Education Chat

Student Academic Pressure: Too Much or Too Little?

Our guests discussed whether today’s students are overburdened with academic demands or not being pushed hard enough in school.

Student Academic Pressure: Too Much or Too Little?
Oct. 4, 2006

Denise Clark Pope, a Stanford University lecturer who has written about the effects of stress on students; and
Herbert J. Walberg, an emeritus research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat to discuss the question: Are today’s students under too much academic pressure or not enough?

Opinions vary widely on this question, as shown by the comments and questions we have already received for this chat. Based on the large volume of those comments and questions, this chat looks to be a great discussion. So let’s get started ...

Question from Cheryl Gray, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB):
For Denise Pope: We are learning about the positive effects of high expectations on student achievement. Is stress an effect of increased expectations for successfully completing more challenging coursework?

Denise Clark Pope:
This is a terrific question: Often educators get confused by our message to reduce undue stress on students. We are not advocating for “dumbing down” the curriculum or for lowering expectations overall. When you have high expectations for students, you do often see positive effects when the teachers scaffold the learning for the individuals and work to authentically engage students in more challenging coursework. This goes back to Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development -- or the “just right” challenge that Stipek discusses. The trick is for educators to find that ‘just-right’ challenge for each student and to help the individual reach new heights. So, some -- appropriate stress-- can lead to greater learning. The problem is when the student perceives the challenge to be too great, doesn’t have an advocate to help overcome the challenges, and/or doesn’t have adequate resources to complete the work on his/her own. That’s when the challenge becomes too stressful and we do more harm than good.

Comment from Joe, Rueff, President, Eye2theWorld, Inc.:
I have had more than 50 years working in formal education. In that time I found the concern was not so much the amount of work as it was the kinds of work. If students are caught up in what they see as fascinating, meaningful tasks I can’t see that there’s a problem. Basketball players don’t gripe about having to shoot 500 practice free shots per night. But the challenge is making work relevant in the lives of the students.

Question from Jennifer A. Thompson, Parent, St. Louis MO:
With so much emphasis on student academics do you believe this pressure contributes to the excessive dropout rates occurring throughout the country?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Some research, though I’d like to see more, suggests that higher standards do not diminish retention. Higher standards do mean more learning, greater learning, and probably better jobs, and even retaining high tech jobs in the US.

Comment from Terry Meade, math teacher, U.S. Grant H.S.:
Do you not see the reason that other countries are beating the U.S. now? I mean the fact that other countries have parents that feel education is important and the U.S. parents do not. Only about 1 % of my students could have passed a math course if they had went to high school with me. You have to water everything down just to get some students to be able to pass. Terry Meade

Question from John Shacter, consultant and teacher, Kingston, TN:
Doesn’t the answer depend upon the TYPE and QUALITY of curriculum and teaching? I would guess that -- if we were truly preparing our students for success in the wide open, competitive world -- the work would be much more interesting, and we would have much fewer complaints. John Shacter; consultant and teacher;

Herbert J. Walberg:
I agree.

Question from Margaret McIntyre, former BOE member:
Could the predominance of “child centered K-8 constructivist” education practices result in skill gaps, especially in math and reading, which leads to “pressure” to catch up, beginning in high school as students and their parents recognize the demands of college competition?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Yes. We need “instructivism” not “constructivism.” Students need definite standards, lesson goals, assessment, and feedback about classroom and home work. Middle class children are harmed less by constructivism since they tend to be more intellectually stimulated at home and in outside school activities.

Question from Christi Willison, Vice-President, Griegos Elementary PTA:
Is much research looking specifically at stress in children grades 1-3? 6, 7, and 8 year olds at our school are asked to do up to 45 minutes of homework per night and many parents feel this is too much.

Herbert J. Walberg:
For those of us who’ve raised children, we know that they have endless energies. They may need variety including recreation, athletics, etc., but many wind up surfing the malls and Internet and in front of television. Better to have them engaged in academically constructive activities.

Question from Andy Paulson, Assistant Principal, Hill Country Middle School:
I have not read in its entirety Mr. Kohn’s latest book, but I already have a problem with several items in the book. I applaud his effort and ingenuity in writing about a subject that is guaranteed to sell, however, he makes generalizations and false accusations about public schools. My simple question is, how much homework is appropriate for students? Do you have a recommended resource to help guide us in an action research plan we are implementing this year over the topic of appropriate amounts of homework for students?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I believe that the anecdotal approach in Mr. Kohn’s book is interesting but not persuasive. I think it’s difficult to say how much homework a student should do, but it obviously depends on several factors. Older students, for example, can benefit from larger doses, but even younger students can benefit from homework that is engaging and when their parents encourage them. Common sense and psychological research suggest that within limits, more is better--up to an uncertain point. I can’t think of a single authoritative source but many parenting books can provide insights and “how to” insights.

Comment from Jerome Dancis, Ph.D. (math), Associate Professor Emeritus, Math Dept, Univ of Maryland:
There is NO contradiction.

The key phrase is “of questionable value": A new crop of highly publicized books suggests American students are overburdened with academic demands, many of questionable value. The key phrase is “of questionable value”.

It should not be about whether today’s students are being pushed hard enough to learn things “of questionable value”.

