By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 21, 2006
Be careful when you visit Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. It is full of unhappy, overworked teenagers. Julie went into a tailspin when her private admissions advisertold her she had no chance of getting into Stanford. Frank's mom would not let him take anything but Advanced Placement courses. Sam agonized over the fact that he liked colleges that were not on the top of the U.S. News & World Report list.
Julie, Frank and Sam -- only their first names were revealed -- are real people whose stories are the best part of Whitman alumna Alexandra Robbins's new book, "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids." It is well written, but also part of a spreading delusion, popular in our wealthiest neighborhoods, that the stress we see in schools like Whitman is a national problem that needs fixing right away.
"Overachiever culture affects not only overachievers and the college application process, but also the U.S. education system as a whole," Robbins writes. Part of the insanity, she says, is the elimination of recess in 40 percent of U.S. schools and a rising teen suicide rate. Reviewers and the talk shows welcome Robbins as a Yale-educated Jeremiah and praise her book. "I couldn't get enough of it," said the New York Times reviewer. The Library Journal said the book was "highly recommended" and Time magazine called it "rather terrifying."
I have spent a great deal of time interviewing students and parents in the 20817 Zip code, where Whitman is located, and similar neighborhoods such as 10583 (Scarsdale, N.Y.), 60093 (Winnetka, Ill.) and 91108 (San Marino, Calif.) News editors and book publishers are susceptible to Robbins's argument because many of them live in such places, where family incomes are in the top 5 percent nationally and talk about school stress in rampant. It would be almost a relief to many educators if these families, and their highly motivated students, were typical and overachievement were the greatest threat to high school education today. But the sad truth is quite the opposite.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national achievement test, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant the last 30 years. One of the reasons for this, many educators say, is that students, educators and parents have bought into the notion popularized by Robbins and other social critics that American teenagers have too much schoolwork and should be allowed instead to read for pleasure and watch the sunset and think deep thoughts.
But how, exactly, are they using their time? Robbins is quite right about Whitman. Its students are frequently taking five or six AP courses and putting in four hours a night or more on schoolwork. What Robbins and the parents and students in such communities fail to see, however, is that they are in the uppermost 5 percent in homework, just as they are in housing square footage, money spent on vacations and stock market investments. Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare.
UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute regularly asks about 400,000 college freshmen how much homework they did in high school. About two-thirds say only an hour a night or less. Remember, these are the homework habits of students who went on to college. The one-third of high school graduates who weren't preparing for higher education were likely to have had an even lighter academic load.
And what of that overload of AP courses? Newsweek's annual high school rankings indicate that only 5 percent of U.S. public high schools have students averaging more than one AP test a year. The demands made on our most disadvantaged students in the inner cities, who are almost never mentioned in Robbins's book, are pitifully below even the low standards for our average suburban neighborhoods. Some educators think this lack of academic challenge is one reason why nearly half of college students eventually drop out.
If they are not doing much homework in high school, what are they up to? The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research collects time diaries from American teenagers. These documents make clear our youth are not taking long walks in the woods or reading Proust. Instead, 15- to 17-year-olds on average between 2002 and 2003 devoted about 3 1/2 hours a day to television and other "passive leisure" or playing on the computer. (Their average time spent in non-school reading was exactly seven minutes a day. Studying took 42 minutes a day.)
Robbins's book is carefully annotated, but some of her sources betray her. She cites People magazine for her assertion that 40 percent of schools have eliminated recess. People does not give a source for its information, but the only report that comes close was by the American Association for the Child's Right to Play in 1999. Rhonda Clements, the association's past president, said the actual statistic is that 40 percent of P.E. teachers surveyed said their districts were cutting back or rethinking recess. Robbins reported a "114 percent spike" in the suicide rate of 15- to 19-year olds between 1980 and 2002, based on a Post report of a gifted education newsletter.
University of Virginia education professor Peter Sheras, an expert on teen suicide, said "although the suicide rate among teenagers has increased significantly since 1980, much of the increase was in that first decade." Since the mid-'90s, when Robbins says overachieving began to explode across the land, "the rate of accomplished suicides has remained steady," Sheras said. A USA Today column recently noted that the highest attempted suicide rate is among Hispanic girls, few of whom attend Whitman High.
The problems of stress in our highest-achieving high schools are real, even if Robbins and other critics overlook the jokes and happy teasing and long talks with friends that make the overachieving teens I know seem healthier than they are made out to be. Many of these bright young people -- like Robbins, just eight years out of college and already the author of five books -- choose stressful lives in part because they enjoy them, just as their parents do.
We should make sure they don't harm themselves. Robbins is right to lambaste parents who insist that their children do nothing but AP and tell them they must get into Princeton. But keep in mind that our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little.
The writer covers education for The Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.