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By Jessica Zang

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About this blog: I'm Jessica, a Palo Alto-born high school student who's passionate about subjects from social justice to hustle culture. I love writing articles and having thoughtful conversations with my readers, so please email me (jessicazangb...  (More)

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Overachieving in High School: Is It Worth It?

Uploaded: Feb 24, 2020
In Palo Alto, where every high-achieving parent moves to get closer to Stanford and give their children the best education, emphasis on schoolwork is often overwhelming. With friends skipping two math levels and peers owning profitable startups, it’s easy to feel a push to be the best. Here, peer pressure takes a wholly different form. Instead of pressuring friends to hit vapes or smoke joints, students indirectly pressure their peers to overachieve by overachieving themselves.

What results is a population of high strung teenagers with only a few topics of conversation: grades, teachers, tests, homework, and occasional drama. Far from life in High School Musical, school seems to be all about competing. Teachers who won’t round an 89.5% to an A become villains and students with straight A’s are everywhere. Parents compare their children to “higher-achieving” friends when in reality, all of us are unique and shouldn’t be compared. Extracurriculars often become activities one excels in but doesn’t even like.

At the end of the day, parents and students alike create an atmosphere centered around getting into a good (often meaning Ivy-League) college. What’s the appeal of going to such a competitive school? Not getting a better education, but instead how good it would look on a resume. Everything done here is to achieve a greater goal. The progression goes like this: straight-A student and varsity sports captain goes to a good college, gets good credentials, graduates into graduate school or a high-paying job, and ultimately ends up with a comfortable life.

Often I wonder what it means to have a good life. Here, it’s constructed that a good life stems from having money to sustain yourself later on. Many often trace the path back to high school, following the progression to become successful. But what’s success without happiness? When does living comfortably become more important than joy, love, and personal fulfillment?

While focusing on success is a good cause of motivation, it shouldn’t come at the cost of experiencing life. My greatest fear is when it’s all said and done and when I’m halfway through my life, that I might regret throwing it all away for success. Even if I achieve my most-wanted goals, what’s next? I’m afraid that by shutting myself out to the world to keep my eyes on the prize, I might become an adult devoid of personality and humanity, one who can’t find meaning in their life outside of getting that promotion or obtaining that raise. What is this shallow motivation if there’s nothing underneath?

In the end, the problem with overachieving is that students fail to work for themselves. Do I really love computer science, or did I convince yourself it was my passion to distract myself from the fact that I’m pursuing something I’ll eventually despise? When people live their lives to reach a goal or to please others, we are going to have a generation of brilliant adults in successful jobs, who go home regretting not taking that sculpting class instead of computer science, or choir instead of chemistry. I don’t want to see a generation that was so consumed by the chase for success that they forgot what it was like to feel fulfilled and true to themselves.

The only way to avoid regret is to follow your heart, as cheesy as it sounds. I know I’ll never regret my actions because, at some point, they were all I wanted for myself. If I always make decisions thinking of the future, when will I ever enjoy the present?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by PA family, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Feb 25, 2020 at 11:52 pm

PA family is a registered user.

Well said, Jessica!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Feb 26, 2020 at 10:23 am

As a parent, I agree with this column. In just the last few weeks in carpools I heard one kid say "I don't really like it that much, but I keep doing it because I heard colleges like it when you do something for a long time", and also "I don't really want to do it in college, but my parents said that since they've spent so much money on it, I had better do it in college".

These are both great kids -- motivated, smart, funny -- who don't feel they are encouraged or even allowed to find out and spend time on what they love. I know their parents love them very much, which is what makes this so sad to me. I also understand where that second parent is coming from. Something is messed up.

Thank you for starting this column, and good luck!

Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 26, 2020 at 11:28 am

I like your perspectives and agree that kids should not be pressured to do things they don't like. Though they may get into a top college, they may not be happy later. The intense competition and pressure from college admission are driving both parents and kids over the top. It sometimes feels like there is no choice but to overachieve, but balancing the present experience, joy and love, as you mentioned, with achieving goals is really important. After all, you only go to high school once.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 26, 2020 at 6:03 pm

Hi Jessica,
Beautifully written. I can't help but feeling really sad when I read this, because I can see all the overhead that goes along with school, and how unnecessary it is to getting a good education or even preparing for college.

