in Finland, most kids receive special ed help at some point (as needed), so it doesn't have the stigma it does here.