Most students in the United States are falling behind their international peers because most students in the United States are being taught far less, with terrible textbooks, with principals assigning teachers to classes, without checking that the teachers are indeed qualified to teach the courses. Be wary of blaming the victims, namely the students and their parents.

Q. What can be done to help students deal with academic pressures? A. Provide students with a good curriculum, with good, not terrible textbooks, with teachers who are truly qualified to teach the courses.

Question from Sam Michalowski, Research and Evaluation, Collaborative Programs, CUNY:
This topic is framed incorrectly. Its not whether students have too little/much pressure; its whether the pedagogy is sound and the material developmentally appropriate. To what degree is the issue of pressure on students a function of a service model of education?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I agree that sound pedagogy is important. So is sound homework policy: It should be measured, relevant to lessons, engaging, graded, and appropriate for students. If “service model” means that educators should entertain students, I respectfully disagree.

Question from Rhonda Stone, parent:
I think kids need pressure. However, I also think they need good teaching. Behaviorism seems to be the prevailing philosophy among American teachers (establish expectations and reward students for meeting them). Why isn’t more being done to educate teachers in constructivist teaching methods (students construct knowledge by being actively engaged in the learning process)?

Denise Clark Pope:
I know that several schools of education across the country teach constructivist teaching methods (including here at Stanford). I think part of the problem is that these new teachers, trained in these methods, face many challenges when they get into the field. Perhaps the mentor teachers use and require from them more traditional methods, perhaps the district requires more “coverage” in order to meet demands of standards or high stakes testing. It is truly difficult for a new teacher to resist and actively defy expectations for traditional teaching. I know here at Stanford we work with new teachers once they get out of our program to help them resist pressures to go back toward a more teacher-centered, traditional approach.

Question from J. E. Stone, Ed.D., President, Education Consumers Foundation:
If overly stressful schooling is a major problem, where are its adult victims? If there is a PTSD-like fallout to overly-rigorous schooling, I have never seen a case of it. To the contrary, I hear adults express appreciation for the demands placed on them by teachers and parents. Moreover, I hear parents say that they wish their parents had put more pressure on them to study and make use of their educational opportunities. In my view, whatever risk is posed by pressures to study, a far greater risk is posed by insufficient effort and its life-altering consequences. Do you agree?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Yes, I agree and wish more educators would.

Comment from suzi:
I believe that we miss the boat in having lax standards at the elementary/middle levels. By the time students are in high school, parents should no longer be the motivating factor for success (as suggested that parents should push their hs aged children). They must begin the process of self-motivation that leads to success at an age when they will be supported NOT PUSHED. If they fail, then they own that failure and will have time to right it prior to college or work. However, when parents can and should have that authority -- at earlier grades -- much time is spent on developing “socialization” skills in the middle grades or “equity” in the elementary grades -- and the habits of success, even when a parent is pushing -- are not difficult to achieve for smarter children.

Question from Miles Myers, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Several studies have suggested that for many students the stress arises from an aptitude-based academic program in K-12 schools. That is, the timed-tests of aptitude measures (producers?)have been translated into timed-units of academic instruction in K-12 schools. Students who work at a different time-rate fail. Thus, schools should be reorganized around an effort-based system, allowing different rates of time to complete a unit. I think think tbis idea originates from John Carroll in an old paper on how to think about aptitude. Do you know of any schools that have reorganized to become effort-based? How does an effort-based system actually work in a time-based (4yr high schools) system?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Benjamin Bloom invented just such a system, called mastery learning, which showed good results. The system, with the exception of some technologies and assessment, remains in lockstep.

Question from Katie Groberski, 2nd grade teacher, Charles Reed Elementary:
I have received concerns that I am not sending home enough homework. My philosophy is that if we are able to finish our work in class then they do not have homework. Am I not taking advantage of an opportunity to practice? Should I still be sending home work for them to do? The students seem to be fine. Please Help!

Herbert J. Walberg:
I suggest that you raise your standards.

Question from Sarah Minnick, Social Studies teacher:
What kind of pressure is put on students, especially those already struggling, by the numerous standarized tests that are administered throughout a given school year? These tests are on top of their regular academic load.

Denise Clark Pope:
Sadly, these standardized tests often are a cause of stress for students. One school in New York added up all of the testing hours for the past year, and it turned out to be a total of over 3 straight weeks of testing! Crazy! In any case, wise teachers know how to calm students down about these standardized tests. They know how to help students with test anxiety -- explaining that most of the exams do not have high stakes for individual students -- but rather help to form an overall picture of school success. Teachers can help with breathing exercises, frequent food breaks, and some minimal, basic test prep -- but really, as a country, we need to evaluate the long-term consequences of all of this testing. Are we causing more harm than good?

Comment from Justus Awich, Teacher:
How much is too much in education demands? Our students have very few people with education as role models. What they have as heroes are people on the television screens who capture their minds into believing that only small violent things matter. Our students will come to class to shout insanities at the teacher and yet feel like the teacher will just absorb these insults. Our students have more than enough instruction which teachers try to model to suit their home taste. A taste that is misplaced. There is no way teachers will get into most of our students environment to make them get interested in education. The student stress is not coming from academics. It must be coming from the bombardments by entertainment, other commercial industries and family.

