Julie is perceived by her peers as a superstar — a brain, a jock and a beauty all in one. CJ is seen as a flirt. Taylor is the popular girl, and Sam is the teacher’s pet. All are academic “overachievers.” And all attended Whitman High School, one of the nation’s top public schools and the setting for best-selling author Alexandra Robbins’ study of contemporary American high school culture entitled, The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.
Robbins is herself an “overachieving” graduate of the Bethesda, Maryland school (barely 30, she has already published five books). Returning to Whitman a decade after she left for Yale, Robbins draws a sharp contrast between what the school was like then and what it is like now, using it as the basis for her analysis of the “competitive frenzy” that, she argues, has taken root in high schools across the country. “This is not just a book about high school,” Robbins writes. “This is a book about how a culture of overachieverism has changed the school experience so drastically in even the last ten years that it has startlingly altered what it means to be a student today.”
Tracking a group of juniors and seniors as they struggle to maintain their grades, excel at sports, rack up extracurriculars, ace the SAT and get into elite colleges, Robbins alternates between biography and commentary, using the daily lives of Whitman students to ground her claims about what high school does to teenagers today. Over the course of the book, Julie suffers from stress-related hair loss, CJ resorts to binge-eating and drinking to relieve anxiety, Taylor breaks down when she can’t decide between Duke and Penn, and Sam cheats on a homework assignment. Their stories allow Robbins to reflect on the stressful, hyper-scheduled lives of teens growing up in a culture that is excessively focused on achievement.
Adolescence today, Robbins argues, is a highly professionalized experience in which one’s resume, transcript, and scores are everything, and where both the innocence and leisure traditionally associated with childhood are nowhere to be found. Noting that the competition to get into top-ranked colleges has increased enormously in recent years, Robbins shows how teens’ attempts to look good on paper have resulted in a host of disturbing trends.
Teens are more focused on productivity than on learning, for example; they also measure their self worth by comparing themselves to the achievement indices set by elite college entrance requirements. They are wracked with anxiety and they are sleep-deprived; they suffer from eating disorders, panic attacks, and depression; they cheat routinely and they take achievement-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall illegally; they attempt suicide in growing numbers.
The picture Robbins draws is of a crushing cultural machinery that drives adolescents to the brink, flattening out their personalities and warping their characters while pressing them to become perfect, if somewhat generic, pre-collegiate products.
But Robbins is only telling part of the story. The Overachievers focuses on a small subsection of American teens — the privileged elect whose parents care about education and who can afford to make sure that their kids go to good schools.
Whitman’s website proudly notes that 80% of Bethesda’s adult citizens are college graduates (as opposed to a national average of about 25%) and that they are “mainly professional and managerial.” Whitman sends 94% of its graduating seniors to college — 88% go to four year colleges, and 75% of those attend college out of state. Whitman’s student body is 77% white, 13% Asian-American, 7% Hispanic and 3% African-American.
Compare those figures to national averages. A study released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation earlier this year noted that while about 70% of U.S. high school students earn a diploma, there is huge regional variation in graduation rates. Fourteen of the country’s largest urban school districts — among them Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver and Houston — graduate less than 50% of their students on time. The worst numbers are to be found in three of the country’s largest public school districts: New York graduates 38.9% of its students, Detroit graduates 21.7%, and Baltimore — just a few definitive miles from overachieving Bethesda — graduates a meager 38.5%.
The numbers become even more dramatic when broken down demographically: Nationally, according to the study, only 52% of black high school students graduate, and only 57% of Hispanics do.
These figures are a far cry from Whitman’s, and as such they tell us something about Robbins’ decision to treat Whitman as a representative case. If Whitman students take five or six AP courses and spend more than four hours each night on homework, they are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of high school students are taking it easy indeed. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, about two-thirds of college freshmen report that they did an hour of homework a night or less during high school. One can only assume that the 30% of high school graduates who don’t go on to college do even less.
As Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews notes in his review of The Overachievers, the national picture of high school education is starkly different from the picture Robbins draws of Whitman. The National Assessment of Education Progress — otherwise known as “The Nation’s Report Card” — shows that 17-year-olds’ reading and math ability has been stagnant for the past 30 years; one likely reason is that teenagers spend far more time watching television and surfing the Internet (about 3.5 hours per day) than they do on homework (42 minutes per day) or recreational reading (seven minutes per day).
