In the nearly 30 years since I graduated from college I’m wondering how many times I’ve been asked where I got my degree. Surprisingly few. The fact that I went to a well-ranked college and have a masters degree from a well-regarded UC is relatively unimportant in my life as a writer, artist, teacher, parent, friend, citizen and occasional fire starter (metaphorically speaking). And how many times have I been asked about my college GPA? Other than on my application for further education, zero. Ditto for my high school grades.
Yet high school students — even younger students — feel their lives will halt if they do not get the grades they have targeted as essential to gaining access to the higher education of their choice. This worldview is supported, at times unknowingly, by parents, peers, college counselors, teachers — just about everyone in their small world of school, extracurriculars, sports, and mountains of homework. Life-ending melodrama aside, they aren’t wrong. The college admissions process has become so competitive that the average GPA for admitted freshmen at UC Berkeley is above a 4.0 — made possible only with the grade “bump” given for AP or honors-level classes. The more of these advanced classes, the greater the bump.
Perhaps you can already see a problem. As a high school teacher of increasingly stressed-out or mind-numbed kids, I’ve been noticing the problem for quite a few years now. Tonight I saw a film that highlighted it very clearly: “Race to Nowhere” by Vicki Abeles. Today’s students feel so much performance pressure and spend so much time doing homework that they are making themselves sick, or worse: taking their own lives. Teen suicides are on the rise, as are stress-related disorders, sleepless nights doing homework, drug use to produce those sleepless nights, and depression. The aforementioned mountains of homework start as early as kindergarten in many schools, where 5 year olds are pressured to learn to read before many of them are developmentally ready. “We are preparing them for school” is the oft-given excuse for elementary-school homework. Excuse me? Aren’t little kids supposed to play when they come home from school? As one expert said in the film, we are robbing our children of their childhood.
Students quoted in the film don’t want to disappoint the adults in their lives, so they work hard, sometimes too hard to be the cookie-cutter perfect student that top colleges want to admit. And when they can’t be — because not everyone can be — they suffer a greater sense of failure than I ever knew in my young life, even though I didn’t get accepted to my first-choice college. They hold themselves up to impossible standards; we hold them up to impossible standards.
No Child Left Behind standards and testing have robbed teachers of creative curricula, rewarding only what is needed for the test, driving some of the best and brightest out of public schools. Others grit their teeth and fight the good fight for the sake of the students, despite being blamed for the educational woes of our country. Our educational woes start in Washington, D.C., and trickle down to every level of government. Our underperforming students are forced to focus on the wrong things: grades not learning, facts not skills, tests not creative problem-solving, homework not the personal development necessary to function in the workplace and community.
I am fortunate to work in a school independent of the dictums of politicians and statisticians. I spend a considerable portion of my take-home pay sending my daughter to an equally independent school. What about those who can’t? Who is watching out for them?
My school is not exempt from overburdening our students with work and activities. Yet we have started the conversation. The solution is not simple, but the problem will only get worse if we don’t engage in the difficult discussions on how to change the broken system at every level. The educational path we’re on leads to a slew of hopeless, burnt-out, unhealthy twenty-somethings on whom we rely as our future. As much as I love the kids I teach, that future looks pretty murky to me.