Extra Credit: Toxic Tendencies in the Rush to the Top

(By Julie Zhu)
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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

The letter from Ann Harrington on her son's progress through middle school math ["Do Schools Push High-Performing Kids Too Hard?" May 7] and your comment that kids are not challenged enough disturbed me greatly. First, this whole mythology about the importance of taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade is just that, mythology. There is a correlation between taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade and college attendance, but it is not causation. This is a common error that people make, thinking that there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade will not cause you to go to college.

In Montgomery County, particularly in the affluent Bethesda-Potomac area, the drive for academic achievement is absolutely toxic. Twelve-year-olds should not be worrying about whether they are going to get into the right college, and their parents and teachers are doing them a grave disservice by continually reinforcing the message that they have value only as it relates to test scores of every imaginable stripe.

The tragedy of this educational system is that a lot of joy and real achievement does not occur because we have lost our understanding of what real learning and growth is about and how it happens. It happens in an atmosphere of engagement -- where students are supported, nurtured and respected. It does not happen when they are told that everything is about the grade, the test score, the rapidity with which they reach certain milestones (status symbols for their parents).

Kathy O'Neill


You and I live in Bethesda. I suspect many of our neighbors are cheering this well-written critique. Your point about pressure is a good one, but you go too far. As I said in my answer to Ms. Harrington: "I am willing to let parents like you and me, middle-class folk in Montgomery County, have our kids take it easy. The research says they will do fine no matter what kind of elementary school they attend." Bethesda represents -- this is a conservative estimate -- the top 5 percent of average incomes and the top 5 percent of public school quality in this country.

You say the link between taking algebra in eighth grade and college attendance is just correlation, not causation. Fine. In our community, you are probably right. But what do you say about the research that shows that low-income children given a chance to learn algebra in eighth grade are much more likely to attend college than those whose schools do not encourage that choice? Do you really want to take a chance with those kids' lives and say it is just correlation, and they will be fine if they get to algebra later than our kids?

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