If the story of Whitman is one of high-stress overachievement, the national story is one of low expectations and diminishing returns. Only about 70% of today’s high school graduates actually do go to college, and of those, nearly half will not graduate. And, again, the numbers are even worse when broken down demographically. Whereas more than 50% of children from wealthy families can expect to graduate from college, only 6% of low income students will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24. Nationwide, says a new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 18 out of every 100 ninth graders will graduate from college.
Though Robbins qualifies her claims about Whitman’s typicality — “Whitman could be any competitive school, public or private, almost anywhere in the country” — the truth is that such schools are outnumbered by schools that are not competitive at all. And while Robbins spoke with students at schools in Kentucky, Vermont, New Mexico, Washington State, North Carolina, Illinois, and Texas in order “to make sure the views in this book represented as broad a range of students as possible,” what she was really doing was tracking a small and exceptionally privileged cross-section of teens from state to state.
For all Robbins’ claims to be describing a national trend, it’s crucial to keep in mind that this “trend” exists for a small minority of high school students, and that these students are in turn those who have the highest expectations for college and career. While it’s important to understand this trend, and important, too, to consider how the teens caught up in it might be affected — even damaged — by it, it’s also important to understand that we can’t get a clear picture of what’s going on in American high schools if we don’t take other, broader educational trends into account. Even more to the point: We can’t begin to think about what kinds of changes in education policy we might need until we have an accurate understanding of American high school culture as a whole.
This is where Robbins’ argument breaks down. Instead of presenting The Overachievers as what it is — an anthropological study of an exceptional adolescent niche — she casts her work in terms of policy analysis and ends the book with a series of sweeping recommendations for reform. These range from the mundane to the intriguing to the radical, and vary considerably in their wisdom and practicality.
Mundane: Students and parents should focus on mental health and well-roundedness. Intriguing: High school start time should be later in the morning, to accommodate teens’ biologically unique sleep patterns; colleges should eliminate early decision, which creates outrageous pressure and favors those who do not need financial aid. Radical: Colleges and universities should boycott the rankings and scrap the SAT; high schools should drop class rank, de-emphasize testing, and limit AP courses.
Robbins may be right about things like early decision (which a number of elite schools have recently abandoned) and the need for students, parents, and teachers to remember that there is more to life than grades, scores, and acceptance letters. She’s also right that the major college rankings are often rigged, and rarely measure the actual quality of undergraduate education and experience; she gives good advice when she tells parents and students to look beyond the top 20 schools to find the one that is right for them. And she just might be right about changing high school start time. But she flounders when she recommends policy shifts that would, to her mind, take the pressure off America’s stressed-out teens.
If it makes sense to steer highly competitive students at highly competitive schools away from taking excessive numbers of AP courses, for example, it makes no sense to advocate a national move away from AP courses; there are more schools that could benefit from the curricular sharpening such courses can offer than there are schools that really need to cut back. And while it makes sense to tell parents and teachers who push teenagers too hard to back off, it makes no sense at all to recommend relaxation for those vast numbers of teens who are already slacking along at less than an hour of homework a night. Those kids need to learn to push themselves — and in order to learn to do that, they need to be pushed by their parents and teachers.
Similarly, the SAT may not be an ideal guide to prospective college students’ success — but at least it allows admissions officers to begin to differentiate students whose padded resumes, boilerplate essays, and inflated grade point averages all look depressingly alike.
Such unevenness is to be expected when an author overreaches in the way Robbins does. Had she confined her recommendations to the demographic she is studying, she would have made some important points. But Robbins’ attempt to generalize from her study of a select and unrepresentative fraction of American teens shows both a lack of restraint and a lack of understanding. Like the overachievers she writes about, Robbins confuses the minor daily struggles of the enormously advantaged with a pressing national problem; like the overachiever she acknowledges herself to be, she loses sight of what is reasonable in her effort to push her work to ever greater heights.
Robbins’ error is ultimately symptomatic of the culture she writes about, and of which she admits she is a part; it is an error that flatters the people she writes about — who are, significantly, also the people who read her work and who are responsible for her spot on the bestseller list. But as profitable as that error may be for Robbins, it is a costly error all the same. We should not be fooling ourselves into thinking that the problems facing American secondary education are the problems Robbins describes — and to the extent that her book eases our ability to ignore the bigger, more troubling picture, it is part of the problem, not the solution.