The Outcome Pressure Cooker
I was recently talking to a senior student who confronted me about the level of academic pressure that permeates the student population.
Student: Dr. Heckmann I appreciate what you have done to try to help students find their own success, but I have to share with you that I was disappointed last year to see that you have given in to the SAS culture of academic pressure.
Principal: What do you mean?
Student: Today you shared at our meeting that it is our job to support each student in attaining personal success, regardless of what that may look like. I think the student body fully supports that idea, however we constantly get different messages from our peers, parents, teachers, and even you.
Principal: I’m not sure what you mean. I think we have taken a lot of steps in trying to reduce the academic pressure. We changed the valedictorian process; we changed how the college acceptances are reported. I think we have moved greatly.
Student: Dr. Heckmann, let be real. Those are nice gestures, but really the continued message from the administration and the school is that what matters is high academic achievement and getting into the best, or should I say highly rated universities. This message is loud and clear to all of the students.
Principal: How is that message communicated to the students, and in what ways do you feel I have given in to the culture of academic pressure?
Student: You often say it is about best-fit, not best college. I have heard you say that probably fifteen times in our meetings, yet you message something different when you broadcast our success. Last year you sent out a message to the Class of 2014 about how proud you were of their success. In that message, you shared that the Class had gained admission to 7 out of 8 Ivies, and that over 65% of students were going to study in Top 50 universities. In addition, I understand that you created the college acceptance slide show that, while highlighting all the colleges students gain acceptances, allows for the public celebration of a few universities and snickering at those less prestigious. I had a friend get into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last year with significant scholarship and he was embarrassed to share where he was going as he felt it paled in comparison to Harvard, MIT, or Princeton. It was his best fit, yet he didn’t feel it would be respected by our community. That’s a problem isn’t it?
This conversation has caused me to reflect deeply, as I was very proud the student going to RPI, as much as the student going to Harvard. Yet the message the students had received from me, as well as the community at large is that somehow one accomplishment is better than the other. The student is right… We have a problem!
Society is greatly influenced by the basic economic concept of scarcity. Tell someone that they are purchasing the last of anything and they tend to consume at a more rapid pace. Scarcity has also dramatically changed the perception of success. If you get into a highly selective college, it must be better. If you are able to gain admission into a highly selective boarding school, you will get a better education. Our group mindset about educational outcomes has been over simplified to the basic principal of scarcity… what is rare or hard to come by is somehow more worthwhile.
To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of a dream of attending a great university or of the attainment of high marks. The courage to pursue a dream is core to our mission as a school. However, our obsession with scarcity has forced many our students to feel like losers. If only 6 out of every 100 applicants to Ivy League schools are admitted, then there are 94 that are denied. In essences some must be sacrificed so that a few can be glorified. I believe firmly this is not our intended outcome, but for the 94, this is the result when so much emphasis is placed on such scarce opportunity.
Possibly more influential over our culture of academic pressure is our school community’s obsession with comparisons. Students compare marks, grade point averages, hours of SAT prep, number of clubs and activities, the number of AP or IB courses, and even their hours of sleep (less is more). Families wanting assurances that they are sending their children to the best school compare the SAS school profile, teacher qualifications, IB and AP diploma results, etc. with other schools in Shanghai or abroad. Institutionally we message similar things with the statistics the student mentioned above and our internal academic awards. There is nothing wrong with the celebration of our success as a student, school, or faculty. However why must that success be defined by comparison?
Is it possible that we have become our own worst enemy? Has the race to nowhere caused everyone to run so fast that we are missing the most important aspects of learning such as inspiration, curiosity, passion, persistence, depth of knowledge, and even personal academic fulfillment?
I have to confess that the student may be right. If we have reduced success a zero-sum game where some are winners and other losers based largely on comparison outcomes, we might have a problem!