Question from ShirleyPoteat, Teacher, Boiling Springs Junior High:
If students were all capable of becoming doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc... our society would collapse. We need everyone!!! Do you not agree that the problem with education in America is the failure to recognize and respect the differences in intelligence and capabilities of the individual student? We place the same stringent standards (NCLB) on all students, which inevitibly sets up a huge number of students for faillure. No child should be left behind, but we must realize that not all children can travel the same distance either and it is sometimes the journey, not the destination, that is important.

Herbert J. Walberg:
I agree that students vary in their intellectual and other capacities as well as their dilligence in carrying out grinding effort required in law and medical schools. I do not agree, however, that US standards are stringent. Most state standards, which count most in identifying failing schools, are far below the National Assessment of Educational Progress standards and the standards of other economically advanced countries. Whether we agree or not, NCLB is the law of the land, and many citizens think we need to raise standards.

Question from Pam Cockrell, Mathematics Teacher, Ashland High School:
In my classroom, I find that students are willing to work hard to get something valuable. The rote memorization that fills the lesson plans of many courses does not make education appear valuable. Do you think the cookie cutter course work that most students are forced to regurgitate before fully digesting might be the reason some have to be forced to learn? I find that my students are motivated by learning when I create an environment that allows them to think and explore as well as practice. Even young students know that life does not come in sets of 35 problems repeating the same two or three steps. Do you think when the activities in the classroom are relevant to the learner, the student will be the one demanding to be educated? I think students, even at a young age, are very capable of understanding much more than we attempt to teach them.

Herbert J. Walberg:
See my previous answers. Knowledge and understanding go together. I certainly don’t advocate foolish, needless repetition.

Question from Mircea Ghita, teacher, Humanities HS, NYC:
In my opinion, the volume of knowledge a student is required to know is too little. If my assertion is right then could this reality make our country lose its supemacy?

Denise Clark Pope:
This is an interesting question. Actually, it depends on the KIND of information the students are expected to know. There is no way that any one human being can memorize all of the nitty gritty facts in every subject area these days. It is most important that we teach students skills -- thinking skills, literacy skills, math skills, and media literacy -- how to find the facts they need to know, discern if the source is credible, and figure out just what to do with these facts once they find them. If you buy into this argument, then the actual CONTENT that students need to know is not nearly as important as the skills they are learning in school. We will remain competitive (if that is the goal you are after) if we focus on FEWER content/facts and more skills and process exercises.

Question from John Stallcup Co Founder APREMAT:
Given our advanced math is the same level as Singapore’s sixth grade regular math, we only spend 180 six hour days a year in school unlike Japan’s 240, we continue to perform below average on international comparisons could it be that the alleged stress actually be a reflection of the “stress filled” school environment caused by the education establishment not wanting to do what is nescessary to raise the level of academcic achievment for all students combined with a legal structure that prevents same?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Yes. In Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer made this point two decades ago. Slack standards may make life easy for teachers and help them evade student complaints. They might even give mostly high grades. But objective tests make better known this ploy. The public, parents, and legislators want and deserve more than the K-12 status quo provides.

Question from Suzanne Wynnell, 4th grade Teacher, Olinder Elementary, San Jose Unified School District:
Is there any, do you think, correlation between HIGH state standards and the perception that the academics are too hard?

For example, I’m told in order to fit in the state required minutes for reading, math, and ELD not to concentrate on science and social studies (20 minutes once a week is fine). Therefore, I can believe that my students would go onto middle and high school believing that science and social studies work is too hard, projects are too complex, and that they don’t know what to do to meet a grade. I’m openly being discouraged from teaching BEYOND the test.

The flip side being, for example, teaching reading in Kindergarten where students may not be developmentally ready for that skill. By abstracting all curriculum to lower grades and lower, have we sucked the life out of learning and thus created a system wherein there is little joy, success only for a minority, and frustration for the major players of education -- teachers, students, and parents?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Generally speaking, research in a variety of organizations suggests that specific, challenging standards foster greater performance, and I have little reason to think it doesn’t hold in K-12 education. The majority of parents think standards and accountability are important About three-quarters of graduating high school students say they weren’t challenged. The US has the shortest school year, 180 days, in the industrialized world, and it’s brevity and low standards account for poor US performance on international achievement surveys.

Question from Terese Benefield, Counselor, Tyrone Elementary School:
How shoud the infrastructure of the schools be equiped and perhaps altogher restructued to handle the rise in curriculum demands to teach our children the standards while ensuring that they develop an appreciation and drive for learning?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I’m not sure what “infrastruture” means. In any case, I think buildings are not a major impediment to learning. Bringin in educators with knowledge of the subject matter, pedagogy, and high standards, and giving them incentives for student learning may help substantially.

Question from Cheryl Saliwanchik-Brown, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maine:
When I read that students are finding high school courses “unchallenging” I always wonder “which” students? Are they the ones who have been accepted in AP and Honors courses? Or are these students the ones who have been leveled into lower ability courses where the work has been watered down to accomodate the perception that they aren’t capable of more challenging work. Which students are we talking about?

Herbert J. Walberg:
These findings come from general surveys, which generally indicate what “average” students think. AP courses undoubtedly require serious effort. Students who are well prepared and conscientiously study and do their homework may not find advanced courses stressful.

