Town Square

Post a New Topic

Driven to succeed: How we're depriving teens of a sense of purpose

Original post made on Nov 18, 2011

Many Palo Alto adolescents spend their high school years in a contest for credentials, accumulating grades, scores and accolades they hope to leverage into a rosy future at a top college. For many, this is an intensely competitive, stressful process that crowds out other activities important to healthy development. ==B Related stories:==
• [Web Link Part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?]
• [Web Link Part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?]
• [Web Link Editorial: The achievement treadmill]
• [Web Link View entire package as PDF]

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, November 18, 2011, 9:10 AM

Comments (71)

Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:44 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

To facilitate discussion all comments on the cover package "Driven to succeed" are being consolidated on this thread.

Posted by Agree
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

Wow, I'm glad to see this is getting attention. My daughter was in a soccer league with many Paly and Gunn students. They formed great friendships over the years and all were great kids. We noticed something a couple years after graduation(2007) though. A surprising amount of her friends dropped out of really great schools for various reasons, but nearly all of them summed it up with "I was just so burned out". Most all went back after a year, but a few decided to "end the treadmill" I'll never forget when I heard that for the first time, and now I see it again, almost verbatim. There's damage being done on the treadmill. The issue with the Cal train suicides, and the realization of this college burnout syndrome should change things, but it probably won't. If I had to make the choice now, I'd keep my kid out of either school and opt for a private school where the kids can enjoy life a bit more without the constant fear and pressure.

Posted by Thank you
a resident of Ohlone School
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:42 am

Thanks for this wonderful piece. It hits on some very important points.

The big takeaway for me as a parent is to continue helping my kids be increasingly autonomous and internally develop their passions/purpose.

Because ultimately, the true measure of parent is "What does your child do on their own when you're not around?"

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:48 am

This is a new world which put our next generation in such a disadvantage ,that even the best of best can not find a job in our society,what can they do if they are slacking of because of the excuses of stress or the lack of skills and knowledge,look at other country which is just behind us,how do they ask their youth in high school and how do they take over our jobs from high tech to manufacturing,oh,boy,oh boy,they are not teens only teens in pa are teens.What a joke!

Posted by Thanks for a great series
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:34 am

This is a tremendously well-written series. Several of the quotes from the scholars, community members, and students really just nail it.

I was a high achiever in high school for the reasons cited here: fear of failure, fear of the shame of not living up to real or perceived expectations (even positively phrased ones like "You're going to win a Nobel prize one day!" can be very hard to bear if one hasn't the experience to understand such praise as being well meaning and not literal), and, ultimately, an inability to create an identity of self based on anything other than narrow, external definitions of success.

Excess drinking in college is not a healthy thing, of course, but it's a healthy thing relative to, say, suicide. For me, though, it likely would have been suicide had I not had a couple of lucky breaks. The first one was that I didn't do as well as I was used to in my first quarter of college at Stanford (but, fortunately, decided to wait to kill myself). I took two honors courses in science and math and struggled in both. I didn't know who I was or what I was going to do. Second, somehow I found the strength my second quarter to take a non-honors or -accelerated intro class: CS106A instead of X. Yes, for once I was not taking the hardest thing available. And I loved it! For the first time, I found something I *wanted* to do regardless of how good I was at it. And that saved me. For the rest of college and on to a PhD, programming -- creating new things, messing around with ideas at their most fundamental, just goofing off -- made all the difference. I went on to get B's instead of A's in all sorts of classes, and I didn't care, because I knew what I liked and what I wanted to do.

The other day, someone looked at my resume and asked: "Is that all your publications?" -- implying there were too few (which can be a problem for an academic). And I just chuckled and said, "Yep. All of them." I assume I won't be working for that guy. Big deal. Not. Amazing what having one's own internal view of success can do for a person.

Posted by Paula Sandas
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Thank you for this well-researched, insightful article, Terri. I appreciated the level of expertise and experience of those who were interviewed, and the wisdom that they contributed to this piece.
Developing a sense of purpose is often difficult in our driven, materialistic world. Students can feel a sense of failure if they don't make it to the Ivy League, on the road to becoming part of the 1%. Who will blink first to change the incredible benchmarks that students compete to reach in order to allow young people to find their passion and purpose?
I'm eager to get on to reading the ensuing installments.

Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Now the race to achieve meaning and purpose will become the stressed-out challenge for success?

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm

The purpose?Should that be a common sense in a teen or even a middle schooler? Why should it be such hard to dig it out while it is simply a fact or just a common sense. Should they already know they need to get into a good college and do fine with their subjects in order to get a job to live in this society starting from even middle schools? Should they already know that only if they can feed themselves then they can seek their personal Interests when they can fulfill their lives purpose? Should they know it already only after they do not need to worry about money they can seek their lives' purpose?Where are their parents?

Posted by TedC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I agree that this is a stellar piece of research about a key Palo Alto issue that has lasted for decades, really. Long ago, I recall that my senior class at Paly had few classmates who were not college-bound, and those who weren’t planning for college had family businesses to fulfill. Many of those families built the infrastructure we’ve used in Palo Alto. With regard to the research , this foundational information should help to work towards real solutions to problems that are far beyond Palo Alto. Globalization has far surpassed manufacturing and assembly topics and has long been a battle at the knowledge information level.

While I want to tell our students to “reflect” and to “get off the hamster wheel” if needed, I also must add that doing so may place them “far behind” in the knowledge race with their global peers. I have been around the world and see how students in China and India do not consider stoppage as an option, as it is synonymous with failure. I’m not agreeing with this and may be simply reporting common knowledge. However, the once-vast arsenal of United States “advantages” is now a lean cupboard. The U.S. university system remains the best, if only from a combination of quality x quantity. Schools now are accepting more foreign students than ever, due to a necessary combination of academic accomplishment and the ability to pay tuition. My recommendation for any students who wish to pause and think is to create a solid re-entry plan, use a formal “stop-out” arrangement with their college, make the most of their reflective time, and get back to the work.

Posted by a roundtable resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm

It's a wonderful pierce to read when I'm thinking how to help my kids to find "purpose of life" in this material world. I was very confused when our politicians were talking about American Dream. Often it means you become rich and famouse. In the broader sense do we have a purpose of life as a community, as a country?
It's also very interesting that I attended Stanford's Changllenge of Sccuess and developmental assets workshop by PTA. These are the subjects we discussed among the parents.
Good work. Can't thank you enough.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:50 pm

It is true to say that education does not only take place in the classroom.

Whether the students do calculus in high school or college, or even at all, is not the problem. Whether the students are competing academically with peers in other countries is still not the problem.

