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.