Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Overachieving overstated? 

Jay Mathews reviews Alexandra Robbins new book The Overachievers, and thinks the problem of stressed out high school seniors is overblown.
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.

Are news editors susceptible to a fallacy of composition? Perhaps so. Students do little homework, Mathews reports, and HERI's 2004 survey shows over forty percent of high school students are bored with their schools. Less than 1 in 5 of women and 1 in 8 of men study ten hours a week in high school. Mathews and Joanne Jacobs are right -- students do too little in high school, not too much, because we do not ask enough of them.