What is the problem is that our teens are failing in the non-academic education that they need to become fully fledged, contributing adults.

We need to teach our teens to be independent, socially aware, good mannered with adequate social skills, personable young adults who happen to also have good educations. The good education on its own is not going to get them good jobs.

In my opinion we are failing them in this. We are getting near the stage where the average PA teen needs to be driven everywhere, can't function without an ipod and iphone, writes in textspeak and fails to make eyecontact with the person they are talking to. Where are the teens who have after school jobs to pay for their fun, hangout at the park playing basketball or kicking a ball around with others - regardless of age, hanging around at bus stops waiting for a bus to take them to see a movie or shopping, or even being available to do some babysitting? Yes, I know we have some, but not a couple of high schools worth.

It is quite possible that the reason our jobs are going to foreign educated individuals is because they have a little more than an academic education. They have learned their stuff in the real world and know how to use their education in real life situations. They know the value of a dollar, a smile and a nod, a please and thank you, how to listen and learn from someone older and wiser and how to dress for a business meeting.

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

The fact is, "success" in a particular field is not for everyone. There are trade offs and costs associated with professional, personal, and other forms of success. It is YOUR choice. If you're not willing to accept the costs, you should not expect the success. YOU choose to pursue your "success" and you should be happy to do so. It is a hero's journey.

I ran a very large company. Was it rewarding? In some ways yes, in some ways no. But I accepted the downside, and on balance, I would happily do it again.

I think what is important is to find something you enjoy doing and feel is important. Then go after it. You will never feel burned out on a true hero's journey!

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm

All this is well and good, but I know someone who did film studies at New York University after High School in Palo Alto. This was out of an innate passion for video work and movies. That person did well at NYU and graduated a couple of years ago... but yet has to find a job in the field and only has small jobs.

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:25 pm

@ Resident of another PA neighborhood

You are right. I am proud to say that my daughter had a paying part time job while at Paly (she graduated in 2005), and none of the "resume building" hobbies. SHE wanted it this way and wanted to have nothing to do with the high school clubs. She went on to college in 2005, but not an IVY league (Oh, no how embarrassing! not). She worked part-time and had summer internships through much of her college career. When she graduated in 2009 she had a full-time job offer in her field waiting for her, she has worked there since, and she has been doing very well at work, was promoted early, etc.

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Awareness of life's purpose is based on high level of recognition, if one could not live on his own, can not find a meaningful job, cn not survive in this cruel world, how would they think about their lives' purpose and fulfill it at the next level. It is just like a homeless person, he can not find a place to hide when it is raining and we ask him why he can not live in a mansion in a snowing day.

Posted by Mac Clayton
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I think Professor Damon has it right. We are all happiest when pursuing something we believe has value for ourselves and the broader community. If "purpose" is that important to happiness and success, perhaps that's what colleges should screen for (as Stanford has taken a small step toward doing).

Thanks for a thought-provoking series.

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm

if the kids want to do their part in fulfilling their lives' purpose, then they need to make sure this purpose will provide food/housing for them first.Now even the majority of our adults can not do it, let alone kids in the real world unleds you are having family trust fund for your experiment opf life's purpose.

Posted by Another Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 6:58 pm

It seems that a lot of people in this town fear that if their kid does not get into a really good college, they will starve or be homeless. The winner take all world is getting closer to that, but we are not there yet. Our kids may not be able to afford a house in Palo Alto, but probably in another state if they are willing to work a bit and not have to live in the most expensive place. And, they might just be happier not living in such a competitive place. I loved the article.

Posted by This is FUN !!
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm

A decade and a half ago USA decided that we need not worry about low skilled jobs and let those be exported. Fine.

So we want high skill (high paying) jobs, but we do not want to challenge our students.

China and India are challenging their students;

What kind of jobs do we really want in US - I guess it is "none" - and we are doing quite good on that front.

Posted by product of paly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm

I was raised through the pausd public schools, go to a top tier university, and have felt the pressure of the system as it were. It's definitely the fault of the parents, and I feel like those who use connections to get their kids into universities for which they're unqualified is the most egregious problem... Live and work honestly, and students will have a smaller likelihood of getting burnt out.

Posted by Don
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm

A great article.

There will soon be a large need for skilled jobs such as mechanic, plumber, electrician, etc. in our work force as people retire. Such jobs are well paid after becoming a journeyman.

They also have lower stress levels, and one can take satisfaction in seeing his/her accomplishments daily. Unfortunately we have put a premium on getting a college degree even if there are few jobs in the major taken. Art History? 19th Century literature?

Not everyone is a gifted mathematician or engineer, but you can pursue something you like and do well at. Eventually someone will need your skills.

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:10 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:00 pm

What a valuable subject...too bad many parents around here will keep pressing their kids for the Ivy or bust route. News flash: there are lots of colleges and universities with special qualities and professors, interesting locations, worthwhile majors, alumni connections. One of the universities I attended was very enjoyable and distinctive but does not enjoy "high status and recognition" HERE so is not worth mentioning to others HERE. Sad.
I notice Stanford is trying very hard to be considered "Ivy" - even to the extent of Stanford students posting breathlessly on Harvard blogs about downer issues like student suicide! Hey, pay attention to us! We're ALSO stressful!"
I think they should give that up (pr efforts to create snob status) and try to "be themselves. But they won't because they are very status conscious, from what I read from their own publications. This causes young people to focus on the wrong things...

Posted by for love of learning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Educational excellence can be collaborative rather than dog-eat-dog competitive. In fact, I'd argue that the former are better-prepared workers for the next century. The educational model in this town, however, seems to be the latter.

I went to a top tier school, never realizing I was supposed to stress out about college admissions. I was horribly unprepared, yet ended up doing really well in part because I was curious, was there to learn and work hard, and wasn't burned out from high school. I was really motivated to take advantage of something I had never had the opportunity of before. I knew so many people who had advantages I could only dream of, who didn't do well because they were burned out. One girl actually told me that she worked hard to get IN, she wasn't expecting to have to keep working so hard. She was ready to give up not long after walking in the door. This was many years ago. Le plus ca change..

Are we being purposeful in how our educational environment is shaped in this town? We're doing a lot of reactionary stuff as a community, but what of the purposeful and proactive?

Posted by BabyAJMama
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:23 pm

What is missing in many of these children's lives is free time. A sense of boredom, if you will. Have we forgotten that boredom leads to creativity? Kids are constantly being shuffled from one activity to the next. There is no time to read a favorite book, use one's imagination, or to simply delve in a hobby.

