Student Pressure Subject of Debate

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2006 7 min read
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As another school year begins, a new crop of highly publicized books depicts American students as overburdened with academic demands, many of questionable value. But some experts contend that such a portrait distorts the truth: Most students, they say, are not particularly challenged in school.

The latest debate about schoolwork is being fueled by three recent books: The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn, The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, and The Overachievers, by Alexandra Robbins, which depicts overextended high school students in a wealthy Washington suburb. The books’ messages have buzzed through the national talk-show circuit and snagged headlines in major publications. Newsweek’s Sept. 11 cover story, “The New First Grade: Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast, Too Soon?,” is accompanied by a picture of a schoolgirl horrified by a massive stack of textbooks.

Read “Parental Pressure on Students,” available from the Pew Research Center.

But landing virtually unnoticed in the swirl was an Aug. 24 finding from a Pew Research Center poll showing that most Americans think parents don’t put enough pressure on students to do well in school. Most Asian respondents, by contrast, said parents put too much academic pressure on students.

The poll finding was part of a larger global study on other issues conducted by the Washington-based research organization. But it offered such a stark contrast to the increasingly popular picture of U.S. students as overburdened that the pollsters decided to release it separately.

“When the public is saying we don’t put enough pressure on kids, maybe they’re onto something,” said Juliana Menasce Horowitz, a co-author of the poll. “Maybe the kids in these books are not representative of most American students.”

‘Small Circles’

The dialogue marks yet another phase in an argument that has cycled on and off for a century: Does the United States work its students too hard, or not hard enough?

Many scholars say the question should be reframed. Better, they say, to ask why some students are overburdened while others are underchallenged, or whether students are doing the right types of work.

Asked how much pressure parents put on students, U.S. adults said:

SOURCE: Pew Research Center

Asked how much pressure parents put on students, U.S. adults said:

“This notion that parents are putting a lot of pressure on kids to do well in school is true in some circles of American society, but they are pretty small circles, perhaps the top fifth of income distribution,” said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor who studies adolescent development’s intersection with education.

“For most kids, the expectations are too low,” he said. “We ought to be pressuring our students to learn more and to develop better academic skills.”

Mr. Steinberg and others argue that the vast majority of students are underchallenged and far from overworked.

They note a 2003 study by the Brookings Institution, which found that typical American students spent an hour a day on homework—a pattern unchanged in the past quarter-century. Public Agenda, a nonprofit polling group in New York City, reported this year that only two in 10 students say they have too much homework, and nearly half admit they could work harder in school.

Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the notion that American students are overworked resonates with “a very loud and disgruntled minority who is fearful that kids are losing their childhood,” and is popularized by news organizations whose members come from the same “high-powered elite.”

But the picture is inaccurate, he said. Not only do most U.S. students not have huge homework burdens, he said, but their schools also are easier than those in other industrialized nations. His study of foreign-exchange students showed that American teenagers found foreign schools much tougher, and visiting foreigners found schools in this country much easier.

Mr. Steinberg said that when he was researching a book about teenagers working while in high school, Western Europeans were amazed that the young Americans’ studies would allow them time for jobs. “American students are not pushed anywhere near as much as students in other industrialized countries,” he said.

Quality vs. Quantity

Some experts say the problem lies with what—not how much—students are being asked to do.

Denise Clark Pope, a Stanford University lecturer who has written about the effects of stress on students, said her research, largely conducted in comfortable San Francisco Bay Area communities, turns up scads of students who exist in a “dog eat dog” school environment, reading stacks of books and writing essays all summer, or ripping pages out of library books to stay ahead of peers who will need the same books.

“From a workload standpoint, yes, these kids are being asked to do too much,” she said. “Academic press shouldn’t be about loading on more. There is too much content-and-coverage stress. It should be about challenging and engaging students on multiple levels.”

International Comparisons

A survey of adults in four countries showed that those in the United States, in contrast to those in Asia, believe parents don’t put enough pressure on students to do well in schools.

Click to enlarge: International Comparisons

SOURCE: Pew Research Center

Too many parents contribute to that problem by having a “performance orientation,” which emphasizes results such as a student’s grades, instead of whether they master the material, Ms. Pope said. Research shows that parents who show a performance orientation more often have children who report high levels of stress than those who show a “mastery orientation,” she added.

Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and consultant who writes about the dangers of overscheduling children, said the economically well-off teenagers under excessive academic pressure represent a small minority of students, but the damage they suffer is serious.

“It’s easy to mock them, like, ‘Oh, these poor kids have so many AP classes.’ But they are actually suffering from their privilege,” she said. “Their subjective experience is of so much pressure that it’s actually impairing their performance. They’ve lost the pleasure of learning.”

Jane M. Healy, a Vail, Colo.-based consultant and psychologist who writes about children’s brain development, believes the debate about schoolwork shows that the United States doesn’t understand child development and lacks a philosophy of childhood to guide the way its schools work.

“We are rushing kids too much across the board,” she said. “We do not understand the most basic needs of childhood and adolescence, and worse, we do not respect them. We try to teach abstract symbols to 5-year-olds and try to teach algebra to 7th graders. It’s absurd. To me, the whole issue is, what is childhood for? And what is schooling for?”

Mr. Loveless, of the Brookings Institution, traced some of the disagreement to international cultural differences, and some to Americans’ own internal doubts about education.

“Americans have never been sure of what they wanted school to be about,” he said. “For a time, it was really about teaching religious or moral values. Or citizenship. Or about socializing kids so they could learn to work or play well with others. In other countries, it’s much more focused on making sure you learned subjects A, B, C, and D. We have a more diffuse view of the purpose of schooling.”

Parents Weigh In

Herbert J. Walberg, an emeritus research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said studying the Japanese education system and observing the success of Asian students in science and mathematics convinces him that American schools expect too little of students, damaging their chances for success in life and working against the nation’s interests by producing adults ill-equipped to support the economy in globally competitive times.

“Mastering a serious curriculum is very much in the best interest of the student,” he said. “But there is a kind of pop psychology that makes schools therapeutic centers. ‘You’re stressed, you’re burned out, you need to rest, how do you feel?’ Here we are afraid to challenge kids, and kids themselves say they are not being challenged.”

Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group that advocates better career and college preparation, welcomed the Pew poll findings as a sign that the public supports higher expectations in schools.

“It might reflect a growing recognition that kids face stiffer competition in the world, and that parents might need to put more pressure on kids if they are going to be successful,” he said. “That would be a good sign that their own standards need to go up. That still needs to penetrate more deeply into the ranks of educators.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Student Pressure Subject of Debate


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