Standards, stress, and sneetches: how can poor kids win?

In yesterday’s LA Times, Doyle McManus wrote of the “upward mobility gap”that divides college-educated America from Americans who never went to college or finished high school, and says that schools are the key to bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S.:

That leaves education, which is the most promising ground for government action, in part because most Americans agree that fixing public education is the government’s responsibility. Haskins and Sawhill say there’s still plenty that can be done to increase access to higher education for low-income kids, including relatively easy things such as simplifying the application for college financial aid, which is an intimidating 127 questions long.

But perhaps the most important thing the federal government can do to promote opportunity, they say, is to expand its current efforts to improve public schools. The focus, Haskins said, should be on giving low-income students “more order, more work and more recognition for achievement.”

Yet at the same time, a backlash is coming in many high-income, high-achieving school districts, where parents believe now that their children are overscheduled, burdened with too much homework, and subjected to too much pressure to succeed.  I’ve been sensing a growing revolt in the same socioeconomic group of parents who twenty years ago were leading the charge for standards, accountability, and more homework.  For example, we have this from the Denver Post yesterday:

The Boulder Valley School District has made an effort to address overstressed students.

District officials have eliminated class rank, valedictorians and salutatorians in favor of collective student honors. Principals honor high-achieving students — about 20 percent of a school’s senior class — by placing them in cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude groups.

Teachers in Boulder Valley secondary schools also are encouraged to collaborate to reduce the number of big homework assignments due at the same time, while teachers districtwide have been urged to evaluate homework assignments to reduce busywork in favor of assignments that deepen learning.

Ellen Miller Brown, the district’s chief academic officer, said there’s a fine line between challenging students and stressing them out.

So, it looks like the next twenty years will be dominated by school status-symbols like yoga classes and meditation in-between academic classes, and students will get into Williams and Amherst by writing admissions essays about achieving “balance.”  Taking AP or IB classes, or being a valedictorian or salutatorian will be seen as the mark of a rank striver from a struggling public school.  (Bonus:  this is surely a way to solve the gender gap in college–rewarding students for not working so hard and not achieving so much will surely favor the men over the women in college admissions these days!)

Does anyone ever think about the story of the Sneetches when they read stories like these?  I sure do!

The ruling class can always decide which is more prestigious–stars or no-stars, achievement or no-achievement.

0 thoughts on “Standards, stress, and sneetches: how can poor kids win?

  1. I wouldn’t pay much attention to an article written by somebody with such a self-evident Republian agenda. If this guy thinks Bush’s abstinence programs have been successful in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies, he is either a lar or a complete ignoramus. I wouldn’t trust anything he has to say after that.


  2. Speaking of women doing the work in school, it occurred to me to ask if the worry about grade inflation tracks closely with the increase in women in college. Maybe there really isn’t much of a grade inflation problem, just an increased number of students interested in doing the work.


  3. It’s not so much achievement as no achievement. In my school, which is private, the backlash against testing and workload is getting pretty intense. And since I’ve been here, the requirements have gone up in the name of “rigor.”. The result is that kids have five hours of homework a night which wouldn’t be that bad, except most kids dont get home until 6:00 or 7:00 because of mandatory sports or after school activities or jobs (about 20 percent of the school is on scholarship). Which means they don’t go to bed until after midnight, then get up at 6:00 or 6:30 to be at school on time the next day. And we have too many kids who are all AP all the time to the point where they don’t take a class that interests them because it doesn’t have the AP label. And not to toot my own horn, but my honors environmental history class is more like a college class than the AP World class I taught.

    For the elites, it was a case of be careful what you wish for. For the struggling urban schools, they are trying to get to the point that the suburban schools were at before the “rigor” piece came in. And yeah, with the suburban schools, it’s all about the sneetches.

    A certain ritzy suburban district here in Philly has a great reputation but I don’t really understand why. My cousin’s kids graduated from there and my niece and nephew are in elementary school there and it seems pretty by the numbers and the workloads were not tremendous (and the social studies program in the high school was terrible – or at least not good). But almost everybody goes to college from there, I just don’t think the school has that much to do with it.


  4. Clarissa–I hear what you’re saying. I’m not advocating McManus’s work, just using it as emblematic of all of the contemporary rhetoric on the need for “public school reform.” I was disturbed by his conclusion that since government can’t do anything directly about the new world of disemployment, we should just focus on education. Obviously, jobs programs and a jobs guarantee would go a long way towards an economic recovery.

    Older than Dirt: that’s an interesting point about grade inflation and women’s dominance of higher ed among undergrads. Although, truth be told, I think that grade inflation is largely a myth. I’m sure that folks who teach at highly selective colleges hand out a lot of As, because those are the kinds of students they admit almost exclusively. And at large, not-so-selective public unis like mine, we routinely assign Cs, Ds, and Fs without protest or complaint. Although I sometimes wish my students were more motivated by grades and cared more about doing well, at least I don’t have to deal with grade-grubbers. I can count on the thumbs of one hand the number of students who have ever seriously questioned a grade they earned, and I’ve never been subject to a grade challenge.