Kids are stressed but what about the families? There is always a rush out the door every morning. There is no time to say a loving goodbye to one another. Then a rush after school to get to the next activity and then a rush through dinner and to finish homework.

I encourage families to read an article published by the Wall Street Journal in 2008 about how Finnish children don't start compulsory school until age 7. There are no standardized tests and very little homework at the high school level, yet they score the highest internationally in math, science, and reading.

Web Link

This article was the impetus that led me to homeschool my three children. My kids went to private school before I started homeschooling them this fall. What a difference it has made in the quality of our lives. My kids learned about ancient Roman history and Italian over the summer and we visited Italy last month to practice our Italian. We learn our core subjects, geography, Latin, and the kids still have so much time to just play. They have friends and stick with activities they love. My daughter practices the piano at her own leisure, and my son is a voracious reader of contemporary and classic books. We even have time to play strategic board games on a WEEKDAY!

Kids need to have more time to do the things they love and then they can understand their PURPOSE. Parents, please help your children get out of the rat race.

Posted by BS
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 19, 2011 at 3:00 am

After going through cancer treatment a couple of years ago, what I say to those that think life in PA is challenging or that our kids need to get good grades and go to an Ivy League college or else, is this: get yourself some perspective. Aim to be healthy, happy, find some passion in life, love and be loved, and do something to make the world better. We will all end up in the same place, Ivy League or not. Live each day to its fullest and be grateful for every single one of them.

One thing though: the article focused on high schools. Someone needs to look into the upper grades in our elementary schools. Yes, my 5th grader has already talked to me many times about colleges, saying "so and so wants to go to Harvard, so and so wants to go to Stanford". Seriously, parents??? Where are the kids hearing such things at such an earlier age??? Let your kids be kids! I don't think I even knew what college was at that age (let alone an Ivy League one!). And yes, I did go to one for grad school, after attending a state school in the Midwest (the horror!). My parents never pushed me, never told me to study, to do this or that, and I became very successful in my field, all by myself. The road to success is a marathon and like a runner preparing for one, a student should aim for peaking in due time rather than in high school than burning out too early and hitting the wall.

Teach your kids to be happy, to enjoy life, and to focus on the things that matter because life is short, goes by too fast, and is a terrible thing to waste on the treadmill or rat race.

Posted by This is FUN!! (sad)
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 19, 2011 at 6:16 am


Let me start by saying to BS that I wish him/her well in cancer treatment.

But lets understand one thing. We all live life without thinking that we are going to die someday. We are wired to think we live forever - until we get to 60+ OR we get a disease like cancer or something. We live on hope.

Lets not make our kids think way early in life that they have a very short life and that accomplishments and competitiveness are bogus. We will have done a big dis-service to our kids if we imbibe such thoughts.

Aspirations and hope is what we need to inject in our kids. Using cancer and such arguments is not fair to a growing and budding child.

Sorry I had to say this in this context- but I sincerely do wish you well.

Posted by Moira
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 19, 2011 at 8:28 am

BS, your comments are so valuable. My parents were college grads at a time when most parents were not. They always talked about me going to college, but never as if a particular school was the goal. They taught me to love learning and reading. They also showed respect for anyone who had a respectable job and did their best (gardeners, painters, skilled trades, secretaries, barbers, etc). I was lucky to go to good high school that had some kids go to Cal or Stanford and most go to local JC or State college, or to work right after high school. We judged each other on whether that person was a good classmate, friendly and not mean-spirited. We're lawyers, doctors, hairdressers and truck drivers and we're still friends 30 years later.

My sons are at Gunn now. I've tried to raise them the way I was raised, that college is important as an opportunity to study what you want and hopefully figure out your career. We have talks about Palo Alto, the good and bad. They understand that they don't live in a "normal" town, that your life isn't over if you don't attend the Ivy League. My Senior has been a good, not top student, but his work and his choices have been his own. His choice of college, major and career will be his own. He is not me and I don't derive my worth from his successes or failures.

I work in the school district, I have been bemused and saddened by all the kids in early elementary school who wear their status college sweatshirts and announce they are going to Stanford or Princeton, etc. What if that kid is a gifted artist, musician or wants to help people and be a paramedic or help animals as a vet? Those aren't the schools you would go to for that. Find out what your kid wants to do, not what you tell them to do when they're 8 years old. I often ask the kids who wear these sweatshirts "Did your parents go to Yale?". Usually not, they went to University of Indiana or San Diego State or whatever. Why aren't your kids wearing those sweatshirts? It is so phony. Your message to your kids is your school wasn't good enough.

Posted by not a fan of reckless competition
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2011 at 9:10 am


"A decade and a half ago USA decided that we need not worry about low skilled jobs and let those be exported. Fine.

So we want high skill (high paying) jobs, but we do not want to challenge our students.

China and India are challenging their students;

What kind of jobs do we really want in US - I guess it is "none" - and we are doing quite good on that front."

I agree with your more recent post that kids should not necessarily feel like their life is short and as result not pursue challenges, but there can be a healthier way to compete. There have always been healthier ways to compete, in anything,

The reason there are no jobs is actually thanks to extreme and reckless competition.

Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 19, 2011 at 11:23 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by whotoblame
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 12:26 am

At this age,teens have all sorts of purpose which could be changing all the time. It is very normal and noble that some of them are treating love above all and thinking it is their lives' sole purpose.Some of them are thinking they should be the prettiest of all in her class and treating her appeal like a most important thing. Some are thinking they need to learn and find a good job first regardless of their true passion.Some are thinking they must follow their passion now regardless of if the job of his passion would support him or not.As a teacher,we need to let them know the cons and pros of those,and with each case,there is absolutely nothing wrong with it,but we need to teach them the core value inoder for them to find nobel purpose,those value should be the honesty,the kindness,the .......

Posted by Johnny
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 20, 2011 at 10:15 am

I was glad to see this article, but I have to ask, "Oh, you JUST found out?" This has been an issue with supremely overrated Gunn that has festered for years and not gotten any better.
The reason I sound bitter is because I graduated from Gunn back in 2004. When I first went to high school, I had a burning sense of purpose. This clashed with the arbitrary ways of Gunn, and I started to doubt myself since I refused to go along with the charade and always saw through it all; that obsessing over credentials and college admissions (an anathema to true learning) is counterproductive to myself thriving as an individual.
As a result, I turned into one of the "escapists". From fear I turned to fun and from stress I turned to blindness.
I didn't graduate from Gunn, I *escaped* Gunn with the minimum requirements for a HS Diploma. Since I was so headstrong and allergic to acting against my will and sense of purpose, as a nonconformist I suffered and went through a lot but I've emerged stronger.
9 years later I'm working a decent job, the thought of college degrees and the like is completely irrelevant, and I have a fairly balanced life. The scars from Gunn remain.

