Monday, August 28, 2006

Many of America's Overachieving Kids May Still Be Shy of Their Potential

At, Joanne posts this gem [all emph. add.]:

August 21, 2006
Stress at the top

I got back home today to find a copy of Alexandra Robbins' The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids on the breakfast table, apparently left by my daughter, a classic overachiever. It's the tale of overworked, AP-laden high school students in an affluent Maryland suburb.

The book paints a true picture for a few students, but most kids are coasting, writes Jay Mathews in a Washington Post column:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national achievement test, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant the last 30 years. One of the reasons for this, many educators say, is that students, educators and parents have bought into the notion popularized by Robbins and other social critics that American teenagers have too much schoolwork and should be allowed instead to read for pleasure and watch the sunset and think deep thoughts.

Robbins' book focuses on students at a school in the top 5 percent in family education, affluence and academic ambition, Mathews points out.

Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare.

UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute regularly asks about 400,000 college freshmen how much homework they did in high school. About two-thirds say only an hour a night or less. Remember, these are the homework habits of students who went on to college. The one-third of high school graduates who weren't preparing for higher education were likely to have had an even lighter academic load.
And what of that overload of AP courses? Newsweek's annual high school rankings indicate that only 5 percent of U.S. public high schools have students averaging more than one AP test a year.

Teen-agers tell survey-takers that they spend only 42 minutes a day studying, compared to about 3 1/2 hours a day [watching] television, and online. Mathews also points out that Robbins' claims that elementary schools are cutting recess are wrong, [and that] the rise in teen suicides occurred in the 1980s and stabilized before the rise in overachievement, which Robbins says started about 10 years ago.

I completely agree with Mathews' conclusion: "Our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little."


One of the comments on the post:

Perhaps the reason the pressure is so great on students that are interested in getting into the best colleges is precisely because expectations are so low in general. It's much harder to identify the very best people when you don't test for it. For instance, my kids went to a K-8 private school that does have very high expectations, but because of requirements, they also give standardized tests every year. By the time the kids are in 8th grade, all of the kids max out the test results. This doesn't mean that the kids aren't normally distributed on various measures of ability, just that the tests are too easy. [...]

At our local high school any "more advanced" course is forced to admit anyone who wants (really, anyone whose parents want them) to take it (because otherwise the parents with make a giant stink), and they can't flunk 95% of the kids (an even bigger stink), so the course isn't really more advanced. By now we don't have anyone to teach these classes anyway, because it's too discouraging, and as a result the upper limits on student achievement are bland AP courses, and 40+ kids a year end up with 8-10 such courses when they graduate. Since the school can't really stretch the best kids, there is this undifferentiated mass of overachievers. If the schools really sorted people by ability, everyone would learn more, and it would be okay to make a few mistakes, which would reduce a lot of the pressure.

Of course I don't know how to do this in practice, but I do know that it can't be done as long as we insist on combining "purely objective measures" with "preserving self-esteem". In the meantime, my oldest kid has dropped out of high school to avoid this nonsense, and is learning advanced undergraduate level material as a high school sophomore, and feels no pressure at all...

Posted by hardlyb at August 22, 2006


Well, I watched quite a bit of television as a youth, and did hardly any homework, but I also read an average of ten novels a week. As I got older and took a job, however, I ended up managing my shrunken free time by keeping the television habit, and reading a lot less.

I now think that watching that much television was a mistake, one that I regret - wasted time. I certainly enjoyed most of it, and did learn stuff too, but the information density is pretty low, even in "educational" programmes.

I'm not against watching television, but, like eating dessert, it's a practice best undertaken sparingly.

Perhaps I should note that in addition to watching too much television in the past, I've also eaten too much dessert. I was dimly aware that I was doing so, but didn't much care. I didn't get serious about food-related discipline until a few years ago. Actually, I didn't get serious about any discipline until a few years ago - money, time, food, excercise, health...
Before that I did just enough to get by.

Is that just me, or is it a common middle age thing, for the formerly self-indulgent to wise up and start paying attention ?


Blogger Duck said...

I spent a good portion of my adulthood regretting not being more of a high acheiver. I've finally accepted the fact that I'm not the overachiever type, and I'm glad not to be. I don't know whether this is a uniquely American obsession or not, but for a nation that celebrates the ordinary guy, we certainly place the expectation on our children that they are not to be one of these ordinary people.

Drivenness is a personality trait that one is born with, or not. We're not blank slates, and the worst thing you can do to someone who isn't born with a driven personality is to try to force him/her to live up to such an expectation through guilt.

We benefit as a society by having a small elite of overacheivers, but society couldn't really function properly if everyone were so. Driven people generally work well with others - they have to be in charge, or else. You can't form a society with a surplus of these types of people.

I've pretty much given up on novels. I've found that it is the rare author that can compete with reality to tell a tale that is worthwhile to read.

