Debate Magazine

We’ve Invited Students to the Track, Given Them Sprinter’s Shoes, and Now We Watch Helplessly as They Run Themselves into Exhaustion

By Stevemiranda

I was telling a friend today about an experience I had while teaching in a traditional school.

The students in this particular class were all very high achievers, a result of Seattle School’s Accelerated Progress Program funneling future Ivy Leaguers into the same school. I was frustrated that my students’ writing, while good, was not improving—despite the fact that we had been working on writing strategies for six straight months.

I shared this with the students, and asked how I could do a better job giving them value for their time in class. One student interrupted: “Hey Miranda, let me tell you what my life is like. I’m trying to get into Yale. [He was in 10th grade at the time.] I got five other classes, each with an hour’s worth of homework per night. I have to be the president of five different clubs, and the captain of seven different sports teams. On the weekends, I need to feed the orphans at the soup kitchen. In the summer, I need to travel to a Third World country and feed the orphans there, while simultaneously enrolling in language immersion program. . . . “

Now, it was my turn to interrupt.

“OK, hold on,” I said, “I think I hear what you’re saying. You’re writing isn’t improving, because you’re not trying to improve your writing. You’re trying to get the maximum possible grade for the minimum amount of work.”

He said, “You got it, brother.”

There was a long, awkward silence as the students wondered what was doing to happen next.

I stared at them and said, “I’m just a babysitter for you guys, aren’t I.”

He replied, “Hey Miranda, you’re a great babysitter.”

* * *

This phenomenon was not unique to my classroom. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, one that inspired a New York Times op-ed earlier this month titled “Super People.” So, whose fault is this? Should we blame pushy parents? Demanding college admissions officers?

I don’t know, I’m much more interested in doing something about it. One of the best things we can do is to modify the final “product” of the high school experience. Right now we give kids a paper transcript filled with letters and numbers that are supposed to mean something. It doesn’t matter if kids actually learn anything, it doesn’t matter if they experienced any personal growth—the most important things on their transcript are their grades, their class rank, and their GPA.

Now, because kids across the country—all competing for entrance into elite colleges—know how to get A’s, the “activity” list on their application becomes the next battle ground. Filling it with more and more impressive things is a way to differentiate their application from the hundreds of other perfect GPA/perfect SAT score applications.

These are the incentives we’ve created. Students trying to turn themselves into Super People.

It’s like we’ve invited students to the track, given them sprinter’s shoes, pointed the starter’s gun in the air and fired. Then we watch helplessly as they run themselves into exhaustion (to quote the title of an important movie) on a race to nowhere.

I had a conversation once with a guy who used to serve on the admissions committee of an Ivy League school. He said the only real information he could glean from the applications he reviewed was that these applicants could do extraordinarily large volumes of work. He said there was nothing in the application that could give him a true sense of what the kid was really like, whether she’d be a good dorm mate, whether she could contribute meaningfully to a class discussion, whether she was curious about anything, whether she was passionate about anything.

We can catalyze a change in this system by changing the product of a high school experience. By trading GPA for a detailed list of academic competencies, by trading class rank for a declaration of a personal passion, by trading the exhaustive list of “activities” for honest-to-goodness achievements, we can change everything.

This way we can encourage students, instead of becoming Super People, to just be super versions of themselves.

(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)


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