Posted by student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Agreed with above.

I have been saying this exact same stuff on every article related to student stress and suicide and pressure since day 1.

Students are being pushed to go to god-tier colleges because parents think that not going to Ivy Leagues means we're going to end up as hobos.

Thank god that this year, my senior year, I found a class that I actually love to do, and has some 'practical applications' as my parents like to call it, or else I would be graduating without a single class that I truly enjoyed and would be going to college probably burning out like the kids in the story up there.

Parents are stupid to think that you NEED to go to some ivy league to be successful...

Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I think this issue is one reason it would make a difference if all PAUSD school board members actually had their own children enrolled in Palo Alto public schools. After watching our child suffer through the ridiculous demands of Paly's AP English class, our views on this issue are so different than someone who has not lived through it.

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm

@ Mom above,

I don't understand people who complain about AP classes. No one forces any student to take any AP class. So why take them if you can't handle them? You can even sign up for them and try them, but then drop them if they are too tough. So, I don't have sympathy personally for this kind of complaint.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 6:45 pm

@ Yes, but: Your solution to drop an AP class if it's too hard makes sense if it were an even playing field, but there is more going on here that you may not be aware of. In other high schools, AP classes can be a lot easier, with less homework (no annotating 800 pages of Tolstoy for example!), and easier to get a good grade. In another high school, a student may get a "3" on the AP final exam but an "A" in the class while here the student may get a "5" on the final exam but a "C" in the class. In an AP Calculus class there might be pop quizes where the material was not covered. Some teachers are known to only give out a limited number of A's and B's in their advanced classes. This certainly unnecessarily adds to the stress and discourages very bright students. And making these classes overwhelmingly difficult with loads of homework prevents students from being able to have any free time to be just teenagers.

Maybe you'd say just drop down a class, but these classes can be very slow and boring. My student did that at Gunn because AP History had a reputation of being extremely difficult. So she was making dioramas in 11th grade!

I've talked with a couple of people I know who have students in Los Altos High School and they tell me students there do not feel this enormous stress like they do here.

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm

"...why take them (AP courses) if you can't handle them?"
It is exactly this type of condescension that characterizes many in Palo Alto.

It's also largely incorrect.
For the record, most students taking AP courses are very bright. It is tougher TIMEWISE and sometimes subject-matter-wise, when a student has not been prepped in advance like so many. It is a matter of making ethical choices, in my view. More and more, we are seeing students who have had the way totally planned and smoothed in advance for them, sometimes resulting in an easier time (already have been taught the material) and much higher grade owing to Tiger Mom tactics. The ethical families have their kids do their own work and learn in the classroom (HERE) as opposed to the prior summer or with extreme, advanced tutoring schemes.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm

@johnny, thx for the interesting stuff you had to say.

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm

@ anonymous,

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

You are not entirely correct yourself.

We are not tiger parents, we never had our kids prepped for the AP classes, they actually have never had any tutors or extra help, yet they have loved their AP classes and thrived in them. Then, they were really happy to go on to college and feel they were well prepared for college unlike so many of their peers from other school districts who struggled once in college.

Again, if kids can't handle the AP classes they should not be in them. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

As I see it, parents are asking for the curriculum to be watered down, and for the district to practice grade inflation, just so that their own kids can amass whatever they think is necessary for their college application. Parents who do that are the ones who set up their kids for burnout and disappointment when in college, because their expecting their kids to take on more than they can. And this is wrong.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm


I do not think it is reasonable to say that people who criticize the schools want to "water down" the standards. This seems to me like a fear tactic designed to get people to stop talking honestly about their experiences. I think we need to have a healthy, informed discussion and I am glad to see this series might spark one.

I am happy to hear that your kids had a great experience in PAUSD. However, there are many kids like those who posted into this thread who, despite the fact that they like the AP classes and find them engaging also struggle with the homework load. There is a lot of peer pressure not to change lanes or drop a class. You can say that they shouldn't feel it, but I have heard it too many times to disbelieve it. Dropping down a lane or track is highly stigmatized.

Often administrators will not allow it, either, for space reasons or for reasons having to do with the idea that it would be "unfair" to let a student take a less challenging class. It is not always as easy to change lanes or drop a class as you are making it seem. And at Gunn, it requires you to actually find a counselor, get an appointment, wait for hours, all while missing your other classes.

I also really object to the accusation that those of us who are activists for school reform and reducing academic stress are "really" trying to advantage our own sub-par children. I find that accusation both upsetting and offensive. I don't know how many rude comments about my own kids have had to be deleted off this board in the past year. I personally got involved in this because of the suicides and so did many others I know. But many parents in PAUSD have felt that the pressure in our high schools has been too out of control for too long. Far from trying to advantage our kids, we have all kept silent for fear of embarrassing them. That's why some people post anonymously to this forum.

So please stop speculating about others' motives. We can disagree about the substantive issues without accusing those who disagree of bad faith. Those kinds of accusations are just an effort to stop the conversation, not to get it started.

Michele Dauber

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm

@ Michele Dauber,

Your points are well taken. However, again why try and take all those AP classes when students can't handle it? My older child never took AP History, nor AP English, because he knew the well known fact that these 2 classes are very heavy on homework and also that the AP English test is quite hard to pass. He focused instead on math, science and languages. Parents and kids have to be realistic. That's what is needed here, nothing else.

One thing I will agree with is that regular classes are sometimes too "weak", particularly in Social Studies. Maybe they should be beefed up, or maybe a third, intermediate choice should be offered. I would definitely go for that.

However, I still think that parents are the drivers here. They should not allow their kids to take classes that are too hard or that the kids can't handle. I certainly would not call for AP History and AP English to be eliminated because my kids felt they could not take them. It is also up to the parents to tell the kids that it's ACTUALLY OK not to take all kinds of APs. My kids have never suffered from not taking those 2 classes.

I still think that AP classes (and they are being revamped by the way) should be left alone and that parents are the ultimate filters who should limit their kids appropriately. After all, we sign the class choice of our kids.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 20, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Despite our differences of opinions, most of us who read and comment about these articles are parents who want the best school experience for our kids. I think schools (PAUSD or any others) can only do so much, and at some point parents make the big difference. I just read this article from Thomas Friedman in the NY Times. It's a helpful perspective.