August 28, 2006 9:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I meant to say driven people generally do not work well with others.

August 28, 2006 9:45 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Why would the scores be expected to rise (or fall) over decades?

One of our young reporters, an Ivy Leaguer and a sharp cookie all around, asked me for advice a while back.

She picks up her alumni magazine and sees her classmates 'saving the world in Kenya' and chides herself for working on a provincial newspaper, living next door to her parents, riding horses with her mom and being married to a handsome professional surfer.

'There's something to be said for having a good life, too,' she said, trying to justify her choices.

I told her I thought she was on the right track. For one thing, I told her, that if she tried to grab the brass ring in journalism, she'd lose her husband along the way.

Also, that people in the provinces deserve good reporting, too.

I like to think I'm good enough at what I'm doing to do it equally well in any venue, but I've seen first-hand enough of how you have to behave to get those assignments to know that I'd never have survived in that environment.

August 28, 2006 9:59 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Overachievement is overrated, in my opinion.

In the late 1960s, approximately 1% of the freshman class at MIT committed suicide. Intensely nerdly and poorly socialized, these kids couldn't deal with even the concept of not being number one in their peer group in academic endeavors and decided to snuff it.

Clearly some balance is required. To MIT's credit, they instituted freshman pass fail, where all courses that freshmen take did not receive a letter grade. The suicide rate then dropped to more or less nothing (not quite to zero, but many universities have some problems with suicides).

Unfortunately, later, when I was a freshman at MIT, the pass fail thing probably hurt me. I was incredibly immature, and did well enough on the first one or two tests in each course to be guarenteed a "Pass". As a result, I didn't bother to show up (much) for the last part of each Freshman semester in any of my courses. Obviously, an amazing waste of tuition. It might not've been a waste of tuition if I had applied myself to one of the undergraduate research programs with all the extra time I had, but I didn't. Instead I partied. I had a very good time, and there's certainly more to life than studying, so I only regret my decision a little bit.

It's relatively easy to achieve, I think, if (a) you like what you do and (b) you tend to have an obsessive personality. If neither of those are true, I imagine it's quite difficult to come up with the energy to be a superachiever. I guess that if you're motivated enough by money and/or power that can work too. It wouldn't for me though. Duck's comment that "driven people generally do not work well with others" applies more to the latter category than the former, I think.

August 28, 2006 1:55 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

The question to ask in any such discussion about achievement is "to what purpose?" Are we pushing acheivement as some reflexive, knee-jerk response to the pressures of trying to be a good parent? I think the achievement imperative in America betrays our Puritan, Calvinist roots. Even after we've dropped the theology, we are culturally conditioned to demonstrate our 'elect' status to others.

The right kind of drivenness is the kind that is a response to a deeply felt passion or interest that provides the person a sense of meaning, and that is not tied to external pressures to acheive status. Bret, I think that you are right to point out that the kind of driven people that don't work well with others are the ones who are driven by status.

Growing up in Cranston, RI, I was acquainted with a family called Laffey. They had three sons and two daughters. We went to school, church and cub scouts together, and my parents and their parents were close friends, still are. I went to school with the oldest Laffey boy, John. I later found out that he died from AIDS. The middle son was not an acheiver, I believe he suffers from schizophrenia. The youngest son, Stephen, went to Harvard Business School, became President of Morgan Keegan, a brokerage firm, at the age of 38, became a millionaire from the golden parachute he got from them when they were acquired, ran for Mayor of Cranston and won, and now is challenging Lincoln Chaffee for the Republican nomination for US Senator from Rhode Island.

So you can't chalk up over-achievement merely to genes or upbringing.

I've read that one trait that many over-achieving men have in common is that they were either raised without a father or had fathers who were largely absent during their upbringing. Seems that men find a strong, encouraging maternal influence more congenial than a strong male influence. Less need to rebel, or to prove yourself to be your own man? Who knows?

August 28, 2006 2:51 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. I never read that.

I don't much like 'overachieving.' How about just 'achieving'?

My achieving brother and I grew up in the same household, and our father was often absent when I was young. He was around much more when my younger brother was growing up.

Whatever that means. I was wondering about that the other night. Dad died just as he was graduating from high school. He had to support himself, which I did, too, but I always had Dad to fall back on if I'd needed to. I was wondering if being thrown back on himself like that motivated him more.

I will accept 'underachieving,' though. I've always punched well under my SAT weight. My nurturing mom -- the one who wouldn't believe I could be a stand-in for the handsome Richard Attenborough -- told me, 'You never had any ambition.'

But I did. I wanted to raise good kids. And I did, too. Well, I give my wife more of the credit for that.

The only other ambition I ever had was to write a news story that put somebody behind bars. I've achieved that, too.