Have you ever spent any time with kids in the area who homeschool/independent study? It can be really eye opening when you see that you can get a great education and do more of what you love without all that stress. I'm not suggesting you become a homeschooler, but rather, learn what works in independent education and how to apply that in a brick-and-mortar school, how to bring that back to school.

I just think it's really sad when so many talented students have to choose between doing school the way you have described and doing the things they love that would ultimately make them happier AND better candidates for colleges.

Think about it: if all students are taking the exact same courses, exactly the same way, of course there is going to be competition and endless comparisons. It's harder for students to differentiate themselves, even if they are working as hard as they can. Are there educational alternatives to that, where students can learn even more, while being more independent and less stressed? (yes)

I also wish local students understood the community college route better. Every year, the local community colleges send hundreds of students to the best UC's as transfer students. Over 85% of the students in the honors program who apply to UCLA get in. Contrast that with the many who apply at the high school level and don't get in (UCLA has an admit rate of what, 15%?).

Imagine doing what you love in high school, learning what you are really interested in, knowing that you can go to community college for two years and transfer to a great UC, without having to build that college resume at all in high school? Or you can take CC courses in high school instead of high pressure high school ones and have a more flexible schedule? The problem right now is that the district only gives you the option of slacking off on what they offer if you want to do that, they don't give you students the option of proposing special projects and shining for who your are instead (and still graduating),of doing things a different way so you have time.

It's hard to explain unless you see what's on the other side of the brick and mortar walls for yourself.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 26, 2020 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for this. It is very good to be able to get a teen's perspective, we need to hear this more often.

I have a few questions which may make good topics for future blogs.

What does the writer do for fun in Palo Alto? Is there something each week that is not academic or college application oriented. What does she and her friends do for down time? Are there any hangouts or places where teens are able to just forget about school and college apps for a couple of hours?

What does the writer do for breaks? Summer break is long enough to do more than one activity and can be used for various activities and hopefully some fun. But what about Winter break and Spring break? Is there any opportunity for those who do not have family travel plans to do for those weeks?

What about weekends? Are they spent catching up on sleep and schoolwork or is there time to get a weekend job? In fact do many of our teens get after school jobs for spending money? Do teens in Palo Alto need to earn extra money for their own use or are parents giving them enough allowance for spending money?

What about allowance? Do teens spend money on entertainment nowadays? What do teens do that costs them money?

As a parent, I have always wanted my kids to have time to enjoy being a teen. I have always hoped that they can enjoy their spare time. I have always tried to help them understand that they need time to work, rest and play, to be well rounded. Do teens now have time to work, rest and play or is that now considered old fashioned?

Posted by Change the Narrative, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 26, 2020 at 7:14 pm

I am a parent who has a Freshman at PALY. I dearly hope my daughter enjoys her time in high school and I hope I can convince her do what she likes while she is there Ivy leagues are not the end all be all. There are a ton of great (and fun) colleges to go to where you will have an amazing time AND be successful later on in life. As a middle aged woman, what do I remember from high school? Friends, hanging out on Friday nights, special relationships with teachers, boyfriends, etc. Its like no other time in one's life and it should be relished. Any parents who is encouraging their child to put their head down and only study are doing their child a huge disservice. Enjoy the football games, get involved in sports you have never tried before, stretch yourself to take a debate class, etc etc. I hope my children do not come out of HS totally burnt out. That would be a shame.

Posted by PA family, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 6:27 am

PA family is a registered user.

