A recent article in the New York Times highlights a school in the Boston area that has high levels of academic achievement. The school has lots of awards, high test scores, high rates of acceptance to Ivy League universities, and unfortunately the all too common occurrence of high rates of student anxiety. And a high student suicide rate. Another parent from our high school sent me this article and resonated with me for several reasons.
Truth test – matching up with my own experiences
It passes the truth test of fitting with some of my own observations.
It shares many similarities with our own academically competitive high school, although not quite to the same extreme. (Or maybe that is hopeful denial.)
But I also have the added insight of having relatives whose children recently finished high school in the Greater Boston area (but a different school.)
Their parents are National Merit Scholars, engineers, and upper level executives in their companies. The kids are highly intelligent and motivated.
But to get through their high school they required private tutoring.
I really question the need for a level, or speed of learning, that cannot be accomplished by a teacher and intelligent, motivated, students during the school day. When you think that homework is normal, remember that students have a 37 and a half hour work week – before homework is added.
Bandage the wound – or prevent the harm in the first place?
The Lexington school in the article is trying to address anxiety in particular by emphasizing learning ways to cope with stress and anxiety. But I noticed that they were placing an emphasis on how to recover from stress and relieve anxiety, rather than change the circumstances that are causing it. For example, the school district has a policy to reduce homework, but in reality the students say that homework levels are still very high.
In fact, the school seems to be trying to over-achieve with relaxing!
Messages about happiness are prevalent. Elementary students, little children, learn about breathing exercises and how the brain works related to stress. There are community workshops and forums about stress, and – not just one – but two different high school class choices to study the psychology of happiness.
Yet the students still have heavy workloads.
And high levels of anxiety and stress.
The cycle of over-achievement
The irony is that these are the community has – as the article pointed out – a “high level of civic engagement.” Parents and people care about their community.
Why is this ironic and significant?
Right before I read this article I read that over-achiever adults are often over-involved in places like the school PTA, because they feel the need to be the “best parent,” 17 Signs You’re An Overachiever. “[And] while the title of “overachiever” often has a positive connotation… it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be. Overachievers are more likely… to feel anxious. And their motivations … often stem from the need to avoid negative judgment, explains Robert Arkin, Ph.D.”
Yes, there is a level of community involvement that is not necessarily too much. But notice the reference not just to civic engagement, but high civic engagement. That might be numbers, or it might be a high level from high numbers. It’s hard for kids to learn balance when their parents are still over-achieving.
It is so, so hard to change.
And how do we change without over-correcting and losing our appreciation and achievement of excellence which still has worth? How much excellence is enough?
Here’s the article in the New York Times:
The comments are also informative.