    Western Dave: I thought I might hear from you on this post! What you’re suggesting is in line with what I’m suggesting: it’s all about class, and elites control the perception of quality education, whether or not they’re offering or getting it. Merely being associated with a wealthy public school district makes people assume that the quality of education there is top-notch, whatever the reality.


  5. I hate homework for schoolchildren. In the UK, children and young people are at school for 6 and a half hours a day (not including extra-curricular activities, like sports, drama or music)- which doesn’t sound like that big a deal, until you realise that the ‘best practice’ European working day is only 7 and a half hours. The 35 hour working week is amongst other things meant to be determined by health and promoting a healthy work/ life balance (whatever that is). If children have anything more than one hours worth of homework, then we are effectively asking them to work longer hours than their parents (and we are pretending that extra-curriculars aren’t education, which is problematic).

    I understand the pedagogy behind homework (married to a teacher), but it tends to discriminate against children from poorer areas who are less-resourced, and it teaches our children to bring work home- which I think teaches them problematic lessons about the relationship with their labour. Yes, people do bring their work home in real life- but I actually don’t think we should because it means we are paid less per hour so it devalues our labour, and because it creates unrealistic expectations about what one person can achieve at work, which leads to less jobs, more demands on staff and poorer health.

    This from the woman who spent new years day writing a conference paper- sigh.


  6. Western Dave’s observations describe my own kids’ (public) school district here in the Northeast, as well. Kids who want to be competitive applicants for any top-50 school (public or private) believe, with some justification, that they must: take several APs in their junior and senior years; rank in the 10% of their classes in terms of GPA; score very well on the SATs (“very well” generally equals at least 1400 on the Math/Verbal); and have substantial extracurricular records.

    If you aim for that—and most of my kids’ friends do—then you will rarely get home before 6 p.m. and will often go to bed well after midnight most nights, due to homework. They drink a lot of coffee, by their junior years. Most of these kids are very stressed and overloaded by the start of their senior years.

    There are several things driving this, as far as I can see, but the single most important factor is what the admissions staff at top 50 universities say they’re looking for, which is the list of accomplishments outlined above. I’ve attended at least a dozen recruiting sessions with admissions officers from all sorts of universities (no Ivies though–my kids aren’t THAT ambitious) and they all say that you have to have the list above. Parents, teenagers, and guidance counselors tend to believe this.

    And my school district isn’t a wealthy one, by the way. It’s about a 45/45 balance between white and African-American pupils, with 10% other. And over 20% of the pupils in this district qualify for free lunches.

    I normally lurk with great admiration for your posts, Historiann, but in this case, I disagree with most of what you say here. The parents aren’t the main people driving this trend. And I doubt that those who take AP/IB courses and who are valedictorians will be discriminated against by admissions officers in my lifetime. We are expecting a bit too much of high school kids who want to go to the top tier universities, in my opinion, and we do need to walk it back a little. But the university admissions offices are in the driver’s seat here, not the parents or high schools.


  7. Cordelia V.: but of course, you and your peers are in the tiny minority of American parents in having children who are applying to selective colleges. Most Americans who are college-bound aren’t applying to selective colleges, and they win admission to community colleges and public universities without any fuss at all.

    My point here is just that elite parents will get what they want, regardless, and that their children will do just fine. Unfortunately, they’re the top of the tail that cracks the whip for a lot of other people. I’m sure we’re not yet at the point where AP and IB classes and being valedictorian are held against applicants–but we’ll see where we are in twenty years. The insane competition for seats at selective unis really looks nutty from Flyover Country, where people are still very pleased and proud to send their children to the local Flagship or State U.

    I’m really glad that I’m neither a Baby Boomer nor the child of a Baby Boomer, but rather Gen X. It was pretty awesome applying for college in the mid-1980s, when the competition was pretty relaxed and even pretty prestigious unis worried about finding enough butts to put in the seats. (Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?)

    So, I recognize that your kids are in a demographic bind I’ve never experienced, and I hope that they find colleges or universities that offer them the educations they want and need.


  8. Cordelia’s righter than she realizes. It isn’t just top-50 schools that have seen admissions standards inflate. My alma mater (which this year is in a five-way tie for #99 in the admittedly flawed US News rankings) has gotten to the point where, if I were applying now, I wouldn’t get in- and it’s only been ten years. For that matter, my father was admitted to an Ivy in 1977 with grades and extracurriculars similar to what mine were in 2000. I’d bet that if you dug up the admissions standards for Bah Ram U from 2000, they’d be a good standard deviation lower than they are now.

    I think it’s an arms race dynamic, the same one that’s driving increased tenure standards, upgrades in athletic programs, palatial student unions, etc. Even the trend of the past decade to rename Colleges as Universities (like Massachusetts just did with its six “state universities”). There’s absolute goal, everyone is just trying to get ahead of whoever’s in front of them.


