It’s a tough time to be an American. As I write this, our government is being shut down in a congressional stalemate. Domestically, we are in crisis and there is little indication that the acrimony will end soon. You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to know that the families I work with, and who represent a cross-section of citizens, have been stressed by a sluggish economy, high unemployment, and not least, our relentless compulsion to compare ourselves and our children to others.
And so while this essay focuses on American obsession with comparison, the same issues might resonate with the many international readers of this newsletter (and I welcome your thoughts and feedback!)
In general, comparison to others helps us to gain perspective. At other times, relentless comparison leads us astray. One of the most damaging comparisons reflects our obsession with academic performance, and what those comparisons imply. In education circles, and among government officials, the comparisons that attract the most angst and attention are test scores that illustrate test achievement differences between U.S. students and those from other nations. I won’t be coy. We are particularly upset about the inability, or apparent inability, of U.S. schoolchildren to perform at the levels attained by their Asian counterparts.
The situation has led to a vast and persistent national panic, spurred by the popular press, as well as our own tendency toward competitiveness. Education officials worry aloud that American kids are falling behind, and that we must “race to the top” if we want our kids to succeed. The worst sycophants of this panic become local mercenaries, determined to leverage performance at any cost, oblivious to the root causes of underachievement.
In America we treat the situation as a matter of public policy; and we attempt to improve the situation by shifting programmatic and curricular strategies. Yet we seem to be in dire need of reappraisal more than we are of new education mandates. A healthy society has the will and objectivity to do that type of critical self-assessment when times are tough. Now is such a time. The only question is whether we still have that capacity.
Why Compete At a Game We Don’t Play Well?
With respect to the big issue of student performance, I would like to suggest that American students aren’t likely to compete any time soon. This is certainly not because our students aren’t smart or talented enough. It is because our national character, and particularly our interest in leading diverse lives, gets in the way of the single-mindedness that leads to the highest levels of academic performance.
I’ve spent enough time doing academic coaching to understand that American students do not easily come by the work habits associated with peak academic performance. This is not, primarily, an issue of capability. For example, I’ve noticed that the average American adolescent does not easily accept the time required for to level academic preparation.
And the same goes for American families. We have to consider the role of families because in places such as Singapore, where students are exceptional achievers, families are fundamental to preparation for important standardized tests – tests that determine university admission and placement, and bear heavily on longer-term economic status.
Can you imagine an entire American family putting life on hold during exam week so that everyone could participate in study and preparation? Imagine shopping for groceries only at the beginning of such a period so that no one has to leave the home unnecessarily, and thus lose precious preparation time. Imagine blocking all electronic media, and imagine study that goes on for at least six hours per day during the critical prep phase. That level of commitment is what is required to perform at the level coveted by super-achievers. Such students must make extreme sacrifices of personal time, and must accordingly turn their attention away from personal differences and interests. I am not suggesting these students don’t have such differences, only that they make them subordinate to preparing for standardized evaluations.
I’m often working with students who aspire to get into better prep schools or universities. The students I coach are usually above-average performers relative to their domestic peers. Yet despite ambitious goals, these students are often reluctant to adopt the single-minded focus required to perform up to the maximum of their potential. Instead, my sense is that American students approximate what they perceive to be a “good effort,” and are more often than not satisfied when they enact this level of effort.
The heart of the matter is that it’s difficult for many American students to give up all social and recreational activity during the two to three weeks when one is preparing for important tests. It may sound like I’m complaining about this state of affairs, but actually I believe its virtues are under-rated!
Increasingly, I’m less inclined to regret American students’ resistance to becoming academic automatons, than I am to be angry at the fact that American students have been made to feel inferior or inadequate because it is not their characterological inclination to care as much about testing and its consequences as others might.
More specifically, the intense and unrelenting pressure to be excellent in a few, limited areas, at the expense of all others, is in my view a threat to the intellectual diversity of young Americans. By extension, and more seriously, it is a threat to our democracy.
Any non-sport interest or developmental priority outside of traditional academic areas is at risk of being ignored, or worse, elimination. Less and less time is made available for participation in activities that clearly make as significant a contribution to identity and healthy, enriched development. Here, I’m thinking of purposeful work, non-STEM learning, and civic participation.
Academic study for the sake of learning itself has been debased. For many, school has become a minefield of evaluation in which commitment and ability are continually assessed. Many don’t make it across the divide. Such harshness is now endemic to how we think about those who are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for academic excellence. How is this democratic? In fact, it seems antithetical to democracy, and underscores how little democracy our nation is willing to grant youth.
Rethinking the Purpose of Grades
In a busy culture, where few have the time or inclination to understand the complexities of individual abilities, grades provide a convenient metric for quick assessment. Accordingly, rather than using grades as a prosocial system for providing information to students about how they are doing, grades are used to sort students with dramatic effect.
Most of the drama in school is about grades, and where one concern attracts all of the emotion, other concerns are bound to suffer. If grades were actually used in a student’s best interest, they would be assigned more democratically.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine if students chose a grade before a course began. Students would be encouraged to do the work required to earn the grade they signed up to receive. To be fair to students, they would be provided with ample examples of exactly what level of work was required for the grade they chose. I’m not talking about a backdoor approach to social promotion, or simply honoring a good effort. I believe using grades to promote self-esteem is a disaster for everyone, and undermines the integrity of school. But I am saying that the performance required for particular grade should be made explicit and immediately available to every student in a particular class.
