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.

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Posted by possible correction
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 7:02 pm

"being in the 25th percentile academically translates to the 75th percentile in California"

I think the 25 and 75 should be switched, though I could be wrong.

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Posted by it is correct
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

@ possible correction

No, it is correct. A Palo Alto students who is in the 25th percentile of Palo Alto students for SATs results actually is in the 75th percentile of all California students taking the SATs.

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Posted by Lucinda Abbott
a resident of University South
on Nov 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm

The leadership for this has to come from everyone involved on the lives of our teens. We parents must change our thinking and the way we talk to our kids. Teachers and administrators must be even more outspoken than they are now. And colleges and Universities must stop the game of oneupsmanship they are currently playing with prospective students. Everyone can do something to help.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 27, 2011 at 10:52 am

Arriving into Palo Alto from overseas I am bemused by how people live their lives here. From middle school the joy in childhood fast disappears. Sports are super competitive, it's all about winning and not having fun. My son who is very athletic tried tennis, soccer and flag football but the yelling from the sidelines, sit ups if you dared to have a 'chat' and sitting out of the game if you didn't measure up has just about killed off his enthusiasm for any type of team sport.
'Play dates' are hard to come by, finding a fellow student who hasn't got back to back activities and tutoring is a tough one.
Creativity, imagination and having fun breeds innovation and gets kids to think outside the square, not sure if Palo Alto school foster those attributes as the kids are just too busy doing homework!
At middle school we allow one hour a night of homework, no more.
We want our kids to have a childhood, make dens in the lounge, play monopoly, do craft and generally dream and stare into space.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm

PAUSD School Board degrees:

Dana Tom: Stanford
Melissa Caswell: Brown
Barbara Klausner: Stanford (and child at Stanford)

We need to elect people on the School Board who do not have Ivy League level degrees. These members are fine with pushing children to excess in academics because they were pushed and could handle it.

I heard that they have considered mandating world language as a core class in middle school. World language is not an easy subject and not all students are ready for the discipline in learning a new language.

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