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How to handle high-pressure high schools

Last modified: 8/23/2015 12:13:00 AM
There is much for students, teachers and parents to learn from a new book by Stanford University experts on how to handle the stress of learning in our nation’s high-pressure high schools.

Only about 10 percent of U.S. schools fit that category, in contrast with the vast majority, which let most kids slide through. But in the Washington, D.C., area, more than two-thirds of high schools provide the heavy focus on college-level courses that puts them on the Washington Post’s America’s Most Challenging High Schools list and creates the conditions that worry the authors of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.

Those three Stanford authors – Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles – offer excellent advice on how to improve school schedules, make homework sensible and helpful, encourage engaging student projects and create a friendly campus atmosphere so students under pressure can find fun and satisfaction. The authors also discredit a persistent and harmful myth that Advanced Placement courses are the central cause of academic stress in America.

I wish they had made more of an effort to make clear that they are addressing issues relevant to only that top 10 percent of pressure-cooker schools. Some readers may get the false impression that the central issue in secondary education is asking students to do too much, when the truth is our schools ask too little. That is particularly obvious in low- and middle-income communities. Those children from less-affluent families often feel pressured, but the causes have little to do with academics.

Overloaded and Underprepared is a big improvement over the last major contribution to this debate, the popular documentary Race to Nowhere. That well-meaning but distorted piece of cinema suggested that test pressure was killing our kids – that suicide spikes were the fault of the SAT, Advanced Placement and other stress-builders in schools.

The film provided no data, just attitude. When I asked filmmaker Vicki Abeles how Race to Nowhere could argue that high school students throughout the country were academically stressed when major surveys showed them doing less than an hour of homework a night, she said her evidence was what she heard from audiences at screenings of her movie. That is one of the least valid sources imaginable, particularly without a formal survey.

The authors of Overloaded and Underprepared recommend that schools “establish an open enrollment policy, and make AP classes available to all students who have an interest in taking them, not just top-tier students. Students can benefit from the AP for various reasons, including the passion for a topic, the need for a challenge, or the exposure to what it means to do college level coursework.”

They take it a step further, challenging one of the distortions in Race to Nowhere. Assuming the AP enrollment process is sensible and provides a way out for students who find the courses too much to handle, the Stanford authors advise that schools “don’t cap or limit the number of AP classes in which students are permitted to enroll.” This is because their student surveys in AP-heavy schools found that “stress levels in students are not necessarily correlated to the number of AP classes they take. Some students will be able to handle several AP courses at once; others will be unduly stressed by taking only one AP course.”

I hope their research leads them to more schools in less-affluent areas that have found AP and other such programs energizing their classes.

They argue that AP programs work not so much because of the AP courses and tests, but because of the clear goals, extra funding, extra instruction for students and extra training for teachers that successful AP schools have.

Once they take a close look at the dynamics of such schools, they will find those good approaches usually work only because the courses have final AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge exams written and graded by outside experts. Courses without those independent checks can be, and often are, dumbed down, defeating their purpose.


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