It’s early evening, and I’m speaking to a group of about 40 parents at a high-powered independent school with a stunning record for sending students to prestigious colleges. The topic is moral development. One reason I’ve been asked to speak is concern among both faculty members and parents that the school’s intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out attention to other crucial aspects of kids’ lives. About 15 minutes into my talk, a hand shoots up, and a parent says, “I agree with you that it’s important for kids to be good people, but, realisti- cally, that won’t help my child get into a place like Harvard.” Another parent quips, “Can you change Harvard so that being a good person counts in the appli- cation?” Many parents in the audience laugh nervously. But other parents are on the edge of their seats. How much should they focus on their child being ood? And will it help their child get accepted at a prestigious school?
Overboard on Achievement
Increasingly in recent years I’ve heard
stories about students in independent
schools and wealthy suburban schools
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who are strung-out achievement junkies and about parents who drive them relentlessly. Wealthy parents are, of course, easy targets. They seem to have no excuses and few defenders. In fact, I’ve found many parents in these schools who have entirely healthy attitudes about their children’s achieve- ments—parents who are simply trying to fathom the mystery of what will help their children thrive. And I’ve met many kind, emotionally healthy, and well- grounded children in these schools. Images in popular culture of rich kids as morally imbecilic, trust fund–pampered, Porsche-driving vipers are as wildly off target as are stereotypes of marauding, gun-toting, crack-addled poor black and Latino kids. But the fact remains: When it comes to academic achievement, many parents in upper- and middle-class commu- nities have gone overboard. Parents are now going to legendary lengths to prime the mental engines of infants and toddlers—one-third of U.S. children have seen a Baby Einstein video (Quart, 2006). Some parents not only become paramilitary when it comes to securing selective preschool slots, but also procure tutors for their preschool children (Fuchs, 2002). And when college looms on the horizon, the true
madness begins. As an Atlantic Monthly article observed, “Millions of families are now in a state of nervous collapse regarding college admissions,” and large numbers of kids are in terror that if they don’t get into a high-profile college, their life is “ruined” (Easterbrook, 2004, p. 128). In a study that my research team conducted at an independent school, more than one-third of the 40 juniors urveyed identified “getting into a good college” as more important than “being a good person,” and nearly one-half of students said that it was more important o their parents that they get into a good college than that they be good people. When I shared these data with the school, a few teachers protested vehe- mently. They thought the numbers were far too low. But the trouble is not simply parents. Many schools—independent and suburban schools especially—stoke achievement pressure. I recently spoke to a group of independent school teachers and administrators, and one teacher said, Every particle of our schools is now devoted to students achieving at a high level and getting into one of these presti- gious schools. It’s crazy! We should blow ourselves up and start all over again.