http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2011/11/18/editorial-the-achievement-treadmill


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 18, 2011

Editorial: The achievement treadmill

Parents are fueling a competitive environment that is jeopardizing the health of our teens and their development of "purpose" in life

There is some irony that the same week we learn that Palo Alto is the most educated city in California, if not the nation, the Weekly publishes an extensive look at the culture in our community surrounding student "success" and the effects that this culture is having on our kids as they try to find their way in the world.

Even as the academic achievements of our teens are widely celebrated by school administrators, teachers, parents and the students themselves, there is much evidence that our kids are struggling under the pressures of exceedingly high expectations and are leaving high school with unprecedented anxiety and lacking a critically important sense of purpose.

We are a parent community increasingly obsessed with the college admissions process and with gaining every possible competitive advantage in achieving the brass ring of an elite college acceptance.

And we are all complicit.

As parents, we see other parents managing their teens' lives, arranging for tutors, test prep classes, college advisors, essay coaches, high-level club sports teams, extracurriculars and the best teachers to write the all-important recommendations. What kind of extraordinary willpower does it take as a parent to resist seeking these tactical advantages, and to instead opt for helping their child find the passion or purpose that will propel them into adulthood and a college (or not) that is the best fit rather than the most prestigious?

Teachers and school administrators, proud of and professionally bolstered by working in a school district that repeatedly ranks among the top in the nation by measures such as AP test scores and participation, National Merit Finalists and acceptance to top colleges, see the stress and anxiety but either feel helpless to do anything about it or consider it their duty to bootstrap every possible student into a college that will leave parents, teachers and school administrators feeling successful.

Teens themselves are often the most driven, feeling intense competition with their peers, high expectations from their parents and like failures if they don't achieve top standing in their class. In a school district where being in the 25th percentile academically translates to the 75th percentile in California, the "middle" students are especially vulnerable.

And the media, including the Weekly, reinforce the existing culture by publicizing the impressive academic and athletic achievements of local students.

As a growing number of parents and students are trying to sound the alarm about the culture we have created for our kids, the elite colleges themselves are joining in.

Stunned by the rising level of stress, depression and alcohol and drug abuse problems among today's college students, college administrators are having to rapidly expand counseling and other services and many are re-examining their admissions process.

As Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Palo Alto parent Julie Lythcott-Haims said in today's cover story, "...many of today's high-achieving students seem to accomplish that high achievement at the cost of something even more important, which is their sense of self or their sense of purpose."

Stanford psychologist and education professor William Damon has made purposefulness the centerpiece of his research, and says that "the biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it's meaninglessness."

There is no easy response or solution to the culture in which our teens are growing up, nor even agreement that it needs to change. This is a high achievement community with parents who have succeeded by seizing every opportunity in front of them. Ironically, many Palo Alto parent success stories do not revolve around traditional academic success, but have come through passion, determination and innovation exactly what our current culture is discouraging in its frenzied focus on resume and credential building.

So where is the leadership to change this environment going to come from?

Some insist it must start with the elite colleges, through strong action to stop rewarding those who try to gain advantage with excessive AP classes, extracurricular activities and over-the-top summer experiences. Reform of the college admissions process, including the AP system, is urgently needed.

But we must also act within our community. Known around the world for its innovation and success, what better city than Palo Alto to undertake a fundamental reassessment of our values and our definition of success in educating our kids. Many private schools have done it. Why can't our public schools follow suit?

There are faint signs that Palo Alto school board members are beginning to listen, and next year's school board election will hopefully provide an opportunity for a wider and constructive community dialogue on these issues.

Talk with almost any high school teacher in Palo Alto and you will hear concern and worry over the achievement arms race and how it's impacting our teens. But ultimately, teachers and administrators are taking their cues from the parent community. Change will come as parents realize that today's culture is unhealthy, unsustainable and leaving most kids without purpose at the very time they need it most.

Comments

Posted by Paul Heft, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Bravo for the special section and editorial on "The achievement treadmill", packed with information and ideas. The problem existed when I attended school in Palo Alto, and when my sons attended, but it sounds like it may be getting worse. Your call "to undertake a fundamental reassessment of our values and our definition of success in educating our kids" is heading in the right direction, but the issue really goes beyond just education--we need to question what is success in general.

Typically success is defined in terms of increasing wealth and consumption, getting ahead, superiority over others, gaining control and security in a confusing world. That seems to be the American Dream. If that's what Palo Altans value, then the school system is doing exactly the right thing, don't mess with it, it's a factory turning out products made to order--with a few defects to be cast aside. The stress, the meaninglessness, the occasional suicide or breakdown, are to be expected as byproducts of aiming for excellence in today's terms.

That's not what I want for my kids, for my friends, for myself. I think we actually have to turn away from the American Dream in order to make real progress. I know that's a tall order for Palo Alto, but I don't expect our kids' education to change unless we proclaim a big shift in values.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

I have said it before elsewhere, but we can't really tell how successful or what our PA grads have achieved until they have been out of PA high schools for ten years or so?