Web Link

Posted by Limited opportunities
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2011 at 11:57 pm


Your'e lucky your son could focus on the Sciences.

At Paly if you're not in the Highest Math lanes, you're discouraged to be in Science after 9th grade. Math lanes pre-determined in 6th grade, when kids are 11 years old?

The Paly handbook has a grid detailing the predictors of success and pre-requisites for the Science offerings, which read like an olympiad, not opportunities in Science.

Since not everyone after 8th grade continues in the Highest Math lanes, likely 2/3 of students need to pour their hearts and souls into English and Social studies.

Posted by laura
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2011 at 8:19 am

Both of my kids graduated from Gunn and it was indeed a stressful time. I am glad to be done with the relentless pressure, competition, stress. My kids went to UC's and their friends all went to Ivy League schools. Guess what? My kids have good jobs here in the valley and their friends are struggling at ages 25 and 27, still figuring out what they want to do and living at home with the folks. Of course part of this is the economy and the fact that the friends majored in subjects in which there are no jobs available. Some are babysitting, working as nannies, walking dogs, etc just to keep busy. What's the moral of this story? I don't know but I do know we are doing it the wrong way by pushing them at Gunn into too many AP's, too many activities and not enough time for friendships, free time and fun.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 8:43 am

@Yes, but: You are missing the point. On the surface, you are right. If an AP class is too hard, then drop to a lower lane or don't take it. But AP Classes in Palo Alto often are far more demanding than in other high schools, with too much homework, unnecessary homework, limited number of A's and B's, pop quizes where the material wasn't covered. Los Altos high school students apparently are not feeling this enormous stress that we have here. Why not find out why?

And dropping down a lane, such as from AP History to the regular history, the regular course can be very slow and not really cover much history at all.

So why are our AP's so much more difficult than elsewhere?

Posted by Life at Gunn
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:32 am

@ Michelle Dauber,

I have children at Gunn who have not had the difficulties you share. Gunn has been flexible about changing classes. Counselors have been accessible too, easy to get email replies from and easy to set up appointments with before school, after school or during prep periods.

It makes me wonder, do you have a child at Gunn now or are you speaking from past experience?

As for APs, Gunn posts in its course catalog the number of homework hours students can expect so no one should be surprised. If planned right, kids can take multiple APs and have manageable lives.

There may be some Gunn kids who take on too much, but I haven't met any in my years there. My children's classmates are nice, social, hard working, multiple-AP taking, college-aspiring students whose lives do not include drugs, alcohol or cutting.

As for peer pressure, it's in every school. I am just thankful that the peer influence in our town is to get involved, work hard and do well in school. Visit high schools elsewhere and you'll see many kids whose peers influence them to do destructive things, to themselves and sometimes to others.

Posted by Wondering
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 10:27 am

@Michelle Dauber and pamom,

Has anyone done an audit of the AP courses to see if they actually hold to the 4 hours homework/week guideline and if grade distribution is reasonable?

Anecdotes are interesting, but data is more useful to manage anomalies.
Otherwise, "excessive homework" complaints will receive the "take a lighter load" response.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 11:32 am

@Life at Gunn

"There may be some Gunn kids who take on too much, but I haven't met any in my years there" -- It is true that I have not had a child at Gunn for a few years. But I find this surprising, since work overload is the number one complaint of students at Gunn according to their own survey data in many years of WASC surveys. But that's great for your kids. Same with counseling -- years of WASC survey data reflect deep unhappiness among students and parents with Gunn counselors and many many students and parents have told me that their student may wait hours or days to see a counselor, particularly a freshman or sophomore during the college prep months of the fall.


I think your suggestion for a homework audit is an excellent one. In fact, due to the efforts of We Can Do Better Palo Alto, the district's focused goals for 2011-12 include an investigation into the purpose and volume of homework with the outcome to be a district wide homework policy that will set standards. I do not believe we have previously had a system-wide analysis or audit of homework.

Grading is an issue that we hear about from parents all the time. Many people believe that the curve is set unnecessarily high and that grading is needlessly hard. In many of these classes all the students are really excellent and it is hard to distinguish among them. I am not sure why it is necessary to do so. At Stanford, for example, we recently eliminated grades in the law school (as did Harvard, with both schools following the example of Yale). This has meant less stress and less competition for students. One of the reasons we did so is that there is so little variation among our students that grading was an exercise in false precision, differentiating between students based on very tiny degrees of difference that had little substantive meaning.

One parent told me recently that at Gunn, the teachers take A students and turn them into C students, by which he meant that hardworking, smart, high achieving kids are given lower grades than necessary. Once that happens, they become discouraged and feel that the declining returns to effort do not justify the workload, and begin to work less hard, entering a downward spiral of less achievement and lowered expectations.

There is no need for high school to be a hazing ritual. We Can Do Better.

Posted by different
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm

With different majors come with different requirement,a law major does not require much math,but a science major such as computer science/physics major require rigorous training in high schools.How can we ask to low down everything when do not take into account of majors or students' future interests.That is a disservice for others,especially the jobs are concentrated on science in modern area.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I just remembered that we compiled some data on homework last year -- I can't find all of it right now but here are some numbers:

In March 2010, the district conducted another survey, in conjunction with a mid-point review of the Strategic Plan.

This survey was of parents and included many questions about student stress.

• 73% reported that their children are somewhat or extremely stressed by daily homework workload, with nearly 20% reporting extremely stressed;

Specifically regarding homework, there were some very interesting numbers regarding the number of hours per week spent by high schoolers on homework.

• 61% spend 11 or more hours per week on homework.
• 35% spend 16 or more hours per week on homework
• 15% spend more than 21 hours per week on homework

This means that that majority of our high school students are doing between 16 and 21 hours per week, or more than 2 hours per day 7 days per week, and that a sizeable number are doing much more than that.

The WASC surveys and the Strategic Plan surveys also ask questions about homework and are available on the district website.

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm

@Michele Dauber, I think you are confusing me with another poster. Please go back and review prior posts.

I know a lot of parents here claim their little darlings (and big darlings!) are geniuses and easily ace every AP class, SAT test, etc. with a yawn. Yes, there have been and are some very bright kids here. However, there are a HECKUVA lot of kids getting super-duper prepping that is very fancy -- even worldclass at times -- and this we have directly witnessed. We are in an extraordinary time for this, IMO.

There is often an over-sharing of the paper record with an eye to discouraging others. I advocate a return to modesty and manners in high school(less facebook bragging, please!)