I think it's also important to note, and this may be what prompted Jessica to write this blog, that this is the final week of course sign ups for the local high schools. My teen is also a sophomore, like Jessica, and there has been a lot of conversations at home and in our sports carpool about classes. The course options for junior year are wide and varied, with many advanced and AP options. When I was in school, we had only two APs and they were taken senior year only. Paly advises that students take no more than two APs per year, but some students take more, and perhaps this is the kind of peer pressure Jessica is talking about. Kids need to ask themselves, do I like computer science or am I taking it because it is an AP? Do I want to study AP environmental science or would I be happier taking anatomy/physiology, which is dual enrollment but not AP? Where do AP bio, AP physics and AP chemistry fall on the list? AP psychology sounds great, but only seniors are allowed to take it. Other APs include art history, English, all the languages, studio art, AP seminar, and several others. For a 15 year old, this is a lot of decision making! Again, I think a limit of two is a good idea but I am not so sure if this is followed. My child has decided to take only AP English language. She is not pursuing a STEM major, at this point. So, I guess it's an easier decision for her. By the way, we have talked to many current seniors who are pursuing art, music, psychology and education degrees in college next year, so I do think we have all kinds of students in the community. Jessica is possibly one of the more exceptional kids who could be a math/science major or an English major. I hope she follows her heart and I wish her all the best of luck in choosing her path!

Posted by Be Real/Get Real & Succeed!, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 9:24 am

There's a simple solution...major in a vocation where you can make some serious dough (for self-sufficiency) & then minor in a 'thought-provoking' subject (for personal interest). It's called being practical as well as realistic.

Unless you are planning to go to law school or become a schoolteacher, majoring in the Liberal Arts is an utter waste of time, energy and expense. Subjects such as Literature, Sociology, Philosophy & what not can be self-taught just by reading in one's spare time rather than WASTING 4 years listing to some pompous professor expound upon trivial details that most people could care less about.

Lastly...for some individuals, high school will be the highlight of their temporal existence on earth (aka life) while others will bloom & succeed later down the road.

Posted by Be Real/Get Real & Succeed!, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 9:26 am

listing > LISTENING to some pompous professor expound...

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 9:30 am

You only go through your teens once. It should be an experience not a race. It should involve as many different aspects as possible. School is only one aspect.

Don't throw the time away without enjoying the experience.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 9:47 am

"Do I want to study AP environmental science or would I be happier taking anatomy/physiology, which is dual enrollment but not AP? "

Just pointing out that dual enrollment courses not only get twice the amount of credit for the time spent (one semester dual enrollment = 1 year of high school credit), but they get the same GPA bump on college applications that AP courses get. They are usually time-consuming, with more time spent on work and less in class, but because of the greater freedom, can seem easier. I hear environmental sciences at Foothill is a fantastic class.

Take APs because the teacher is great and you're really interested in it. If not, take something else. Enjoying the course makes it easier to do well, and can lead to other rewarding activities. Challenging yourself with something you aren't interested in can be rewarding, too, and the things we enjoy studying aren't always the things we most enjoy doing in life.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 11:16 am

I am always puzzled by the claims that weigh one thing above the others for a kid's life. For all the negatives that this article criticizes against "over-achieving", the same arguments can be applied to what this article is trying to promote. Taking a race, academic race or atheletic race, is part of the life with pros and cons just like any other life styles. Why excluding it from high school life? It is even more dangerous for a teenager, like the author, who normally does not yet have enough exposure to all kinds of life styles and options, to define any achievements to be “over-“ for anybody.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 12:30 pm


Your point is apt, in the context of everyone having diverse lives and metaphorically coming together to run a race. School locally isn't that. Everyone is being pushed to run the same gauntlet, even if it doesn't serve them well, and at the expense of their being able to do better things with their time. I think the author's criticism is valid in the context she describes so beautifully.

It's hard to get locals to appreciate it, but it's possible to do more (more learning, more achievements) with less stress and more joy in a different CONTEXT. But everyone assumes the traditional school context is immutable.

As a thought experiment, imagine we have all the same kids in our district, but we divide them into 10 schools instead of 2. Suddenly, there are 10 class presidents, 10 orchestra concertmasters every term and dozens of soloists, 10 year book leaders every year, and that many more spots on varsity sports teams. But if we still make them all take exactly the same paths, then the colleges will keep seeing the same student over and over again in the applications, especially since school is sotime consuming.

