Driven to succeed, part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?

Parents, youth experts argue against 'busywork' and emphasis on college admissions

Part 1: Getting off the treadmill

Part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?

Editorial: The achievement treadmill

The high school environment does not generally promote or support a path to purpose, according to Denise Pope, a lecturer with the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, an organization concerned about students who compromise health, integrity and learning due to performance pressure.

"Our school system is set up to sort people," Pope told the Weekly, noting that the school structure tracks kids by age, subject areas, grades, scores, lanes and learning abilities. Purpose is not emphasized in school in part because "finding yourself is in opposition to a sorting factory," she said.

Schools have been robbed of their capacities to inspire purpose by "high stakes" standardized tests as the current chief measure of school performance, according to William Damon, Stanford School of Education professor, psychologist and a former Gunn High School parent. Metrics have put the squeeze on the core missions of instilling a broader vision of the world and a robust motivation to learn.

"The main objective of the classroom becomes imparting a rapid familiarity with facts, names, places and formulas that students have little interest or skill in applying to problems beyond the classroom," he writes in "The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life."

Pressure to cover volumes of material has displaced deeper exploration of big ideas. One consequence is too little engagement, meaning and joy.

"Students are just performing," Pope said. At all levels this can lead to negative stress.

Michele Dauber, Stanford law professor and organizer of the school stress-reduction advocacy group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, agrees: "The contemporary elite public school in its drive for ever higher scores... has bled all of the 'purpose' out of students' lives."

The amount and type of work assigned in high school, she said, is like a large "boulder these kids are carrying." The only thing many are passionate about is surviving, she said.

"School is the structure where kids need to climb a ladder to go to college," Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann said. Recommendations matter, so it is difficult for students to feel safe showing weakness.

This dynamic drives an unwanted wedge between teachers and students, Dauber said.

"The pressures are to conform," Gunn High School graduate Miranda Chatfield said. "It's a rigid system. ... The point of going to school should be to educate oneself, but the schools have lost a lot of that, they've lost the vision. The schools have just become the machines that churn out students to go to colleges."

Palo Alto High School graduate Trevor Bisset and others describe how the pressures to perform can lead students to "escapist" behavior.

"At Paly, you'd be shocked to know how many kids were high in class, drunk in class, 15-year-olds on a daily basis," he said. "So many kids are cutters, so many girls walking around with pretty beads and bracelets all over their arms and nobody realizes they have gashes underneath them. Kids overeat, kids drink, kids act out sexually."

In Weekly interviews with Palo Alto high school grads, parents and teachers, "treadmill" and "hamster wheel" were regular descriptors of high school life, symbolizing relentless, directionless effort. "It's in the air," "it's impossible to escape," or "it's embedded in the culture," were frequent conclusions about the origins of this dynamic, and the negative stress it induces.

Damon thinks the momentum underlying these forces springs from the side of human nature that "craves something that is limited, that is hard to get, that has a lot of status and celebrity attached to it," like the current handful of elite colleges with too few spaces.

The colleges themselves bear some responsibility for feeding and exploiting this craving through their marketing efforts and manipulation of numbers to enhance their images of selectivity.

"They're creating the game in a sense, for their own purposes," Damon said. "They want to attract donors, get high in the U.S. News rankings, and all that."


Along with this atmosphere of craving goes fear. Paly journalism teacher and teacher-adviser Paul Kandell described the "hysteria" this year over college decision announcements as the worst he had seen. Some students were "paralyzed with anxiety" when decisions were announced, as well as worried weeks before and weeks afterwards. When decisions were posted at 3 p.m. this year, school was still in session with a later dismissal than past years, causing classes to be disrupted. Kandell recounted shouts, wailing and tears -- a mixture of joy and despair depending on the news received.

Howell has seen his share of kids rejected by schools they worked years to get into.

"I think one of the things that is just heartbreaking is the college acceptance time," he said. "It's just heartbreaking to me because that shouldn't be the goal."

According to several accounts, some less-able students cling to the high academic lanes for advantage in the college selection process and become highly stressed by the demands, often sacrificing their joy in learning.

"To succeed, they have to push themselves beyond their limits," said Gunn 2010 grad Yoni Alon, now a UCLA sophomore.