August 28, 2006 4:30 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey, hey. Guys, easy now. There are times for we Type B secularists and Type B religionists to unite as one, and this is it.

It's really not all that tough. Life is about choices. There are only so many hours in a day and so much energy. You make choices, and they count. Your wife and kids come first or you set out to save Kenya or corner the market in pork bellies. Doesn't matter in the end whether you set out consciously on those routes or were nagged into it. And you accept the consequences of that choice.

Over the years Harry's and Duck's frothing madness about medieval Christendom have been interspersed with enough heartening family/child references for me to know they got some things right. And I've seen enough Type A crack-ups to know (or rather crack-ups who were vicitms of type A's). No, they don't get their comeuppence because they are Type A's and therefore fully capable of not missing a beat and keeping on truckin' to the next round, but the detritus they can leave behind is appalling.

August 28, 2006 5:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Is that just me, or is it a common middle age thing, for the formerly self-indulgent to wise up and start paying attention ?

You know you have reached middle age when your stomach hurls in protest when the kids say: "Let's order pizza tonight", but your mouth waters at the thought of a garden-fresh tomato sandwich with just a touch of pepper and mayo.

August 28, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Very interesting post.

With respect to my kids (13 yr old daughter, 12 yr old son):

They do about an hour a day on homework, and zero hours/day in front of the TV. I'm not sure whether this is a form of abuse, but I have managed to raise two children who have no first hand experience of TV shows (absent Animal Planet on the odd occasion when they are sick).

My daughter is taking English at the next grade level, and my son is doing the same in Math.

"Our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little."

Kind of comes with the mass education territory. If the instruction is pitched at the mean (or probably one standard deviation less than the mean), then, by definition, half the kids are not getting particularly challenged.

Our schools admit anyone who wishes to be in an AP class. However, they make those who wish take a "placement" test, with the proviso that those getting less than a certain (pretty high) score should not expect to do well. The number of students in AP classes seems about right, probably something less than 15%.

As for me, I scarcely watched any TV, but could have worked a lot harder in HS. I used lack of money as a rationalization not to study hard enough to get into a "good" school. Fortunately, I managed to get into an adequate college (USC), and caught the learning bug there.

We benefit as a society by having a small elite of overacheivers, but society couldn't really function properly if everyone were so. Driven people don't generally work well with others ...

Having become something of an overachiever, or at least very Type-A, I can say, in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't know me when I was younger.

The question to ask in any such discussion about achievement is "to what purpose?" Are we pushing acheivement as some reflexive, knee-jerk response to the pressures of trying to be a good parent?

In my house, we push purposive effort (which is to say, do a good, solid, job), and the results will be what they will be.

August 28, 2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Being a second-generation immigrant is a big recipe for guilt when it comes to achievement.

My father's in his 60s, routinely works 14-hour days, goes to the gym 3 days a week for an INTENSE two-hour workout session and barely takes any time off. I think the last time he had fun was when he watched [i]Jaws[/i] at the movies.

My mother insists on fully cleaning their house at least once a week and is a machine when it comes to domestic work. Now that the kids are all grown up, she's decided to start her own business too.

Just about any time I sit to read something for pleasure, I get a nagging sense that I should be working.

August 29, 2006 5:04 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Sure, but by sociologist measures (formal education, income), you're way over the mean, right?

Your parents are not dissimilar from my father. Not an immigrant, but he grew up in a house with no income, aside from $15 a week they got from an uncle. For a family of 7.

The issue, I think, is really work discipline.

Nobody works harder than a pre-industrial peasant, but the work is irregular. Nothing is more unnatural than to wake up 5 or 6 days a week and show up at a job at 7 a.m. and stay attentive to it until 5. (Longer hours may apply.)

The means by which industrial work discipline was inculcated in the first generation to have it in each society were brutal. In England, they chained children to looms; in Russia, the shot the absentees.

Being raised in a household where work discipline already exists makes it much easier to adapt to.

I don't think it means some of us are not achieving just because we are not beavering away every minute of the day.

Just a couple weeks ago, somebody referenced Tevye, wanting to pray and discuss the Torah all day.

That goes back to my irritation with the NT story of Martha and Mary. Jesus said Mary 'chose the better part," but I say, wash the dishes first. Play later.

August 29, 2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hey, an ad from Target, my target in the blogads search, but it doesn't look as if my pastiche of Lileks was what drew it here.

August 29, 2006 5:51 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

Perhaps the main thing is not to regret the things you didn't do, either through inertia or failure of nerve.

On the other hand, think of all the great works of literature and art we wouldn't have if people didn't regret their failure to create great works of literature and art.

August 30, 2006 2:18 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M Ali:

Just about any time I sit to read something for pleasure, I get a nagging sense that I should be working.

Hang on in there, M: it will pass.

August 30, 2006 2:19 AM  

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