More students getting the chance to be class president is good, but it's still the same gauntlet. What if one of those schools decided it was going to integrate english or math (or?) with every other class, so that students had free time to do projects of their own choosing, with some funding. And instead of block scheduling, they worked with the community college to offer all the courses one day a week (dual enrollment, so less class time), but worked with students the way DTech does to help them set goals every term and achieve them.

Suddenly, every child in the school is doing something no on has seen before, AND they are also getting the coursework less stressed and less constantly engaged in doing something someone else tells them to do as is necessary when they're on exam cycles. What if students could find independent coursework like the students who take Hindi, and use that toward their graduation (and their attendance hours)? Or students could take more advanced courses that would give them credit for multiple less-advanced courses, and they could go back over anything they didn't do well on at the end of the year and test to bring up a grade on just the things they missed? (More students would challenge themselves for the sake of learning instead of focusing on the grade.)

The point is that when everyone is running the same race, the results are going to favor only a few. I don't think Jessica Zang is saying that running races is inherently bad, but can be if that's ALL there is in our local schools for the majority of students, and those students are gritting their teeth to just run gauntlet after gauntlet. (One person's race...)

The goal of the schools is not to make a few students look good for Harvard, it's to give all of them the best education and best shot at life. Telling them to become independent while also making their success in school depend on how well they follow external direction is counterproductive. Supporting them to be independent in their learning will not only help them be better prepared for life, it's a better recipe for happiness and success in applying to college (or anything else).

Posted by Change the Narrative, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 12:55 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by People Change, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 2:46 pm

previous quote..."Lastly...for some individuals, high school will be the highlight of their temporal existence on earth (aka life) while others will bloom & succeed later down the road."

This is quite true as I know of a former homecoming queen twice divorced with four young children & now on welfare + a former star athlete who works a a courtesy clerk (aka bagger in a grocery store.

Both were at the pinnacles of their social world while in high school...envied at one time but now pitied.

Posted by Be Real/Get Real & Succeed!, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 4:28 pm

My son is a senior at Palo Alto High School & his dream is to forego a typical freshman entrance to college & 'see America' by touring the country on an old 1947 'knucklehead' Harley that his late grandfather (my dad) left him.

Incidentally, my father was at the 1947 Hollister motorcycle riot & spent a week in jail for disrupting the peace! He always loved that Marlon Brando line from The Wild Ones...when asked "What are you rebelling against?" Brando replied, "What have you got?"

I was weaned on Easy Rider and warned my son that even though it's just a movie... back in 1969 Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper went 'looking for America', they never found it. Today it has all but disappeared.

In any event, we have decided he can ride with the wind & ditch college if he prefers...but he has to wear at least a 'brain bucket' helmet & some leather chaps which is OK with him!

Posted by reader, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 4:40 pm

Relevant article topic, Jessica!

I am neither a writer nor blogger so my post is merely but words, although, as a suggestion for a future article, it may be worthwhile to write a bit more in-depth about your life. What is your story? While, unfortunately, competition/overachieving has become almost to the point of pure ridiculousness, many of us are already aware of this. You write beautifully, so making your piece colorful/personal with anecdotes can bring it to life in a more tangible way. Or, to protect your privacy, even anonymous stories would amplify the significance of this topic.

That being said, it continues to baffle me when hearing about all that teens have to do in order to "stand out" �" and it scares me that "what it takes" is just out of control. I've been in volunteer situations where it is painfully clear that the teen is not interested whatsoever and only wants the credit for their class or resume�"and that can be counted against them if by coincidence a college recruiter or the like is at the same event and notices. Just a small example of how signing up for every activity/group/etc. isn't always the best strategy.

All in all, keep up with your passion for writing and continue to get your voice out there, Jessica!

Posted by Jessica Zang, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 27, 2020 at 5:37 pm

Jessica Zang is a registered user.

Hi All!

Thank you for so much support on my first blog post! I understand that my perspectives may not hit home for everyone, so I’m just working on sharing my observations of the high school environment around me and giving my take on things!