Teachers often justify heavy loads and fast pace as necessary to prepare for college, according to student reports. Pope said this should not drive the high school curriculum.

"Teachers should help move students forward, but without breaking them," she said. Pope refers to this as the "just right" challenge, part of the "art of teaching," and what good teachers know how to determine through connection with their students.

Many people confuse load and pace with preparation for college, she said, but instead it is the deep understanding -- gained through rigorous, interactive, collaborative learning environments -- that best lays the groundwork for future educational endeavors.

Kids need to live in their high school moment," Pope told the Weekly. "If students are always urged to look to the next stepping stone, sooner or later the stepping stones will disappear and the lack of meaning in that journey and the resulting stress will manifest."

Palo Alto parent Sally Bemus, involved with We Can Do Better Palo Alto and Project Safety Net, a community coalition focused on youth well-being that was formed in 2009 in response to student suicides, believes that "students are succeeding despite our schools," which she describes as "ramped up" and resistant to innovation.

"I used to think that about 20 percent of the kids were not being served by the schools," Bemus said. But now she thinks it's the other way around, that only 20 percent are able to do well with what is asked of them; the rest are too stressed, she said, citing examples of students with emotional struggles from both ends of the achievement scale.

"High stress isn't good for anybody, but it's more dangerous for some than others," Dauber said. In cases of genetic forms of depression (like bipolar disorder), avoiding protracted extreme stress can be a matter of life and death. While certain factors, like a sense of purpose, can help decrease factors for depression and promote mental wellness, Dauber, whose adult daughter suffered major depression and died by suicide unrelated to academic stress, said: "There's no panacea against suicide."

Then there is the topic of school homework, which generates questions of quantity and quality that often divide communities. Palo Alto is no exception.

Attempts to place restrictions on the types and amounts of homework, according to numerous educators and press accounts, can encroach upon a teacher's sense of professional judgment and discretion. In high school, mandates can also present logistical problems, including coordination among multiple teachers and lanes, student work-pace differences, and enforcement issues. Even within teacher and parent groups, a range of views often exist about the proper balance between mental health and academic rigor.

Experts advise school districts to include teachers, parents and students in any effort to set homework policies, according to the National Education Association.

Still, when students are showing alarming levels of stress associated with workload, many see no choice but to enter the difficult territory of exploring policies to restrict homework type and amount.

Excessive homework for the wrong reasons can create "stressful, horrible situations" for kids, according to Damon.

"Homework should not be driven by the college admissions process," he said. "That's not a good reason to do homework, or load up on a huge amount of homework."

However, Damon believes that it's a "really big mistake" for people to be emphasizing lowering the number of homework hours as the goal.

"I'm not saying that some teachers don't give too much homework. Anything can be excessive and it's important to get balance," he said. "But it's not the answer. ... It's the quality, and it's the reason for it. It's why the kid does it and whether the kid finds meaning in it, that's the point."

"Kids can do a lot of things in life without getting stressed out, and feel great about it, if there's a certain quality to their experience. And that quality needs to be self-motivated, it needs to be meaningful, that the kids can believe in," Damon said.

Psychologist Madeline Levine, co-founder of Challenge Success, believes it's hard to engage joyfully in learning when students are consumed with pressures to excel.

"When external measures are all kids can think about, their ability to find meaning in their work is diminished," Levine writes in "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Unhappy Kids."

Gunn's Alon had a strong interest in learning, took classes he liked, enjoyed the work, and did not compare his achievements to others.

"If you internally have a sense of purpose (about schoolwork), then workload doesn't matter," he said.

Damon supports the idea of "regular serious homework assignments" to help kids learn discipline and to develop good work habits.

In implicating homework loads, he cautions against throwing the baby out with the bath water, the baby being teaching kids about their responsibility to do their work on a consistent basis.

According to Pope, school homework policies need to address purpose and relevance, "not just time on task." Pope writes: "While other researchers have recommended a specific maximum for hours of nightly homework ... we hesitate to provide a hard and fast rule, given that quality of homework is more strongly associated with students' mental health than homework load."

Pope advocates further research to examine the question: "How much 'useful' homework can still be considered healthy?"

Gunn's Chatfield agreed that schoolwork should be meaningful: "Homework is a good thing, but busywork is not a good thing."