Question from Louis Loeffler, Assistant Professor, Cardinal Stritch University:
I am finding many teachers who return to take coursework for a Masters degree are looking for an easy way out, arguing that courses have to much rigour and demand to much time of them - yet it is a masters class. What advice might you have?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Advanced education degrees are not linked to student performance. The answer: Don’t pay teachers for things that don’t matter but things that do, namely, subject matter mastery, best pedagogical practices, and student learning.

Question from James Turner, Alt. Ed Teacher, El Camino Middle School:
We talk about how behind we are compared to european students. My question is so what? I mean we still lead the world in products etc. everyone else just modifies what we have made. We have a free economy system that lets non-college grads make millions of dollars. We used to foster creativity before NCLB and standards. So waht is so great about being on level with kids in europe? Remember Japan does not create it just improves. Respectfully James D. Turner BA, MAE, JD, PHD in process.

Herbert J. Walberg:
It’s true. The US has made great progress and is rich in income, wealth, military might, cultural influence, industrial productivity, etc. But as Thomas Friedman says in “The World is Flat,” things are changing. Advanced manufacturing is increasingly done in mainland China and “the Little Dragon” countries. Computer programming, legal work, and other high tech activities are being done in India at as little as one-fifth the US cost. The world is becoming more competitive. Will the US keep up so as to keep its present position and increase the well being of its citizens. Besides this, who defends lazy stupidity of youngsters? Aren’t we at least worried about today’s kids paying our future Social Security, health care, and pensions?

Question from Mary Johnson, concerned parent:
Our son, Matthew, was diagnosed with a learning difficulty last year after having to repeat 1st Grade.

As parents, we try very hard to help him with his academics but sometimes feel like we are hitting our heads against a brick wall. He is struggling with reading and doesn’t really enjoy it because it is a struggle - please can you suggest how we can make reading more of a pleasant task for all of us.

He does really well in Math - thankfully because he sees achievement in that.

Thank you for your help and any suggestions.


Denise Clark Pope:
I empathize with you; the struggles can be overwhelming when kids have learning difficulties. My best advice for you is to try to let Matthew choose the reading material (even very easy basic favorites from when he was a toddler). If he is interested in certain sports or hobbies, try to find books on these as well. When students have some choice in the reading materials and when they are truly interested in the topics, they are more likely to want to read. I also think the timing of reading at home is critical. Most kids are exhausted just before bedtime; that might be a good time for you to do the reading and Matthew can listen closely and follow along. Try to pick a time when he is alert, well-fed, and in a good mood -- and then let him choose an easy book to start with some success before you move on to required school reading.

Question from Scott Merrick, Lower School Technology Coordinator, University School of Nashville and Teacher-in-residence, Vanderbilt University Center for Science Outreach:
While the yardsticks we use to measure “success” are often our students’ performance on fill-in-the-dots tests, perhaps it is counter-productive to compare our students’ success against those of Asian countries’ students. Shouldn’t we be looking more at the ways we can make school more relevant to life in the 21st century than to pressuring our children with “homework” that is mostly preparing to regurgitate memorized lists and “facts?” Wouldn’t we be better served by assessing how fully developed a student’s love of learning and ability to teach him/herself has been nurtured? Now _that_ would be a valuable and meaningful standardized assessment.

Herbert J. Walberg:
Anything but knowledge? Actually, it’s difficult to find people who have deep and original insights about a field without knowledge of the facts and the normal skills required for mastery. From a psychometric view, tests of factual knowledge are usually highly correlated with “higher thinking processes” such as comprehension and evaluaton of arguments. Absence of knowledge hardly insures higher level thinking and contributions.

Question from nina shaw, parent:
Do you think the US puts a high enough value on education? Can you give examples of how other countries education systems work? Are those students stressed?

Herbert J. Walberg:
No. Other countries have national standards and assessments, parents that put a high premium on education, and long school years, particularly in Asia which usually tops the international achievement surveys and has had outstanding economic growth.

Comment from Brett Adams, student, Gwynedd-Mercy College:
It seems to me the question of “How much homework should students receive?” is out of whack with real life issues. Students should be assigned quality homework that relates classroom teachings with living in our society. By realizing how to interpret and analyze the news; how history repeats itself; how much you actually spend on interest with a 30 yr. mortgage, etc., students will be able find value in what they are learning and not just wonder why they have to memorize dates, equations, and vocabulary words.

Question from Mirka Christesen, Academically Gifted Resource Teacher, Lufkin Rd. Middle School, Wake County, NC:
How can educators bring more quality into assignments while reducing the quantity? I think that stress is often induced by the amount of time necessary to complete assignments perceived by students as busy work.

Denise Clark Pope:
Absolutely! Aim to get more bang for your buck with assignments. This usually means that educators should plan one or 2 anchor activities per unit. For example, educators can ask, what are the key enduring understandings that I want students to learn from this unit? How will I know that the students have learned these? Then plan one or 2 main projects that will lead to these key understandings. Is it better for students to read 10 novels this year -- -or to understand 3 novels deeply? Is it better to get through the history textbook from the Revolution through WW2? Or can you focus on key understandings or essential questions and limit that memorization of miscellanious facts? How many math problems are necessary for each student to do each night? Many folks will argue that the standards prevent this kind of planning -- and some standards do -- but as much as possible, the effective educators know what to focus deeply on and when to eliminate the busy work. If each educators did an honest “busy work” check each week, we might eliminate several hours of student homework and thereby decrease some student stress.