Certainly, it’s important for teens to go and participate in activities and extracurriculars, but I often see people doing things they don’t enjoy and forcing themselves to go. Or even worse, people who join activities that suck away their energy, yet insist that they enjoy it. I’ve tried my best to only participate in activities that I truly enjoy, but still find myself wondering if I’m convincing myself I like things if only as an excuse not to quit. However, for those activities that students really like and find themselves excited to go to or genuinely interested in, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with entering competitions and investing time and effort into them! In fact, that’s probably one of the best high school experiences ever. It’s just worrying that sometimes students will choose one activity over another that they truly enjoy, taking away the whole point of extracurriculars.

That said, I’m again so thankful for your help! I’ll definitely keep your ideas in mind as I continue to write! Feel free to give me any suggestions :)

- Jessica

Posted by another high school parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 8:53 am

Thank you for this article. The culture is so overly competitive. You are absolutely on point. Here is what our experience has been in addition to what you have already said. There is quite a bit of cheating. For instance, students taking similar classes but different periods so that they can share test questions. Also, on the advice of adults (parents and paid counselors), students are trying to demonstrate interests in subjects they have absolutely no interest in. For instance, since STEM (CS) is so competitive for certain races and genders, they are trying to be contrarian and show interest in other fields like humanities and writing. Thus taking up spots on publications not because they enjoy it but merely to be different and stand out. Some students are also trying to influence the teachers by talking to them about changing their grading policies or by frequently asking questions out of syllabus to prove that they have intellectual curiosity. All because so that they can be the only ones with the best grades or excellent recommendations. It is becoming difficult for the teachers to actually see who is genuine vs who is faking. In addition, there is also some abuse of 504 accommodations happening. People are trying to see how they can get accommodations just because someone else who has a genuine disability has it.

I would also like to add that in spite of all this, there are some students who are enjoying high school and taking courses for the joy of learning. There are some interesting clubs where they have fun and they are not so worried about which college. I think the parent's perspective and support matter a lot for the children. We have to constantly remind them that they will go to college and 70% of colleges accept more than 70% of students. Plus community colleges are excellent places to get education.

Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 9:23 am

I know I will probably be shouted down on this, but with all this competition with so many teachers only giving one or two As it makes me wonder what is wrong with the examination system?

Back in my day, the teachers all wanted everyone in the class to get an A as it showed they were good teachers who could teach the whole class how to do the material on the syllabus. If the whole school performed well in countrywide exams, it meant that the school was a good school. It meant that as pupils, we were all expected to get As or as near as, we all helped each other and most importantly we were not competing against each other. We all wanted each other to do well.

I know exams are not for everyone, I particularly was not good at Oral Exams, and maths and science exams were terrible for me. I was much better at essay type answers than the type where we had to solve problems. However, I can't see that the system here is any better.

Just giving my thoughts. As I said, I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but as an outsider I can't see that the system here is better in any light.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 10:19 am

@Freedom and sunshine

I agree that what you describe is the ultimate goal we want to achieve: customized education for each and every kid.

The key is the cost: the cost to learn each and every kid (very, very difficult, because kids are still developing like a moving target, and even an adult may not really know him/herself), the cost to provide appropriate resources, and the cost to evaluate the potential enormous varieties.

We only have so many teachers, and overall so many tax dollars (which is already the biggest expense of the nation).

Maybe the public schools should really work on reduced scale, and only focus on a min set of basic requirements. No competition, no race, maybe no exam. Meanwhile we can invest the majority of the education fund to provide many different focus training schools: math, sciences, arts, music, sports, performing, cooking, ... anything that has a viable market from students and parents.

Trying to stuff more and more functions into existing public schools and hope kids can receive customized education there is not going to work. Instead, we should ask them to do less, but do it really well.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 3:33 pm

@ Resident,
"I agree that what you describe is the ultimate goal we want to achieve: customized education for each and every kid.
The key is the cost: "

I wish people didn't just assume cost was an issue without knowing if that's true. A customized education can be had for a lot less than we are spending now.

If cost is THE key, then we are all in luck, because a customized education can be a lot cheaper. The independent studies program in SJUSD saves the district money per child. I know people who locally who sent their kids on to Ivies after homeschooling at the library because they wanted to save money (because they could see they would need it for college).