Citing many math and science problem sets as busywork, she said she was often kept up until 3 or 4 a.m. doing homework.

Paly grads Bisset and Zev Karlin-Neumann ('07) also complained of busywork, both citing the requirement to annotate 800 pages of Tolstoy for AP English class as one particularly onerous example.

Dauber believes Palo Alto high schools currently assign excessive quantities of homework, much of questionable value. While some small percentage may handle it, "the average kid is drowning," she said. "Two in the morning comes and they're still doing it -- and that means they're sleep deprived, too."

We Can Do Better Palo Alto advocates a district-wide policy on homework that sets standards for purpose and volume. The group's efforts have helped lead the school board recently to adopt "focused goals" committed to examining the issue.

"We're going to try to stop the arms race. We're looking for strategic arms control here, so teachers aren't constantly ramping up," Dauber said. "Let's impose a limit so that our kids can thrive."

As part of these efforts, former Paly parent Karen Kang spoke at a school board meeting this spring. She said her daughter and Paly friends "found it physically impossible to complete their school assignments in a normal day." They suffered in silence, "not wanting to appear like losers," she said.

Kang read a statement written by one of her daughters who has had a history of eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

"The five years I spent under the spell of this religion of achievement were a complete waste -- I spent time working hard at what I didn't care about, got physical and mental health problems, and was extremely miserable. I've had to put every ounce of my energy for the past few years into unlearning those backward lessons I learned as a student in Palo Alto," her daughter said.

This is consistent with Pope's research, which found students doing more than 3.5 hours of homework per day were at risk for higher stress levels affecting physical and mental health.

The National PTA and the National Education Association recommend guidelines, suggested by Duke University professor Harris Cooper, of 10 minutes per night per grade. For a high school senior, this means 120 minutes, or two hours. According to Harris Cooper, writing in the New York Times, "many high school district policies state that (students) should expect about 30 minutes of homework for each academic course they take, a bit more for honors or advanced placement courses." That level is "consistent with the conclusions reached by our research analysis," he writes.

This is the kind of empirical standard We Can Do Better Palo Alto is seeking. According to Dauber, it is the school district's responsibility to lead and make decisions about what constitutes a healthy, productive learning environment, and then set limits around that for everyone to live by.

According to Dauber, "the PAUSD board and administration have a tendency to not understand the negative effects of this competitive environment, and when pressed, they will say, 'It's not our fault; it's these other parents.' I think that is just a red herring. I don't believe there is a constituency for pressure. I think there is a constituency for rigorous, challenging curriculum, but I think that is utterly disconnected from insane quantities of homework."

Palo Alto school district superintendent Kevin Skelly, however, refuted Dauber's comment about the district board and administration: "I just don't hear that from my fellow administrators nor from the board."

He called the examination of homework issues, "good for our community."

"We look forward to the dialog about purpose and amount of homework."

Skelly said he believes there will be a wide range of views about desired amounts, with some saying there's too much, others too little and others just enough. He also said that differing student motivations and abilities affect time on task as well as the quality of the experience.

"If kids aren't motivated academically, homework means slogging around and reduces the quality and increases the time students spend on the topic. Contrast that to a student who loves Shakespeare or math or science. They will devote hours to this without considering it work of any kind!"

Skelly also stressed the importance of good communications and expectation-setting between teachers and students so that students are not spending too much time on assignments.

While Dauber sees the most urgent priority as "turning down the speed of the treadmill" by limiting homework hours, she also affirms the importance of focusing on the quality of the students' learning experience.

"I agree with Bill Damon about purpose, but it has to go hand-in-hand with a realistic assessment of volume," she said. "No one can find their purpose when they're doing three or four hours a night of meaningless busywork.

"We are putting students under so much time pressure and emotional pressure and fear. ... We have to turn down the homework-o-meter on these kids and give them time and space to think about the important questions of what do I want to do, who I am, and what can I do for others."

Related stories:

Finding purpose: a bigger job than before

How purpose begins

Profiles of purposeful youth

Teens, school staff unite against stress

The college arms race

Why college feels less stressful


To facilitate discussion all comments on the cover package "Driven to succeed" are being consolidated here: Town Square discussion: 'Driven to succeed'

What can or should schools do to ensure youth maintain the joy of learning? Share your opinion on Town Square.

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