Question from Jeffrey L. Peyton, Founding Exec. Dir., Puppetools:
Too much pressure or too little, the question implies that pressure is applied from outside to a passive subject--the student. In contrast, the learning sciences often study optimum, self-directed brain integration where the subject is fully engaged, his emotions priming the process. Shouldn’t we be able to tell by now if students are stimulated participants or pushed or prodded objects?

Denise Clark Pope:
We do have ways to assess “engagement” -- that is authentic learning experiences. Usually this is assessed via an A,B,C model: are students affectively engaged (motiviated?), behaviorally engaged (on task at the time?), and cognitively engaged. We have found that up to 75 percent of high school students are not engaged in school on a regular basis. So yes, they are being pushed and prodded. The really sad part is that we KNOW how to engage students: when teachers show that they care about individual interests, when the topic is shown to be relevant and developmentally appropriate, when students have choice and voice over what they learn and how they are assessed, and when they participate actively (project based learning, experiential learning, collaborative learning, etc.) -- they are more likely to be engaged. The majority of learning tends to be lecture based or teacher-centered as opposed to what we know will engage students.

Question from Joe Bagwell, Graduation Coach, East Hall High:
Are we equating pressure with massive amounts of homework assignments? Most of our students equate homework with presure. Are teachers using homework to cover a lack of rigor in the classroom?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I think students should have both competent insturction and engaging homework. Quality and quantity are both important--and in both cases.

Question from Dan Cronin, Assistant Principal, McIntosh Middle School:
How about the effects of NCLB contributing to the pressure kids feel? When you have eight year olds hearing “if you don’t pass this test (FCAT in Florida), you won’t be able to move to the fourth grade”, isn’t that a little much? Middle and high school students feel it too from their teachers and administrators as the stress on those people has been increased considerably?

Denise Clark Pope:
Yes -- this is definitely a problem. Any kind of high stakes testing (and promotion to the next grade is certainly high stakes!) can lead to undue stress on a child. As a parent you can check with the teacher to assess the “true” consequences of any individual test, and you can work as an advocate to reduce the stakes. In many cases, the students are confused about the real nature of the tests; they might believe that their grades or promotion decisions depend on an individual score, when in fact, the tests are used to assess schoolwide achievement. In either case, the exams can cause much stress -- and we know there are alternative, effective ways to assess individuals and schools using portfolio based assessment for example...

Question from Christine Morse Galves, Director, Office of the Education Master Plan:
The academic standards we have, at least here in California, are necessary to prepare students for the global economy. In fact, in many cases we can do better, like requiring a second language in the lower grades. The real question is, are we giving our students enough time to be in school, interacting with their teachers, to assimilate the knowledge and develop the skills being taught? I think our school days need to be at least 2 hours longer, and include many more learning supports (tutors, mentors, career counselors) to help students digest the material, develop the skills, and connect all of that to real life. What do each of you think, putting the issue of cost aside (and I realize that is a big “aside”)?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I agree. It is nearly an iron law of psychology and common sense: Practice makes perfect. Other countries take this seriously, particularly in Asia with short summer vacations, Saturday school, and after-school tutoring schools--and, not surprisingly, homework.

Question from Paul Burt, President, Pen & Publish, Inc.:
Could the answer be “both” too much and too little? Too much memorization and too little thinking. Too much control and too little dialogue. Engaged students are capable of doing, learning and enjoying more.

Herbert J. Walberg:
See my previous answers. Knowledge contributes to understanding and vice versa. It’s rare to find someone that understands or creates that is ignorant of the subject. Enjoyment is not necessarily the most important outcome, particularly short term happiness. Euclid said there’s no royal road to geometry; even kings must sweat to learn it. Show me a physicist Nobel laureate that doesn’t know calculus.

Question from Dr. Matthew Delaney, Educational Leadership Adjunct, Nova Southeastern University:
America has posted a long and impressive record of achievement in various fields, from science and technology to leadership, and learning. The Associated Press observed that the recently announced Nobel Prizes in medicine and physics were awarded to four Americans. And, they continued, “Americans have . . . dominated the Nobel Prizes in recent times.” Yet, your introductory statements noted that “experts” take the position that, “Most students in the United States . . . are not challenged enough, and consequently, could be falling behind their international peers.”

Traditionally, “haves” and “have-nots,” have existed in every facet of American life and education has not been exempt. Although there have been some success stories that involved breaking through barriers to realize individual accomplishment, others have simply followed family footsteps to achieve success. Despite obvious American cultural values promoting sports mania, lottery winnings, and street smarts over the commitment to educational achievement, certainly, parental support must be considered a primary factor in the student success equation.