There is a practice called "deschooling" which homeschoolers advise newbies to do, which is, not make your kid do anything at all for one month for every year they were in traditional school before switching. You can still make opportunities available, just, no expectations. It's hard for most people, because getting out of school is kind of like getting out of a box -- it can feel very unsettling to have all the freedom. Both children and parents have to learn a completely different way of looking at things and it takes time. If you watch documentaries like Most Likely to Succeed, which has aired in this district, you can see people in new, self-directed programs struggling the same way.

That is the major reason it can be difficult to move to a customized education in traditional school, the expectations can't just be dropped at will. Cost is an easy thing to throw off as a barrier, but it's actually not. In the same way that kids don't have to suffer to learn and do more, it also doesn't have to cost more money.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 3:42 pm

I'm sure you've heard this quote:
"Steve Jobs said, “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use."

I would love for you to meet some teens who found a different way. The students around you are experiencing those things due to the limitations that humans who are no smarter than you (I would wager you are smarter) have imposed on you and your peers.

Looking forward to reading about your observations in school, and also your thoughts on change.

Posted by Alt High, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 28, 2020 at 6:58 pm

Agree with "Freedom and sunshine."

Homeschooling can provide an alternative to the madness of school from K-12. For more self-directed learning, Paly and Gunn students should look into Foothill's Middle College program where you take courses to graduate from high school as well as earn transferable credits for the UC's and CSUs. As F&S has pointed out, the transfer rate to campuses such as UCLA is high and most likely less stressful than applying directly from high school. The main obstacle seems to be (mis)perceiving community college as lesser than "real" college and thinking of schools fundamentally in terms of status.

Outside of Middle College, because many don't make it into the program for lack of space, students can still take one or two courses per semester/quarter (for free) at Foothill as dual-enrolled students. For homeschoolers via a charter school, the charter school will facilitate the dual-enrollment process and blend credits earned at community college with courses taken elsewhere to create the official high-school transcript. The difference between taking an AP course in high school and taking a course at Foothill, is that an AP course demonstrates one's ability to do college work, whereas a Foothill course demonstrates actual college work. The Foothill course in the eyes, say, of Berkeley is the real, transferable thing.

Being a dual-enrolled student during high school provides a great opportunity to learn to do college coursework and exercise greater independence from parents in a gradual way. It should make going off to college, with a clearer sense of direction, easier to achieve. If a family wants a smooth transitional time period that is not rushed, which is beneficial academically and personally for the student, then taking community-college courses during high school can provide that productive, transitional experience.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 29, 2020 at 10:02 am

@Freedom and sunshine

The cost of customized education is not just about how to teach individual kids. From what I can see, the most difficult, and expensive part, is how to learn what is the "good" (undefined) for each and every kid. And, how to evaluate each and every individual kid (you do not have all these kinds of standard evaluation methods any more). Ignoring these critical items is really just wishful thinking, and most likely will end up like promoting the utopia communism ideology.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 29, 2020 at 10:11 am

Customized education is a system that is orders of magnitude more complex than existing schools. Unless there is a break-through in technology or we intentionally tradeoff something else, I cannot see how it could be possibly cheaper to implement.

Posted by Freedom and Sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 29, 2020 at 2:23 pm

You are still thinking about individualization within the context of current schooling. The current system was designed for making students compliant (Prussian model) for the industrial revolution. What we have today is that system.

I have been immersed in the independent study movement nationally and locally for many years, out of necessity, and also in local school culture, and you need to hear that you are just completely and utterly wrong. I regularly see students who have achieved far, far more than they could have in PAUSD, for way less money, with way less stress, simply because the families didn't have the money so they figured it out. SJUSD's IS program costs way less, and every student's education there is customized by definition. This is why I would love for Jessica Zang to talk to some of those students, because it's a completely different way of thinking about education. Not a single one of the students I know who is following an independent path feels any stress about having to do things they don't want to do to measure up to their peers or look good for a college or any of the negative things Ms. Zang has described as common in our high schools.

