Palo Alto High School is one of the USA’s most prestigious public secondary schools. Three boys from the Palo Alto school district have killed themselves this year. Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame?
The extracts below are from an article in this week’s Observer/New York Times international weekly.
“Intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.
In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient – a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.
“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”
Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”
But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.
“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.
Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.
“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress . . .
There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)
“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”
“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” [Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent] tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”
Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”
Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.
One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.
Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.
The USA, of course, isn’t the only society that engenders such terror or creates hypercompetitive school systems. We see similar things happening from Southport to South Korea, from Sheffield to Shanghai, from Truro to Tokyo. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) has driven so much of what’s afflicted schools, students, teachers and families throughout the world.
Psychologist and child therapist Professor Tanya Byron has spoken out recently about the detrimental impact of high stake-exams on our young people in Britain – a reiteration of what she said at the Festival of Education at Wellington College last year:
Change is sorely needed.