There are some who have had accelerated attention since age 3 -- no kidding! -- with an eye to Ivy, which IS a parental choice. So it's legal but it WILL affect your kid, who does not have a nature deficit and played outside but may now suffer some anxiety when realizing s/he will not finish AP BC Calc in 11th grade and face ridicule from friends. Keep your stamina and pride and keep your head up. Still, it is tough when others have clever way to "outmaneuver" their peers and these were absolutely arranged by parents.
There are some kids who are just about fulltime projects, and that can lead to a very good paper record (scores CAN be raised when sophisticated prepping/handholding takes place) that the kid can't really own for him/herself but does use for college apps. Do you realize your teen (let's say a non-legacy) WILL be competing with these projects when s/he applies to Princeton or Stanford (schools your authentic kids actually likes/feels a match with as opposed to parent-picked schools the other kid has been optimally positioned for with regards to apps)? Thankfully, some top colleges are finding out some managed students don't quite match the paper record (or is unethusiastic about some things the parent devised -- EC's or subjects like the premed or BME) and this discrepancy is now starting to trip people up a bit. The classic one is to "win" a competition in, let's say music, and then throw the violin away right after, in grade 12. Still, for the most part, Tiger Mom methods are successful up to a point, others suffer unfairly by comparison (if you know how admissions work) and this is sad.

There is a line between parent-supported activities and virtually guaranteeing a strong paper record. In these times when college admissions are quite competitive, some tactics are being used that most would find unethical and sometimes, deceptive. Some students are made to apply to select summer programs and the parents keep quiet in the hope others will be unaware of these opportunities. Some students are set up in unusual EC's by parents. I think these contrived things go way beyond the costly college admissions services that only some can afford. They create an unpleasant atmosphere at times at our two high schools.

As I am past the age of having kids in HS here, I am over and out on this subject after this. I have posted since I happen to have a fairly current wide-across-this-nation perspective and also out of concern for the nice (younger or new to area) people here who live their lives authentically and who may be naive about what is happening. They will be placed in an unfair position and may be stressed and unhappy and it is important to understand what is happening. This situation disgusts me.

I have posted from prior experience, knowledge, and direct observation of a poisoning of the educational experience owing to increasing Tiger Mom tactics locally, which do not indicate authenticity in learning or life. Aside from directly witnessing a tutor dictating a HS paper to a kid, We also know this kid plagiarized/cheated in HS and was rescued by Daddy. (Win at any cost is the mantra). Some parents would have the kid own it, and learn from the experience (the pressure to cheat to win is great) but for top college admissions, there was a strong parental intervention. This kid was a national merit finalist.

I believe some parents do NOT respect PAUSD (witness the outside tutoring schemes and summer practices). Apparently, it's just a place to attend school and receive (not earn) grades. If they feel top AP courses are not up to snuff and the curriculum is weak, why do they not benefit the community and speak up and try to change things? Instead they go outside the system to prep for virtually guaranteed success - doing the curriculum in advance of taking it for a grade is deceptive, again IMO.

Such students can afford to be dismissive of their teachers and peers who are doing day to day work/learning in the schools (and this CAN take a lot of time). I have HEARD several students remark how they enjoy these competitive advantages. I am glad we didn't choose and "buy them" for our kids, but it's time to understand the two-tier educational system here.
Going to the school just for the grade rather than the education is what I saw a bunch of people doing. I also saw rather average kids nudged into favorable positions for their college apps and above-average kids who did their own work, college apps, etc. suffering to an extent from the fact they were doing the right thing. It is important to keep young people who do the right thing from becoming resentful of cheatin, gloating peers, and yet this can be tough.
After all, who was the publicly outed plagiarist...the student body president, PALY 2008, exposed by a MOUNTAIN VIEW HS student (oh, the horror!) over and out.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

@ anonymous

Sorry, you're right, I was answering "Yes But" who was answering you. My bad. All these anonymous postings make it hard to figure out who is who.

Posted by 111%?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm

"• 61% spend 11 or more hours per week on homework.
• 35% spend 16 or more hours per week on homework
• 15% spend more than 21 hours per week on homework

This means that that majority of our high school students are doing between 16 and 21 hours per week, or more than 2 hours per day 7 days per week, and that a sizeable number are doing much more than that. "

No it doesn't. Unless you have 111%, these numbers actually show:
39% less than 11 hours
26% between 11 and 16 hours
20% between 16 and 21 hours
15% greater than 21 hours
So, a (large 65%) majority are doing < 16 hours a week, which would probably work out to be less than 2 hours a day.

Michele, these numbers are bad enough without your attempt to exaggerate them.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm


And I agree with this post. There is a lot of cheating and a lot of for-pay prepping which is driving the curriculum ever higher. Meanwhile PAUSD sounds a lot like like Ann Richards' famous description of George Bush -- born on third and thought he hit a triple. These kids come to class essentially "pre-taught" and then score very high. The district uses this as evidence that (1) the schools are great; and (2) the classes are not pitched too high since a lot of the kids seem to learn the material mysteriously easily.

I don't however, share your anger at the parents who do these things. First, there are two kinds of tutoring: remedial and enrichment. A lot of kids are in tutoring just trying to catch up because the classes are going so fast and the teaching is so poor that they can't learn the material and are drowning. Second, there are the coaching/prepping parents. But in both cases, I don't necessarily blame the parents.

They are just trying to do what is right for their individual child given the fact that "everyone else is doing it." This is what arms control is all about. As the RAND simulations showed in the 1950s, no one country has an incentive to unilaterally disarm. Thus, an outside system of treaty-based monitoring and control is necessary. That is why the district leadership has to step up with policies and leadership.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm

@111% sorry you are right, I have the flu and just didn't read it carefully because I was in a hurry and am sick.

The right number is that more than a third are doing >16 hours per week. It's not a conspiracy it's just a typo. Relax.

Posted by Yes but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm

@ anonymous

"I also saw rather average kids nudged into favorable positions for their college apps and above-average kids who did their own work, college apps, etc. suffering to an extent from the fact they were doing the right thing. It is important to keep young people who do the right thing from becoming resentful of cheatin, gloating peers, and yet this can be tough."

What we need, then, is for the cheating to be uncovered, punished and/or remedied and prevented. Eliminate AP classes will only make the cheating happen elsewhere or differently. It will not eliminate it.

And while I acknowledge that there is tiger parenting here, and I don't like it any more than you do, there are also kids who are on the up and up and do well on their own.

Again, my kids took AP classes with no prepping, were not a project of ours. They chose everything they did, and actually skipped the usual club / community service / classical music route to build a resume. They did their own thing. They did not have perfect As, just good solid grades, and a great time taking challenging classes.

