"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cracking Down on Stress Before Cracking Up America

In a few short years, corporate America has reshaped the educational ethos of America into a climbing-up-your-neighbor's-back rat race of achievement worship. High test scores translate into high SATs, which beget private college educations, which beget big corporate jobs, which beget the disposable walking alcoholic heart attacks that reach ripeness right about the time life should be savored. And the process starts all over again by using the testing factories to infect a new generation with child stress disorder (CSD).

Well, thank God for principals like Paul Richards, who is working to restore some sanity in the lives of high school humans before they are swept into the all-comsuming vortex of unhealthy competition. From the NY Times:

NEEDHAM, Mass. — It was 6:30 p.m. The lights were still on at Needham High School, here in the affluent Boston suburbs. Paul Richards, the principal, was meeting with the Stress Reduction Committee.

On the agenda: finding the right time to bring in experts to train students in relaxation techniques.

Don’t try to have them teach relaxation in study hall, said Olivia Boyd, a senior. Students, she explained, won’t want to interrupt their work. They were already too busy before or after school for the training.

No one is busier than Josh Goldman. Captain of varsity tennis, president of the Spanish club and a member of the student council and the Stress Reduction Committee, Josh was not able to squeeze in the meeting at all.

Mr. Richards noted his absence wryly. “Josh is a perfect example,” he said. “He’s got a hundred things going on.”

Here is the high-powered culture that Mr. Richards is trying to change, even if only a little.

But cultural change does not come smoothly. When Mr. Richards stopped publishing the honor roll in the local newspaper last winter, a move aimed at some parents who had turned the lists into a public accounting, Rush Limbaugh accused him of politically correct coddling of students, and Jay Leno mocked the school on national television. He received hate mail from all over the country.

Mr. Richards is undeterred. “It’s not that I’m trying to turn the culture upside down,” he said.

“It’s very important to protect the part of the culture that leads to all the achievement,” he said. “It’s more about bringing the culture to a healthier place.”

His new stress committee is starting to come up with recommendations, like the relaxation consultants, and is surveying students about unhealthy stress. This term, Mr. Richards is talking up the yoga classes that are required of all seniors. He has asked teachers to schedule homework-free weekends and holidays.

“The irony,” he said, referring to the homework breaks, “is that students tell us they appreciate the time because it allows them to catch up on other schoolwork.”

Mr. Richards is just one principal in the vanguard of a movement to push back against an ethos of super-achievement at affluent suburban high schools amid the extreme competition over college admissions. He has joined like-minded administrators from 44 other high schools and middle schools — most in the San Francisco Bay Area but others scattered from Texas to New York — to form a group known as S.O.S., for Stressed Out Students.

The group was formed four years ago by Denise Pope, a lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and author of the book, “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students” (Yale University Press, 2001).

High schools in other Boston suburbs — Wellesley, Lexington, Wayland — have taken steps similar to Needham’s, organizing stress committees and yoga classes. Some high schools are requiring students to get parental permission before enrolling in Advanced Placement classes. Others are experimenting with later start times so students can get more sleep.

Dr. Pope advises schools to end the tradition of student newspapers publishing end-of-the-year lists of seniors and their colleges. “We found that there are kids who are lying,” she said, “because they’re embarrassed to say they’re going to a state school.” . . . .

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