A High Stakes Problem, and a Low Stakes Solution

The dean of Stanford University’s school of education, Deborah Stipek, believes that there’s too much pressure on high school students to get into top colleges. Such pressure is “damaging many otherwise promising lives.” Well right, but what are we supposed to do about that?

Stipek recently wrote a piece in Science about this. According to Debra Viadero at Education Week:

Stipek takes issue with the competitive culture that surrounds young people in some high schools across the country, especially those that serve high concentrations of students from well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class families. Drawing on 35 years of research on academic motivation, she says such pressure can lead to “debilitating anxiety,” cheating, and “take the joy out of learning,” as well as exacerbate achievement gaps between have- and have-not students.

“For the most part, high school has become for many of our students not preparation for life or college but preparation for the college application,” Stipek said in a telephone conference call with reporters this week.

Duly noted. This is something about which Stipek, who herself attended the University of Washington, has written before. She’s right that’s its probably very unpleasant to face pressure from parents and teachers, and participate in near constant activities, in some hope of an admit letter from a school like, well, Stanford. Stipek says the solution is:

…steps that educators can take to alleviate some of the stress on students and better engage them in learning. These include involving students in lessons that connect to their personal lives, collaborative studies, experimenting and debating the implications of findings, and solving multidimensional problems and teaching them to value learning skills over nailing high scores.

Schools can also help by using a master calendar to space out testing so that diligent students aren’t pulling all-nighters, giving students multiple opportunities to earn a good grade (such as by rewriting papers or retaking tests), and creating advisory periods during which an adult is available to monitor students’ homework and offer extra help.

The problem is that those things address only the symptoms of that problem, the high stakes admission game into America’s fanciest colleges. “Teaching them to value learning skills over nailing high scores” would only effectively address the problem if learning skills were really important to college admissions. And they aren’t.

High stakes admissions stresses students out because high stakes admissions values high tests scores and students participating in a lot of extracurricular activities. Americans can try and teach all high school students to rise above this admissions game by doing things like “involving students in lessons that connect to their personal lives “ but ultimately this leaves the problem itself unaddressed because college admissions doesn’t care about lessons that connect to students’ personal lives.

If high stakes admissions have taken the joy out of learning, the solution is not to shout “learning is joyful” at ambitious students, who will conclude only that perhaps learning at the schools they wish to attend is joyful; high school is boring and stressful.

The solution here is to destroy high stakes admissions. How about looking into that?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer