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JOANNA WEISS

Redefining teenage success

Some are searching for remedies to relieve the pressure in today’s high schools

Tim Bower

IN LEXINGTON, high school teachers have worn clown noses to class to lighten the atmosphere.

In Newton, they’ve instituted homework-free weekends and are training kids in yoga and meditation.

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That’s a start, I suppose.

But changing the culture in pressure-cooker high schools is going to take something bolder.

This week, US News and World Report released its annual list of top high schools in America, ranked by standardized test scores and AP-class enrollment, and, likely, by general misery. It’s wonderful to emphasize achievement, but at some point, the pressure to excel takes too great a toll. And lately, some districts are starting to acknowledge that students are sleep-deprived, overwhelmed with make-work homework, and convinced their entire futures depend on taking five AP classes instead of two.

The extent of this problem is a matter of debate. Tom Loveless, who studies education at the Brookings Institution, believes the pressure is self-imposed and overstated. Parents in certain communities know what they’re getting their families into, he says. And today’s kids don’t have it that tough, relatively speaking; a century ago, he notes, many teenagers were working full-time on farms or in factories and mines.

“Our teens today are about as well off as kids have ever been in human history,” he said. “And yet we’re wringing our hands saying, ‘Oh, these poor kids.’ ’’

But Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University’s graduate school of education, says she’s seen increased stress among students across demographics. It’s fueled, she said, by an increased reliance on standardized tests, more stringent college admissions, and more pressure from well-meaning parents who ask, “How'd you do on the history test?” rather than, “Did you learn anything interesting in school today?”

Pope hopes to change schools from within. Through an organization called Challenge Success, she meets with parents, students, and teachers, encouraging them to set limits on homework, place value on free time, and look beyond name-brand colleges. It’s a hard sell, she concedes.

She starts by asking parents how they measure their kids’ success. They tend to answer with “happiness” and “fulfilment.” Yet what they’re valuing, at least in the short term, she tells them, is test scores, grades, and prestige.

It seems unrealistic to think that parents and kids will change themselves. The high-achievement arms race is too hard to resist. The change needs to come from someplace else.

How about college admissions offices?

In my ideal world, they’d penalize the most overzealous applications, imposing something like a sports-team luxury tax: points off for too many AP courses or absurd numbers of extracurriculars.

Or they could just change the way they choose kids altogether.

Last fall, Bard College, a liberal arts school in New York, introduced an alternate admissions process. You can apply the traditional way, with transcripts and letters of recommendation. Or you can apply by writing four essays, selected from 21 choices, from an analysis of Gogol's “The Nose” to an explanation of why computers can beat humans at some games, but not others.

These aren’t 20-minute exercises in faux deep thought. They’re research papers, which students have months to complete, based on reading material the college provides, with suggested lengths of 2,500 words. They’re graded by college professors, who give feedback.

The idea, Bard College President Leon Botstein said, is to challenge a system that clearly doesn’t work. “The admissions process is cruel,” he told me. The self-serving personal essays on the standard application “are a terrible genre, a useless genre.”

But a substantive essay levels the playing field, he said, eliminating the bump you’d get from SAT prep classes or from having the financial wherewithal to load up on extracurriculars. Plus, it gives students a sense of the work they’d be doing in college.

“We thought this would be enjoyable, interesting, and revelatory,” Botstein said.

Out of 7,000 applicants to Bard last fall, 41 opted for the essays; 17 of the essay writers were admitted. Scaling up the process would require a lot of work. So would convincing other colleges to switch to a system that relied on thoughtful analysis.

Maybe it’s as unrealistic as thinking that yoga will solve the problem. But just imagine if this were what high schools trained students to do. It would be the difference between “How did the test go?” and “Did you learn anything interesting today?”

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss
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