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Class Struggle
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Posted at 04:35 PM ET, 09/14/2011

Students say: ‘Pressure? What pressure?’

We have had a lively debate in the Washington area, and other regions blessed with competitive high schools, about the demands we make on students.

Much of the talk has been about the documentary “Race to Nowhere.” The film’s creator, Vicki Abeles, told me its popularity is proof of a “silent epidemic” of “pressure-cooker education” nationally.

How much academic stress do students feel? Hart Research Associates just asked them. The answer was: not a lot. Of a representative sample of the high school Class of 2010, 69 percent said the requirements for graduating, including tests and courses, were “easy” or “very easy.” And 47 percent said they totally or mainly wish they had worked harder in high school. An additional 16 percent partially feel that way.

The Hart poll, done for the College Board, was not inspired by discussions of “Race to Nowhere,” College Board officials say, but it is relevant. It includes a question about the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs; those college-level courses and extra-long final exams that are often said to be crushing our youth.

My view is that although homework, tests and college admission can be too stressful for some students, the real failing of our high schools nationally is that they apply too little pressure, not too much.

I panned “Race to Nowhere” for leaving the impression that all high schools were grinding our youth into sausage. The film ignored the fact that the average teenager, according to University of Michigan research, spends less daily time on homework than it takes to watch one episode of “Glee.”

(Although there is no data to prove it, the affluent and college-oriented Washington area probably leads the nation in percentage of high-schoolers doing more than an hour of homework a day. But even here a sizable number do less.)

Of the Class of 2010, 44 percent wished they had taken different courses. Of those regretting their course choices, 40 percent said they should have taken more or higher level math courses and 33 percent said more or higher level science courses. Also, 37 percent said they wished they had taken courses that prepared them for a certain job.

The sample of 1,507 graduates, conducted by phone and online a month ago, included 43 percent who enrolled in a four-year college, 25 percent in a two-year college, 6 percent in a trade school or training program and 26 percent who did not enroll in school. Fifty-nine percent were white, 18 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black, 4 percent Asian and 3 percent in other categories.

“Race to Nowhere” was right to warn schools and parents that students should not be overloaded. I only wish the film had not gotten stuck on the bizarre notion that AP is unnecessary torture.

I asked Abeles about that. She believes it. She said the rigor that AP courses imposes “is mandated memorization and regurgitation of data at the expense of rigor attained through rich and engaging courses and deep learning.”

The 588 students in the Hart survey who, unlike Abeles, had actually taken an AP or IB course recently had a different view: 82 percent said those courses were more worthwhile than their other courses, and 73 percent said they were more interesting.

Some critics will say you can’t trust a survey paid for by the College Board, sponsor of AP. They are entitled to their opinions. But Peter Hart has been at this a long time. I worked with him on a survey he did for The Washington Post in 1974.

His reputation is solid. His results fit what I have heard from many high school students over the years and seem in tune with reality. U.S. high schools are not in trouble because they are too rigorous.

By  |  04:35 PM ET, 09/14/2011

 
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