  9. The whole complex is just that. The K-12 system requires more homework as you approach 12. Sorry, but 5 hours of homework seems to me to more punitive than necessary. Since I am a baby boomer, I pushed my oldest kid like crazy; it was one of the worst mistakes I made in my life. But through it I learned that K-12 can be easily be K-8 without losing much. My oldest got to post graduate work years before he could legally buy bear. I left the other two kids alone.

    My youngest attitude was very clear: if the teacher makes sense and poses challenges, my son collaborated. However, if the teacher was a “moron” my son did nothing in the class. Like his “serious” brothers he also went to top college. His a political director of a major union in a very large city since he was 24. Work on students brains and not their rear end endurance.

    I am all for cutting down on homework (in classes I teach assignment are designed to engage the brain not time), lower competition, removing waste of time and not encourage enrollment in top colleges.


  10. My frustration has been that rigor has been measured by amount of work rather than quality of work. As koshem says, a moron teacher can pile on work but not have it be meaningful. One of the biggest compliments I ever got from a student was the one who said I had the most challenging class with the least amount of work. Sadly, I’ve had to give more assignments (in part to help weaker students who need more feedback on a more regular basis). So I’m sympathetic to the idea that weaker students need more regular work and more feedback. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be write a paper a week. It can be write a thesis statement for homework and we’ll workshop them tomorrow.

    But the move to de-skill teachers isn’t going to help on the meaningful work front. (Starts threadjack and runs.)


  11. That was me in K-6. If the teacher was firing on the right cylinders, collaborate. If a moron, that’s why they had windows in the classrooms. Especially when it showed. 7-9 was a disaster. In 9-12, we did write a lot, every week, and I’ve never been sorry about that. I later wrote my way out of more problematic, and even hopeless, corners than I could have imagined, right into and through graduate school. So I guess the conclusion is, whatever works works. Not every parent can move their kid around to get the right mix-and-match.


  12. I thought the point of studying AP Calculus was to learn calculus, not to get into a “good” college. Seems the tail is wagging the dog here, or am I just being naive?


  13. I grew up in the early part of this culture (back when we thought going to college meant a good, solid and well paying job) and I think maybe getting rid of valedictorian/saludatorians would be a good thing. My elder sister would have been valedictorian but she took three years of marching band which was a non-honors class, so her A from that was actually dragging down the A’s from her honors and AP classes. I also think you have so much problems with big fish in small ponds or big fish in big ponds. I agree though that it’s all about where you go and the tendency of that economic class to push that entire group into college and so the “best” high schools keep their status because upper middle class people keep sending their kids there.

    Someone else really hit the nail on the head that one unintended consequence of all these hours of homework is that students are rewarded based on effort. Then when they go to college or certain places in the “real world” they discover that effort is not directly rewarded. That it’s more important you study, learn and understand and that someone who can do that in 20 minutes might get a better grade than someone who spends hours studying. Though, I hear this from GenXers and Baby Booomers as well, the “but I worked so hard on that.” Yes, but if it’s wrong, you can’t get credit/promoted. Maybe our schools only reflect our culture in many ways, maybe there’s much we’d need to change first before we could really effect changes in our public schools


  14. I’m a child of baby boomers — Gen Y, millennial, whatever you guys decide to call the large cohort following Gen X. I’m also autistic, which meant I both fit and didn’t fit the “high-achieving” mold you, Western Dave, and Cordelia V mention.

    Early in K-12, I was in special ed classes as well as gifted classes, and later (starting around middle school) I was not recognized as gifted/advanced at all, really. So I took lots of mainstream, non-honors, non-AP classes in middle school and early high school that weren’t the least bit interesting or challenging. By my senior year, though, I was taking AP calculus, AP history and multiple science classes — I had found the stuff that both challenged and interested me, despite never being on the “achiever” track, really, because of my disability and my schools’ poor understanding of how to handle students with that disability.

    So I met some of Cordelia’s criteria but not all — yes to the demanding classes, at least by the latter half of high school, no to the high GPA (we had weighted averages, with AP classes worth 5.0 — so if you’re not on an all-AP track starting freshman year, you’re going to be ranked 50 or below. You just are. And that was OK, because I did not give a crap about my class rank). I only applied to one college, the nonselective state school closest to my parents’ house. (Again, with the disability — we weren’t sure how far away from home I should be, since I can’t drive and we had no idea how much independence I could handle).

    My normal brother and sister worked a lot harder than I did in high school — I remember having most of my time after school free. I did one extracurricular activity — something I liked, which had practically zero College Application Utility.


  15. What is sad that some of these kids get pressured into med school or law school, graduate, start careers and somewhere around their thirties realize they hate what they’re doing but can’t afford to quit because they have high-income lifestyles.

    I can’t imagine having my entire childhood scripted and planned like many of the kids today.


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