Where does the nation stand as a whole? Would you consider the concerns expressed by respondents to the Pew Research Center poll an indication of the awakening of mainstream America to the genuine value of education in contributing to future success for their children? Do you feel that this awareness is a commonly shared value across cultures and geographic regions in America?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Current Nobelists were educated years ago, some in Europe and many immigrants. But the US did in fact attract them. Even so, we don’t know how our current crops of students will turn out, and international surveys indicate they are behind near the end of secondary school. Nobels by a tiny fraction of our population are a poor indicator of our population’s knowledge and skills, and we now have formidable competitors for intellectually demainding jobs. In a short period of time, I can’t respond to all your points.

Question from Kit Brizuela, Registrar, Kahuku High & Intermediate School, HI:
What objective data can be used to measure and compare Academic Pressure? Or is it all subjective?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Much of the “data” flows from “rampant anecdotalism” rather than scientific psychological studies. I remain highly skeptical of complaints about stress from “pop” psychologists.

Question from Bill Betzen, Computer Applications Teacher, Quintanilla Middle School, Dallas, Texas:
What benefit is there to having either more or less pressure to perform than the “real world” our students will enter? As failure happens do we not just train our students to get up again and do it right the second time? I believe that any lessening of pressure to perform would be a great disservice to our students.

Herbert J. Walberg:
I agree with all three points.

Question from Alan, School Counselor, Coquille Valley MS:
What kind of techniques can I use as a school counselor to help my high-stress students deal with academic pressures while maintaining “healthy” stress levels?

Denise Clark Pope:
One important question to ask your students is “what do they mean by success? success in life and in school?” If success for them is getting into the best college, then you need to help them reflect on a broader definition of success. Only by getting at the root causes of the stress -- which is often a narrow and misguided perception of future success -- can you begin to help these highly stressed students.

Comment from Linda Allen, teacher 2-year college:
As a 2-year school, we accept all students who apply. I have freshmen students who can’t read or multiply or divide; others who can’t do algebra or write a simple essay to a question. But these students want to become doctors, nurses, and computer scientists; they over-estimate their abilities due to good grades in high school. Maybe if they were challenged in earlier, they would have learned to learn. Or at least have a realistic view of their educational abilities.

Question from Mary Devin, Assoc. Prof. (and former School Superintendent, Kansas State University:
Is a big part of our collective difficulty in dealing with complex educational issues the tremendous variance in school practices (and results) among schools—in the same and in different geographic areas of our own country? Can we accurately generalize the current conditions without great risk of inviting solutions that help some and harm others?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Agreed, but some generalizations may be generally applicable. We have some of the best secondary school mathematicians in the world but our national average is far to low. Similarly, there may be a few students that work too hard and feel stressed, but the great bulk ...

Question from Rhonda Lehman-Davenport, Consultant, My Learning Well:
2 Questions: First, have these percentages been compared with the rate of student burn-out, mental illness, or suicide rates? Second, a year or so ago, I read about some AP students and Stanford History professors who took an exam. To my recollection, the students were able to recall a great deal of detailed data, but lacked the ability to synthesize, interpret, or utilize the facts to create greater meaning and depth as did the professors with fewer facts. The Pew study begs the question, What is the goal behind these pressures and do they ultimately undermine the human potential for developing new or improved paradigms that are more balanced between systems and individuals? And if so, what level of mediocrity will be endured before there is an implosion from mental illness, shallow thinking, and inept problem identification and solution systems? There seems to be a glass ceiling on all learning that maintains a singular paradigm of competition and domination, but lacks the true potential of human ingenuity of thought and possibility. Please share your thoughts on this--whether in agreement or not.

Herbert J. Walberg:
To what percentages to you refer? I think, in any case, that schools shouldn’t be therapeutic communities or psychiatric wards particularly since our students are learning so little. Stanford students are hardly a representative sample of the US, and was there a control group? A large-scale study of Japan indicated that its youth suicide rates are lower than those in the US. As a PhD psychologist, I think we need to be just as worried about kids that don’t have constructive things to do such as study, athletics, hobbies, etc. Nobody has shown that ignorance leads to creativity.

Question from Jeannie Sims, parent:
Do you think that students on the advanced track, taking Honors and A.P. classes are working too hard and under too much pressure while often students in regular classes are underchallenged?

Denise Clark Pope:
We have found that students in all tracks of the school may be suffering from unhealthy academic achievement pressure. Many students in the “regular” track feel overwhelmed by school and home pressures, and many of these students are working several hours per week on top of regular school obligations. That said, when we try to convince students who are taking an “overload” of AP or honors courses to drop one or two and take a “regular” class, most of them worry that they will be bored to death in the “regular” track. In many high schools the tracks are so distinct that it does make for a nearly impossible choice for students: They tell us: do I take a killer AP class that I am not even interested in, or do I take an “easy” course that will surely bore me to death. One answer is to make all courses interesting and challenging and to encourage more heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction within the courses themselves.

Question from Donna Smith, 4th Grade Teacher, Allentown Diocese:
From your research, does the stress students feel come from their “scheduled” lives or from being held accountable for concepts taught in class?

Herbert J. Walberg:
My research doesn’t suggest an answer to this question. Previous answers, suggest that I don’t think stress is such a big problem, except for a minute percentage of students.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
What signs are exhibited by secondary students who are feeling stress?