Making grades unnecessarily secretive or mysterious leads to an unfortunate power imbalance, and students inevitably end up on the wring end of this relationship. When the path to a particular grade is not overtly obvious there is a sense that information is being withheld in the interest of consolidating power. This scenario is not conducive to learning.
Ideally, students would be encouraged to evaluate whether or not they were willing to do the work for a particular grade ahead of time. This would reduce the anxiety students feel about what grade they will be assigned, and would help them connect effort to outcome. If the chosen grade was not earned, the appropriate correction would be made, but the reason for this change would be abundantly clear to students. (They could measure the quality of their own work with the examples of A-,B-,C- etc. work provided at the beginning of a class.)
Perhaps most important, grades awarded in this manner would be secondary to the essence of what one is learning. Shouldn’t this be the point of going to school? I believe this would be consistent with the kind of thoughtful, reflective school atmosphere I have referred to in On Purpose Before Twenty aswisdom culture.
I understand that the approach I’m advocating is at odds with the competition ethos, universal standards, and especially the stated national priority of STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Clearly, there’s a need for accomplished students in these areas, but the zealous emphasis on STEM feels like an anxious response to the rise of accomplished students in other nations. It’s like we are in a perpetual cold war, and there is no limit to our fascination with the manufacture of high technology products, many of which are at least loosely associated with national defense.
Is America’s Greatest Export our Culture?
What makes the situation particularly ironic is that America’s greatest export is arguably our culture. Things like music, literature, film, fashion and social media are popular worldwide. Why not a national emphasis on creating more of this culture, and doing it at the very highest levels? To adopt such an approach would immediately make creativity central to school purpose. We might also better harvest the extraordinary knowledge and innovation young people have to offer, which now so often flies below the national radar.
Our schools favor one type of student, mostly to the exclusion of others. The excluded often have as much to offer the country as their peers. In my clinical work and consulting, I have become interested in meeting and knowing about students with significant creative potential. These kids are the ones capable of shaping a nation that more accurately reflects our national diversity and democratic ideals.
We need to do more than acknowledge creativity, or make the arts more visible. I’m talking about making creativity and innovation the main storyline of school, and framing these endeavors as crucial to the evolution of our economy. This plays to the strengths of our national character, and avoids the fear-based reactivity that underlines much of the push for higher STEM test scores.
In addition, why isn’t there more exploration of entrepreneurship at the secondary school level? Why aren’t we preparing young people to provide important goods and services in their immediate communities? Why must the most selective schools be operating as though they were an exclusive training ground for Fortune 500 companies? Such a philosophy seems to reflect a fearful, reductive society, and an education system that is frantically grasping at measures of success that are outdated. Have we unknowingly agreed that individual rewards are always superior to how one serves the greater good?
It is too much to ask schools to take on a “rebellion” by themselves. Within schools, there is already a momentous backlash about the emptiness of standardized testing. This is a tremendous development that deserves our support, but we also need the tangible involvement of communities. This would be democracy in action: a scenario in which it is no longer sufficient for parents to view their role as merely tweaking a child’s educational options. Let’s be clear, choosing between extracurriculars and electives is not as important as whether a child’s education affords opportunity to seriously engage diverse interests and initiatives.
In my own town of 15,000 people, three young men have developed an autonomous boat that is crossing the Atlantic on its way to Portugal. The first two launches failed, but the third launch has the boat 1000 miles off the east coast, and on-track to reach Europe by late 2013.The boys began this project soon after they started college. They fabricated the boat from raw material, devised a navigation system, and fueled their vessel with solar panels. What’s the best way to describe this project? AMAZING! The project has garnered international attention – the implications for sea going vessels are immense. This is some of the best purposeful work I know. It is less the story of American exceptionalism than it is a sign of what many young people are capable of given an opportunity. My question is this: was it high performance on a test that spurred this innovation, or time to tinker in the garage with a group of friends?
It is possible that in the near future we will discover a method of engineering student performance; a way of leveraging the effort and single-mindedness required to be internationally competitive. Yet that event would not be a victory for the psychological and spiritual well-being of students. Instead, it would be mostly a matter of strategy, technique, and compliance. We might all become tragically infatuated with what students achieve when we insist on blinders, and where all parts of life are made subordinate to grades. This is a future painted by various administrators and journalists in glowing colors. There is a false rosiness that masks the grayness of those whose minds must be harnessed to fulfill this myopic fantasy.
If we are paying attention, it should be obvious that the will of students has already shifted. Students of the 21st century are not willing to be corralled in the ways of previous generations. There is a demand to be taken seriously, and for an education that serves a diversity of interests and abilities. This evolution is an accomplishment, and is a further incarnation of our individualism and resolve as a people. It warrants enthusiasm more than fear. And it needs innovation beyond the trivial programmatic changes that school districts and school leaders typically are allowed to consider.
It is after all in the spirit of our democratic roots that we pursue such differences. Schools should reinforce the breadth of what a democracy implies, and provide a viable opportunity to exercise its rights and responsibilities. American culture, its vitality and strength, is the primary outcome of a first rate education. Let’s make a place at the table for the full range of American talent and ingenuity. Let’s have a national conversation about what freedom means to youth, and let’s make young people a part of that conversation.
Public Talk in Rye New York: Wow, it’s been an incredibly busy late Summer and Fall for me. I’ve been on the road often, working with schools who want to make a real difference in the lives of youth. Although most of my presentations are private engagements, I will be giving a talk in Rye, New York on October 24th at 7:30 PM. If you are interested, please join us for a spirited discussion on parent-child communication, and where young people find a sense of purpose in life. You won’t be disappointed!
Copyright Adam Cox, 2013