And, oh horror, they did not even go to Ivy league colleges. I don't believe going to an Ivy league college is necessary to live a fulfilling life and it probably backfires on students who went there thanks to their parents' hand-holding anyway.

I find that my oldest child who graduated from a ho-hum UC is now doing quite a bit better than many of his peers who went to Stanford or Ivy leagues. That's the irony of it all.

Still, would I want the opportunity of AP classes taken away? Not one minute. Do something against the cheating and playing of the system but don't take the challenges away from the kids who play by the rules.

Finally there is something very wrong with parents who can't accept that their kids won't necessarily go to Ivy leagues, Stanford or whatever top 15 universities.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Regarding AP classes, those districts that have left the AP program have not done so to eliminate challenging coursework. No one, not Ken not me not anyone associated with our organization, nor the Weekly, no one is suggesting that we eliminate challenging, engaging curriculum.

Many elite schools have started to leave the AP program in order to develop their own, challenging coursework due to the sense that the AP program privileges breadth over depth, leading to a lot of rote memorization of random historical facts (APUSH) or scientific minutia (AP Bio) without a lot of depth of understanding.

In those districts, such as Scarsdale, and those private schools leaving the AP curriculum, students still take AP tests and they pass at the same rate they did before. But they have better classes that are even more challenging, fun, and engaging.

So no one is trying to "water","dilute" "dumb down" or otherwise impair or impede the high end of the curriculum. We are suggesting that we can do better than APs. We can have both a challenging, deep rich curriculum and less stress due to less mindless homework.

And, I think it would improve the climate here if we could stop the incessant bragging about our amazing high scores all the time, particularly when we are failing our minority and poor students in the worst way. It is graceless.

As we work on our "caring school climate" focused goal, perhaps the Board members and Kevin and Mike Milliken and Phil Winston would like to take a moment to reflect on whether a school math department that actively sends the message that its poor and minority or disabled students are not wanted in Algebra II, or that they cannot become prepared for 4 year college, could ever have a "caring" climate. How are students in such an environment to feel "connected"? And how are other students, carefully observing the social stratification in this environment to feel "connected" to the school or to their peers who are in this category. A community should be judged on how it treats those at the bottom not on how it celebrates those at the top.

Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Michelle - In an attempt to keep the record straight and your use of Stanford Law School's no grading policy as a model to follow, I spent some time on their website. Unless this page is outdated it appears that the Law School did indeed go away from letter grades, instead moving to a H (Honors), P (pass) grades. It also states that there is a "strict" limit to the number of H grades that can be given - anywhere from 1/3 to 2/5 of the class. The page even mentions that this limiting of "H" grades is done deliberately and goes on to show a correspondence between this grading system and a traditional one. I would be willing to bet in most Honors and AP classes there are at least 1/3 to 2/5 of the class earning A's, so it would appear that PAUSD's grading policy is kinder and gentler than Stanford Law School's.

As this discussion takes place, I think it is important to not take things out of context. As for eliminating AP's I have spoken with people at schools that have done this and they have done so in order to increase the rigor of the course (and have not done so in math). The teachers at those school's wanted the flexibility to go deeper into some topics. If the students want to still take the AP tests (which all indicators including your comments suggest) then the students must learn the concepts that were not covered in their classes on their own (in addition to mastering the more in depth coverage of the topics from class)

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Right, that's what I just said about APs.

The limit to how many Hs can be given is not strict. In smaller classes, the professor has more discretion. But even going with our large 1L classes of 60 in which we are basically limited to giving an H to the top 1/3 of the class, everyone else gets a P. That is an enormous difference from the grading curve in a HS class, in which there are gradations from A+ down to F. I have no idea whether 1/3 of students in an AP class at Gunn get an A, but I really doubt that. No one has done an analysis of grading practices, though Board Member Barbara Klausner has called for one based on her belief as a Gunn parent and Board Member that you are mistaken and that grading is too hard. As she said at the retreat, in many schools, kids get an A in the class and a 3 on the test, but in PAUSD, our kids get a 5 on the test and a C in the class. So I am not sure you are right about that, but it is an empirical question.

My point is more general -- it is that all this competition is soul crushing and unnecessary. Elite schools are moving away from excessive competition, as this excellent series discusses. I am saying this as a highly competitive person -- I do not think that these instincts in myself are healthy and I don't want that for my kids.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm

The big point is that no one at Stanford or Harvard or Yale law school is getting anything less than P. There are no Cs or Ds. There is A and "not-A". That is a big difference. If students know that they won't be penalized with a low grade they will be willing to try out different subjects out of their comfort zone.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

@Palo Verde Parent: Let's say you are right, the H grade in Stanford's Law School program is limited. Even if that is true, there is a world of difference from being a law student at Stanford, and an AP student in high school. Here's why:

Just being in the Stanford Law Graduate Program is a huge honor and highly regarded, so getting that P is wonderful. That is a world of difference from high school classes which are covering a certain amount of material, and especially the AP's classes that have standardized exams nation wide. Given the talent here in Palo Alto, what if almost all the students in a given AP class master the material, receive a top 5 on the exam, BUT the teacher doesn't want to give out more than a 1/4th of the class A's. The surrounding high schools in the Bay Area might give out A's to students who have only mastered the material to receive a 3 on the exam. Something is out of whack. Add on to that unnecessary load of extra homework, pop quizes that are extremely hard (but helps the teacher to keep the number of students receiving A's and B's limited), this adds to the mix of making these classes very stressful.

The point is that if an entire class is good enough to receive that A, then they should.

Posted by Lets reduce the standards for all
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 22, 2011 at 11:16 am


So it appears from this discussions that the work load should be reduced and should be the same for all students.

We have to simply erase the fact that some kids are more inclined to academics and we should not encourage them to seek higher learning or a faster paced learning?

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2011 at 11:27 am

@ Michele Dauber,

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

On the point you made that PAUSD should follow Stanford Law's example to eliminate grades (or as the other poster corrected, to have only Honors and Pass grades), I don't think that will work in the high schools here. As you well know, Stanford Law is a highly selective school, with 99%+ students getting a job upon graduation. Even elite law firms have to compete very hard to get their graduates.

