The Secret Lives of Driven Kids
By Alexandra Robbins
Hyperion. 439 pp. $24.95
At a time when "underperforming" seems to be the sorry watchword of American education, it's unsettling to come across a book bemoaning the plight of the overachievers. Forget the impoverished teenagers stuck in anarchic schools that would shame the worst Third World potentate; it's the kids with a shot at Harvard who've really got problems. They have too much homework in too many classes, extracurriculars that require their leadership and parents who feel entitled to a sticker from a name-brand college on their car. And then there are SAT prep classes to attend, recruitment calls from Ivy League coaches to field and prom to dread.
At least, that's how Alexandra Robbins reports it in her latest book, The Overachievers . She spent three semesters in 2004 and 2005 at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, her alma mater and one of the top public high schools in the country, to gather evidence for her sweeping indictment of the "twisted values of an educational system gone wrong." While Whitman hardly seems like an appropriate first stop on a tour of educational dysfunction (its average SAT scores are more than 200 points above the national average, and 95 percent of its students go on to college), Robbins found ample evidence that its top students are overwhelmed by all that they have to do.
She follows eight students (four juniors, three seniors and one college freshman) who are all struggling to cope: Julie's hair is falling out; Ryland has panic attacks before physics tests; Audrey is so afraid of falling behind that she goes to school even when she's terribly sick. (Most of the names were changed.) And what's it all for? Admission to a top-ranked college. "As Sam explained to me in only our second meeting," writes Robbins, "if he didn't get into a school whose prestige reflected his exhaustive work and the nights he spent studying until three A.M., he would feel he had 'done a lot for naught,' even if he fell in love with a non-elite school that was perfect for him."
Robbins's strength is in the particular, in spending hours and hours with her subjects, earning their trust and serving as the scribe to their anxieties. Her description of Julie's elation at beating her own best track time is thrilling, while Frank's frustrated rage at his mother's dictatorial control ("You want [to] spend time with friends?" she screams on one occasion. "You are a social whore!") is heartbreaking. The agonizing over romances gone awry and test scores that don't measure up reads truer than any yearbook ever could.
But Robbins, whose previous books investigated sorority life and the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, stumbles when she widens her lens to what she says is a nationwide crisis of "overachieverism," in which high school has become "a competitive frenzy . . . a hotbed for Machiavellian strategy." While that is undoubtedly true for a subset of students from a subset of high schools gunning for a subset of very exclusive colleges, most students graduate blissfully unscathed. (Teachers and parents in schools across the land, not to mention Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and her No Child Left Behind acolytes, beg for such a plague of competitive frenzy.) Indeed, according to the Department of Education, the vast majority of students attend colleges that accept more than half of those applying -- and don't particularly care what club an applicant presided over as a high school sophomore.
In a clumsy attempt to document the universality of this overachievement crisis, Robbins subjects readers to blasts of facts on sleep deprivation, suicide, eating disorders, cheating, college admissions and Asian educational systems. She interviews students from New Mexico to Nebraska to the famously competitive New Trier High School outside Chicago. But throughout it all, she skates past how issues of wealth and privilege (and their opposites) play into her thesis. That becomes most obvious when she takes a lengthy and puzzling detour through the admissions process at elite Manhattan preschools. Yes, it's bizarre that the schools observe toddlers at play to decide which ones will make the cut, but she never makes the case that what goes on in these rarefied schools is relevant to anyone but the very rich.
And yet she has prescriptions for everyone: Colleges should dump the SAT and boycott U.S. News's college rankings (I once served as deputy editor for education at U.S. News but did not work on the rankings, thankfully); high schools should stop ranking students, limit the number of Advanced Placement classes students can take and allow them to get healthy amounts of sleep by delaying start times; parents should "get a life," and students should "accept that admissions aren't personal."
But in an age of rampant grade inflation, college admissions officers use class rankings and standardized test scores to determine whether there's a brain behind all those A-filled report cards. And few students really need to cut back on AP classes. The average qualified high schooler takes just one a year.
The Overachievers hardly inspires hand-wringing about the state of American education. In fact, this reader came away thinking that even these stressed kids would be all right. Not all of them got into Ivy League schools, and not all of them will have the world-changing careers that they imagine for themselves. (But really, who does?) Even the unhappy ones -- Ryland and Frank with their cruel mothers, Audrey with her crippling perfectionism -- had slowly begun to feel their way toward saner ground by the end of the school year. These kids -- these bright, hard-working, overachieving kids, these kids who should make every parent and teacher glow with pride -- will be just fine. ·
Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of Book World.