As @Alt High said, students in high school can take classes at the junior college as dual enrollment or Middle College for free. They can also take the CHSPE, go take classes at the junior college before they finish high school, and transfer on to college and grad school much earlier than they could otherwise. They can even go back to high school if they decide they aren't ready, because state law says students who take the CHSPE can return to high school and the law prohibits negative consequences for it.

So, if a student is really stressed, they can take the CHSPE then a semester off, go take a few junior college courses (which each count as a year's worth of high school courses), than take fewer high school classes the next term and do some kind of personal project that is both rewarding and helps them stand out for college.

In Unschooling, which is way on one side of the self-directed education spectrum, students are never required to take any tests, yet studies of outcomes show they do just fine in college and beyond, and are usually more mature because of the freedom.

You don't have to constantly micro-measure students for everything they do, like they do now. It's costly, and counterproductive, and usually for the benefit of others, not the student. It's a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of education: the more you try to measure the students' educational trajectory, the more you alter it (not for the better).

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 29, 2020 at 2:27 pm

"Customized education is a system that is orders of magnitude more complex than existing schools. "

This is wrong, too, because when students are given more autonomy and freedom, you don't have to micro manage everything they do. But you can't just move them into a freer system, it's necessary to give them a transition, as I wrote above. If you have never witnessed that or been a part of it, then you just really have no idea what you're talking about. I'm not saying that to be mean, you just need to realize that there's a whole educational ecosystem that is thriving today, and it's really hard for people within the school paradigm to even understand. So much of what we think in that paradigm is limited by constraints we all assume are necessary but that aren't actually essential aspects of education.

Posted by Freedom and sunshine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 1, 2020 at 2:59 pm

@another high school parent,
Thank you for pointing out the cheating. Another bad consequence of unnecessary competition.

I do think you are overreacting to some things, though. You wrote:
>"It is becoming difficult for the teachers to actually see who is genuine vs who is faking. In addition, there is also some abuse of 504 accommodations happening. People are trying to see how they can get accommodations just because someone else who has a genuine disability has it. "

Unless things have massively changed, I don't think you need to worry about abuse of 504's. The district has historically done an abysmal job with granting necessary accommodations, and they know how to pressure families and deny even very necessary accommodations where the student suffers without them. Unless you are saying the teachers and administrators play favorites and give accommodations to people they like who don't need them (and even if so, those children will already have gotten the accommodations from early on), this isn't really a problem.

I know too many students who needed them who weren't properly assessed until later after enduring the negative outcomes of not being assessed for common disabilities like dysgraphia and even dyslexia. I would love to see a survey of teachers in the district to see if they even recognize dysgraphia versus punish and judge students for it, especially boys. For a student with dysgraphia, getting the ability to use graph paper or use a large block answer sheet makes a huge difference. Such accommodations are actually pretty hard to get, and won't make any difference for people who don't have such a disability. But making vague complaints about it often does make life hard for students who struggle to get the accommodations they need, particularly those who figure things out late because district "professionals" have let them down.

Posted by Old Palo Alto, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Mar 2, 2020 at 5:27 pm

A very few people are lifelong over achievers. It is how they are wired. It doesn't depend on parents, peers or anything external. Many people see the external fruits of this over achievement and try to emulate. It doesn't end well for them, and they realize there are many different goals and aspirations they were more suited for. Be the person you are. If you are a natural leader, be one. If you are an artist, be that. If you're an intellectual, do that. There's a happy place for everyone.

Posted by Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., a resident of another community,
on Mar 5, 2020 at 10:54 am

Your observations are spot on, Jessica, and have ample support in science!   Please see our latest research review,
“High-achieving schools connote risks for adolescents: Problems documented, processes implicated, and directions for interventions.“ Web Link
And for our ongoing work with schools, do check out www.authconn.com

Hope to see more such stories from you and fellow-students!  And best of luck with your studies, going forward.

All best regards -

Suniya Luthar.

Posted by Hello, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 12, 2020 at 8:42 pm

Sounds like someone got rejected from Harvard.

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