Denise Clark Pope:
Secondary students who are feeling undue pressure or high amounts of stress may exhibit a variety of signs: frequent headaches, stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, increased anxiety or signs of depression. They may resort to the use of “study drugs” -- illegal use of ritalin or adderall to stay up longer; they may resort more frequently to cheating or plagiarism because they literally have too much work to do and too little time to complete this work. Often they are sleep-deprived. Sometimes they “mask” these symptoms -- in an attempt to look “perfect” -- but at some point, they tend to “break down”. Watch for these signs, and watch too for the kids who melt down after getting back a quiz or test -- even if the grade is a B+.

Question from Lucy Wakiaga, EDD candidate, Howard University:
How does the teacher create a balance between the NCLB expectations(which has placed more emphasis on testing) for higher student achievement and ensuring real student learning without stressing out the learner?

Herbert J. Walberg:
I don’t accept the premise that tests can’t measure comprehension, problem solving, high knowledge levels, and other “higher cognitive skills.” It’s not knowledge vs. comprehension but both-and that’s needed.

Question from Dale Myers, In-school tutor, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional HS (near Boston):
Where has an alternative plan (such as a “no grades” option, guided [independent] study option, etc.) been tried; where was it successful; and what did it look like?

Denise Clark Pope:
There are several alternative schools across the country that are succeeding by using innovative approaches for learning and instruction. Check the Coalition for Essential Schools, check the schools in Toch’s book High Schools on a Human Scale, check with the local charter and magnet schools around your region, check some of the small schools and the Gates Foundations lastest work. There are many, many schools that do not rely on letter grades, allow for independent study and self-paced mastery, and help students craft authentic and engaging paths of study.

Question from Germaine Ingram, Citizen/Charter School Board Member, Philadelphia PA:
A couple of years ago PBS aired a riveting investigation of academic rigor in U.S. colleges. It was alarming to hear college students complain of how little is expected of them in their college courses, and to hear college teachers state that the research and writing demands of getting tenure and the role of student evaluations of faculty in tenure decisions lead them to devote limited time to course preparation and student support, and to reach unholy pacts where teachers trade lenient course demands and grading for positive student evaluations. What is your guests’ assessment of the general level of rigor in the course work at US colleges and universities and what role do they think that college-level academic rigor plays in framing the debate over the appropriateness of the demands made on K-12 students?

Herbert J. Walberg:
Because of failings in K-12, much college work is remedial. Colleges and universities have “enrollment driven budgets,” which means they are pressured to admit students and lower standards. US Secretary Spellings recently called for better accountability for higher education, which has not received the scrutiny of elementary and secondary education brought about by NCLB and other innovations.

Question from Miles Myers, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Do you agree with recent studies suggesting that parents have turned over child rearing duties to schools and abandoned serious efforts at home? If so, how do public schools get more parental effort at home? Coleman identified parental effort as a missing “key” in public schoiols.

Herbert J. Walberg:
I partly agree. With both parents working, they may have less time for their children. With pensions, Social Security, divorce, separation, and much migration, do parents have yesterday’s incentives to enhance their children’s lives and academic prowess when their efforts may not be reciprocated. In the first 18 years of life, youngsters are out of school 92 percent of the time, meaning parents nominally control or are responsible for much of their activities, and their efforts can make a great difference in academic and life success.

Question from Rajesh Gunesh, Lecturer, DCDM Business School, Mauritius:
I find that continuous assessment is a very good method of testing students on their understanding concepts and applying them. Nevertheless, very often we could have done with fewer but more substantial assignments to cover syllabi. Your comments?

Denise Clark Pope:
I agree completely. Formative, continuous assessments that are diverse in nature -- often those that allow the students to weigh in, self-evaluate and have a say over how they are assessed -- tend to be the most effective. I subscribe therefore to the “less is more” philosophy from Ted Sizer. Focus on teaching less content more deeply-- especially via challenging and engaging (and ideally authentic) tasks for the students. Then offer plenty of ways to allow them to show what they know.

Question from Mark Trentacoste, Adj. Prof., Rutgers Univ.:
How would we measure whether students were feeling “too” pressured?

How could we tell if particular groups of students (e.g. those who do particularly well in grades and/or test scores) are feeling too pressured?

Denise Clark Pope:
We have several measures for motivation and engagement levels that we combine with measures for mental health, along with asking the students themselves to self-report stress levels. We now have a comprehensive survey that relies on these multiple gauges to assess if students are feeling “too pressured” in a way that is not healthy.

Question from Maria Platero, Bloomfield College, Student Teacher:
I am strongly leaning towards the argument that students are not getting pushed as hard as they should. My question is, What can we do as educators to involve parents in their childrens education? If in fact, we give students challenging work to take home, can we ask parents to enforce it at home as we would do throughout the school day?

Herbert J. Walberg:
One promising possibility is visiting homes to explain expectations and the child’s strengths and weaknesses, etc.

Question from Bob Ritchie School Bus Driver, Mansfield, MA:
How do we as parents of an ADD child balance the extra work necessary for our child with the pressures of regular ED students he competes with? He is 11 y/o in 6th grade and averages 2 hours homework nightly.

Herbert J. Walberg:
As an educational psychologist, I hestitate to make long distance diagnosis and give advice especially about a poorly understood condition, ADD.