PAUSD high schools have no such luxury. They have to accept anyone who lives in the district, and only a relatively small percentage of their graduates get to go to the top colleges. What would you suggest to the college admission staff at a top college who are looking at dozens of applications from PAUSD students, all with the same "H" grades, and can only accept no more than a handful? They would have no choice but to disregard the grades altogether and go by the other criteria, which are often more subjective. I think this will only lead to less healthy competition, and more cheating.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 22, 2011 at 11:38 am


Just to clarify: I'm not suggesting that PAUSD drop grades. I only discussed SLS by way of example, to show that some elite, ultra competitive places are trying to find ways to reduce competition because it is unhealthy and inhibits learning. I will point out that the arguments you make against reducing the difficulty of the grading curve at PAUSD are the same ones that continue to be made in the law school context. Although it may seem to you that everyone at places like Harvard Law are guaranteed success by their credential, that view is not necessarily shared by people in that environment, particularly in this economy where students feel insecure and want the schools to sort them so that they can do better on the job market. Perhaps for those unfamiliar with law school I should say that law schools for many years had one of the most unforgiving grading systems in use -- a forced normal distribution.

So for years (and when I was in law school at Northwestern) schools took what you correctly describe as a population with virtually no variation in it -- everyone very skilled -- and distributed them along a normal curve (with a high mean of a B or so). That means that the majority of elite law students receive their first B of their lives in the first semester of law school, even though their work was often only minutely different from those with As. This sorting function was seen as essential to the purpose and mission of the elite law school every bit as much as it is today seen as part of the inherent purpose and mission of the elite high school.

But things can change. So when I say "even elite law schools are reexamining competition for grades) what I mean is not PAUSD should do exactly what SLS did -- what I mean is, if law schools, which have been such centers of extreme grade grubbing for decades, can reexamine grading and competitiveness, then so can we.

Posted by famous
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2011 at 11:56 am

Stanford,Yale,Harvard are now famously known to students and parents that they are doing grade inflation that is why they all want to go there, easy and still get good reputation. Try Princeton,MIT,Cal Tech,Berkeley, they are doing serious grade deflation. Every school is different.Try not treat them the same.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm

@Lets reduce standards -- that's an either/or argument which doesn't hold water. No one is suggesting reducing the standards or quality of the high school courses. What is being discussed is that AP courses are unnecessarily difficult in Palo Alto high schools because for some reason teachers feel compelled to keep the A's and B's limited.

Compare our courses for example to Los Altos/Mountain View high schools. AP English or AP History at Los Altos High School still covers the material that they should but Los Altos High School students are not as stressed out as ours because they don't face unnecessary homework, pop quizes where the material is not covered, etc.

This is an area where the schools could look at these courses and reduce the stress. And, definitely, keep the quality.

Posted by Ike R
a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Here are techniques one Ivy League university is using to make learning the priority, not inducing stress. The world after Gunn or Paly may not be quite what some parents expect.

"As a university, we can make a difference by being a place where all students can find their passion, be proud of their accomplishments, and succeed.

Extreme competition and stress can lead to increased depression, antisocial behavior, and substance abuse. Isolation is a factor in suicide as well as in violent behavior. Social connectedness is a predictor of well-being, even more so than income or educational attainment.

Most faculty agree that some level of student stress is a motivating force but wonder what can be done both inside and outside of the classroom to help minimize unnecessary stress. Group work decreases stress, fosters team building, and combats the isolation."

Posted by Malissa
a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

I have worked as a Guidance Counselor in a high-achieving school and district for over 10 years and it is astounding to me that everyone feels more comfortable blaming someone else for what seems to me a problem we need to own collectively. In this economy, there is no doubt that parents are stressed out and nervous about the ability for their child(ren) to get into a good college and find a job. What I see one of the problems to be, both in our student and parent population, is a narrowed view of 'success' and 'good college.' Year after year, we see the same 15-20 colleges appear on the college lists of the students we work with, especially those in the top 1/3 of the class. Oftentimes, the reason students provide for wanting to apply to theses colleges is that the college is 'ranked,' 'have a top xx program,' or 'it's been my dream...' I have worked with families who become upset and sometimes offended that I suggest they look more broadly, perhaps to include colleges such as Arizona State University, Cal State Monterey Bay, or the University of Oregon, to round out their list and provide the student with options. This is a battle that we continue to battle and will most likely continue to lose until families and communities begin to re-define 'success.'
It is true that AP curriculum rigor may vary from school to school, but this is not unusual and is true of non-AP and even courses at college as well. I cannot tell you how often I personally heard when in college to take ‘this professor’ instead of ‘that professor’ because there was less homework. Though some AP teachers may take ‘rigor’ a bit far, keep in mind that AP = College Level work and should be more demanding than non-AP courses. We advise our students/parents to allow 1.5-2 hours per AP course, per evening for homework, reading, and studying and I believe that this is not an unreasonable amount of time given that it is a college-level course. Success at our school, sometimes comes down to time-management and math; 4 AP courses x 1.5 hours = more time than I realistically have in my schedule. We advise parents to not allow their student to push themselves too hard, and to consider the balance between academic rigor, extracurricular involvements, and personal interests (i.e. being able to read a book, just for fun), but we cannot quantify the exact number of AP and honors courses a student ‘should’ take because each student is different. When parents, students, and school staff begin to work together to identify courses, goals and find a college that fits a student’s interests and strengths, regardless of ranking or selectivity, there can be a happy balance of challenge, preparedness, and purpose.

Posted by Zoo Keeper
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Perhaps we could get a "Tiger cub" club house, where kids can escape and enjoy life without the pressures put on them by their Tiger moms?
Oh, and before someone FREAKS out, I use the term Tiger mom and Tiger cub as racially neutral. Any mom or pop can mess up a kid by being a "Tiger" parent.

Posted by @Ike R
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 24, 2011 at 8:48 am

You quotation regarding one Ivy League using certain techniques is a verbatim quote from a "Union College, NY" handbook on:

Recognizing and responding to Students in Distress. Please see pp 22 of the manual. Unless you consider Union College to be Ivy league.

Posted by Citizen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm

All of this has been said before.

e.g.: Every young man needs an Odyssey. (See Homer.)

"Youth is not made for pleasure, but for heroism" --Paul Claudel.

Jacques Barzun points out, in "Dawn to Decadence," that wars throughout history have been fought mostly by teenagers.

What are all of the above, if not examples of Youth's fundamental need for meaning?

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Worried about the cost of climate change? Here is some hope.
By Sherry Listgarten | 23 comments | 3,389 views

Two Hours - 75,000 Meals – Wanna Help?
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,859 views


Sign-up now for 5K Run/Walk, 10k Run, Half Marathon

The 39th annual Moonlight Run and Walk is Friday evening, September 29. Join us under the light of the full Harvest Moon on a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon. Complete your race in person or virtually. Proceeds from the race go to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, benefiting local nonprofits that serve families and children in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.