Do they have successful employement in their desired fields? Have they had to rethink their field and do something else? Have they graduated from college and entered the work field as planned or did they need to take longer and/or go to grad school which was/wasn/t planned? Are they able to stand on their own two feet financially? Do they have stable relationships outside their own source family? Do they manage to balance their work life, family life and social life? Do they consider themselves successful? Do they consider themselves content with where they are in life?

These are the questions that matter when it comes down to it. Sometimes a change of plan is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is still interesting to see if it came out of choice or necessity.

We can't really find out the answer to these questions in a poll, but it would be interesting just the same.


Posted by registered user, CrunchyCookie, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 20, 2011 at 2:46 am

From what I can tell through grapevine listening and Facebook stalking, most of my former classmates who studied themselves stupid and made it through the pearly Ivy gates were doing just fine ten years out. Plenty of them seem to either be in challenging and/or rewarding high-profile careers and raking in high-5/low-6 figures, and plenty more seem at least gainfully employed. Either that or in some high-powered grad school and thus securely on their way to the fast track.

The minority of us who are both non-geniussses and lived by the now-trendy Palo Alto advice to chill out / stay balanced / take regular classes / be content with a B+, however, are doing far worse, at least in my small anecdotal sample. Due to the cold hard fact that being just moderately smart (say 80 percentile) and working moderately hard gets you a GPA of ~3.0 around here -- which doesn't mean JACK with any admissions office (they really don't seem to adjust for school rigor, do they?) -- we ended up at second-tier UCs and other off-brand private colleges, and in this economy, are either working at dead-end and/or part-time jobs whose hourly wage often contains the word "teen" (then there's me -- the guy with who sent out 1,300 resumes in the past 3.5 years without a single bite despite stellar grades at UCR). It's a pathetic way to spend one's adulthood... hell, I can only imagine how depressed I'd be if I were the type who wanted kids, especially if I were female and had only 3-4 good years left on the biological clock.

To those of you still in high school stressing your asses off studying 7 hours a night, keep doing what you're doing. In a country that's been cranking out more college graduates (~33%) than the market can bear for a decade and counting, it's more paramount than ever to graduate from a Top 30. That's not shallow, just realistic, because out here in the real world, when some HR ditz is faced with a mile-high pile of 200 applications (as is common these days), you can count on her using every excusable criteria to auto-discriminate as many people as possible out of the interview pool, and the name of your college is at the top of that list. Just ask any Google employee if you don't believe me -- a company that, like its elite peers in many other industries (like finance and consulting), also asks for your SAT scores at age 40, by the way.

Trust me, four years of deprived misery as a teenager (actually two, since the end years don't much count) is worth it to put yourself on a permanently higher trajectory for the rest of your working life, because graduating from name-brander buys a lifetime of credibility, connections, and opened doors. It's your choice: suffer a little bit now or a lot in the decades to come, both emotionally and financially (and if you're a guy, in severely reduced mating prospects). If you think homework and SATs are a bitch, try being 31, unable to support yourself, without a damn thing to do all day, and staring at the same four walls of the room in your parents' house you were supposed to have left permanently 13 years prior -- with no prospects in sight.


Posted by whotiblame, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 7:42 am

@above

At current environment,I believe it is more important to offer average or below average kids other choices such as technical skills or expertise or life skills,after all we still need those nurses,phamist,lab technicians, home care personnel,firefighters,great sales personnel,human resources personnel,offices workers...if they can master those life skills and be honest and working hard,they will have their future too.


Posted by whotoblame, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 8:45 am

About this lane thing, it needs to be as simple as 1,2,3. The basic is a_g,so that everyone has a shot to a 4-year college if they want,and still if they fail,we can have other choice offered to them.Lane 2 for the middle,lane 1 for the high achievers.


Posted by whotoblame, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 9:08 am

Have our schools ever thought that we need a wider comparison body other than the one that is within a homogeneous single school district? Let's say we can compare our students' uc unweighted to other schools in our area,so that it will remind the uc and csu our 25 will score higher than mountain view or san jose's 60%?This will put less pressure on school kids when we have wider comparison body available.


Posted by former Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 20, 2011 at 10:06 am

I recall Boulder being named most educated U.S. city not too long ago.
Also, Palo Alto's status may be partly a result of the dire situation of public education in many other parts of California. People come here as a defensive move. I feel a lot of the drop in scores can be attributed to the huge number of illegal alien children who we taxpayers are supporting (in Los Angeles public schools, for one great example)


Posted by Yes but, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2011 at 6:15 pm

@ CrunchyCookie and others

You are generalizing too much. I have a child you graduated from high school in PA in 2005 and then UCSB in 2009, and who has a professional job, a good one, well paid. She started working right out of college too. She has a classmate who went to an actual Ivy league back East and is now not doing nothing much with her life.

It's not as simple as you seem to think it is. There are many variables, including the major you pursue, etc. Going to a "second tier" UC can be a very good choice.