Question from Sandra Lippman, Director / Educational Consulting - Partners in Performance, LLC:
Both our guests present a rare opportunity to ask a question of individuals who can see the ways effective teaching/learning can be combined with a need for evaluation, assessment, and measurement at the same time.

SO, my question is, Do you think it’s possible to reduce the stress school administrators and teachers feel while trying to produce measurable performance results, and still have instruction delivered in ways that can be viewed as effective as well as engaging for learners?

Herbert J. Walberg:
In other fields, providers ask if they are serving the clients well, not whether they have stressful work. It seems all the more important in education since the customers are youngsters, parents, and the society. Perhaps, however, the Internet and technology may offer less stress and more efficiency for all the parties.

Question from Dr. Paul M. Marino, Professor of Education:
What role do parents play in this overbooking? Are they pressuring their children to excell in areas they did not have opportunity to?

Denise Clark Pope:
Parents play a great role in overscheduling. We have found that students tend to be overscheduled in school (ie too many honors or AP courses) as well as outside of school. Parents need to sit down with kids and together set appropriate limits on extracurricular activities. Research shows that doing some, LIMITED, outside school activities can be quite beneficial to kids, but how many activities are too many? And when the parents become overly critical or live vicariously through the child, we see many negative effects. Young kids especially need free, unstructured play time after school. This is what ultimately leads to creative play, conflict negotiation, and healthy adjustment. So educators should urge parents to re-consider how time is spent outside of school. The overscheduled kids we see are exhausted and often afraid to share their true feelings about an activity because they don’t want to let their parents down (ie “Dad really wants me to play football, so I can’t quit now...)

Question from Scott L. Arrington, Health and Physical Education, Oakway Middle School:
Why, in a time where increasingly overweight and obese children and adults is a prevalent theme worldwide, is the profession of education, primarily at the administrative level, not pressing for more programs instead of making cuts? The physical and the cognitive are linked. Though certain studies have attempted to show a causal relationship between fitness and academic achievement, perhaps the major issue needing to be addressed is the fact that we have become complacent in our approach. Higher education professionals need to voice their opinions and study and publish research that looks at possible correlations and relationships. We are losing ground and in doing so this generation will lose years off their lives. The academic demands can be met only when the children have the energy and the discipline to do so. Until then, yes, we are overly concerned with academic achievement at the expense of healthy, vibrant young people. Sacrificing health and fitness for academic success makes little sense if the use of the knowledge gained will have a “shorter time frame of use.”

Herbert J. Walberg:
Since our main subject is home work or work outside school, how about athletics, exercise and physical activites within and outside normal school hours. As in academic work, students need to practice to acquire skills and disciplined effort to establish lifelong habits.

Comment from Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, Author:
May I weigh in with a comment? The question you pose on whether students face too much or too little pressure is far off target. Parents and schools should not be in the business of deliberately exerting any pressure. That’s not what education is about. Parents of top-achieving students at the most competitive schools know that achievement is not attained by parents or schools pressuring kids, pushing kids, or piling on more homework. Our nation’s very best schools are about stimulation and helping students to learn skills and develop talents. The Pew survey says, “Most Americans think parents are not pushing their children hard enough”? Ugh! That shows how ignorant Pew and many American parents are in their understanding of how education is achieved, especially at the top of the class. While I would agree that the top achieving students are very pressured in the United States, I need to point out to Pew and other subscribers of badgering as a primary motivator of education, that these students don’t become top achievers through parental or school pushing. Instead, what drives the top American students is the same force that drives Asian country counterparts: “heavy pressure on students [from the most desired colleges] to perform well on high-stakes university entrance exams” caused by the very tight limit on the numbers of students who are admitted into the most academically serious colleges, and the colleges that provide students with the most challenge and opportunities. The funnel of admission has been squeezed tighter and tighter as greater numbers of high achievers compete for the most prestigious colleges. As for homework, in my work as an educational strategist and writer about education, I have observed a vicious cycle that harms our nation’s highest achievers. Their underachieving peers—students who don’t care which colleges they go to and students who do not plan to attend any college—feel a lot less pressure in America. So those peers don’t devote as many hours to homework or schoolwork, and their parents worry that they don’t get enough homework, which rarely is the case. In response, some of these parents (seeing that their kids aren’t achieving) complain that the schools aren’t pressuring their children enough. So the schools start assigning more work across the board. And the kids who are competing for the high-stakes colleges only feel more pressured and more over-burdened (because, you see, they DO the homework), while the kids who were not caring about college admission feel the same lack of pressure they felt before. In some schools, the less-pressured kids don’t even do the homework that’s assigned, or they do it at break-neck speed and haphazardly, causing the parents to go back to school to complain once again that their kids need even more work and pressure. “Pressure” is the wrong term to be discussing. What the lower-end students need more of is “motivation.” If their parents are failing to provide it at home, and they’re not getting it from their choice of colleges, then the high schools should start thinking of new ways to motivate and stimulate their students—not to pressure them. Elizabeth Wissner-Gross Author of What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid Into The Top Schools (Hudson Street Books/Penguin Group, 2006)

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this fascinating discussion. And a special thanks to our guests for answering a large volume of questions.

Many of the issues raised in this chat will also be covered during this school year in a new blog on called Motivation Matters. We encourage you to visit that blog.

This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

Chat Editors