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Help End the “Rat Race” of School

Steven Hopper
May 6 · 8 min read

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Many high school students believe that school is all about getting the best grades, being the best at a sport, and partaking in the school’s popularity contest. Just look at the recent college admissions scandal as a testament of what American high school students are striving for: “elite” college admission status to enter an “elite” profession. While it’s easy to think that parents breaking the law so their child can be recognized as “smart” is a tragedy, I believe what’s more tragic is the effect that the high school “rat race” is having on our students.

Vicki Abeles, a mother who witnessed her three students experience this “rat race” lifestyle, wrote a Huff Post article on this topic. She writes,

“We convince ourselves that it’s all for a worthy goal: achieving the magic algorithm of scores and activities that reportedly add up to admission at a top college. But as we’ve encouraged our students to pursue this, we’ve pushed them into unhealthy and unhappy patterns that are harming a whole generation.”

So, what are these unhealthy and unhappy patterns and how can we all help to undo them?

For starters, students are so focused on GPA and test scores that deep learning gets put on the back burner.

What good is my job as a teacher if all students ever want to ask me is “Is this for a grade” or “How many points is this worth?”. Some days I feel as though I should be grading how well they are playing the “rat race” game, instead of whether they are truly learning. Because, let’s be honest, we all remember playing the same game when we were students. The only difference is that now students have computers and cellphones to play the game with. So I see students take pictures of worksheets and notes and send them to their friends to copy. I see cheat sheets hidden on their computer desktop or answers on their cellphones tucked not-so-inconspicuously under their legs. I hear excuses about “sudden” sickness to avoid taking tests and yes, students still skip class altogether.

The bigger concern here, though, is that even the “smart” students just want to reach for the grade and be done. I was the same way back when I was in school. What good is learning if we’re simply asking students to put on a show of sorts by memorizing tricks we taught them so they can perform them back to us for a grade?

In fact, it’s something that we teachers have been discussing over lunch lately. One of my colleagues has been handling a difficult situation with a parent. The student has a B in the college-level class, but she and her mom expect only A’s and are wondering how on earth it could be possible that in spite of all her hard work and effort she could receive a B. But my colleague can’t simply explain to the mom or the student that maybe the content is challenging and that the grade doesn’t reflect effort or hard work.

Students just expect that doing the work should equal guaranteed success, but if everyone can get all A’s then what’s the point of grades in the first place? Which is where grade inflation comes in. Thanks to weighted classes, students not aim for above and beyond the supposed top score of 4.0, further diluting the worth of GPA as an accurate academic measure.

Next, GPA and test scores only lead to increased stress and anxiety for teenagers and it’s becoming a major mental health concern.

Students now have immediate access to their grades and some check them obsessively. If I put in a grade for a test or assignment and it lowers a student’s overall class grade, I‘m might get an email ten minutes later asking why or begging for a chance to somehow make it up. It’s bad enough that students are dealing with the pressures of social media, which leads to the stress of cellphone addiction. So why are we still labeling students with letter grades and then ranking them by their class GPA? After all, plenty of students won’t care about grades but for the ones who do it becomes an almost dog-eat-dog world of hoarding the answers and avoiding creative risks at all costs so as not to make a single mistake. But this mentality sure isn’t what education is all about.

And the stress only multiples this time of year especially, as the season of End-of-Course exams, AP tests, ACT testing and final exams is in full swing. The anxiety level is palpable around school as students come to class either completely drained from taking a test or hopped up on caffeine from late night study sessions. We teachers have to work around all of these testing parameters, knowing that not much learning can happen under these conditions. Honestly, it seems like April and May are wasted opportunities for learning.

Vicki Abeles has seen the same effect in his own children. She says,

“In short, we are raising a generation of chronically sleep-deprived, anxious, caffeine-addled kids who believe that grades, rankings, AP and SAT scores, and — of course — college admissions are the ultimate measure of their worth.”

Is this what society wants for its future generations? I don’t think so.

Moreover, GPA and test scores are in many ways meaningless.

What grade point average and high test scores do demonstrate is that a student is good at playing the game of school. Grade inflation has led to a dilution of GPA as an accurate academic measure, because so many students can now score above a perfect score thanks to weighted classes. But does this mean that the student will be the most successful at a career or in life? Not necessarily. Adam Grant wrote about this is his New York Times opinion article saying,

“Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.”

Thanks to technology, it benefits students very little to memorize information that can be easily googled instead. Deep learning is a more a process of trial and error, coupled with collaboration and feedback. Students need to learn how to think, to solve problems, to rationalize and make sense of the world.

It’s bad enough that the education system put so much focus on End-of-Course exams and standardized tests, but it’s just as bad that we still compare students by age group and expect them to reach those standards at exactly the same time. This isn’t how the real world works, so by doing so we’re creating students focused on being the “best” among their peers instead of excellent, life-long learners capable of adapting to the incredible rate of change in the modern world.

What’s more important than GPA or test scores is that the student has an interest in learning, shows initiative in cultivating a deeper understanding of that interest, and shares that interest with the world. Asking questions, researching information, formulating hypotheses, testing answers and then presenting those findings is how students will be able to succeed in the not-yet-invented, unknown jobs of the future.

“Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality.” — Adam Grant

Finally, it’s the responsibility of the adults to change the education narrative.

While students may be stressed out and overworked in playing the “rat race” game, the people in charge of addressing this concern are the adults. The teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, and college admissions people are those who will have an effect on American education values.

Too often I hear conversations in which parents say things like “well in order for my child to get into college…” or in which counselors preach to students saying “if you want to get into college when you graduate…”. The myopic focus of post-secondary remains almost exclusively to go to college. Students are either over-the-top obsessed with this plan or completely uninterested, labeling themselves as “too stupid” to get into college so why bother with playing the high school game at all?

If the adults instead re-framed the discussion about post-secondary plans to help students understand all of the options available, it could go a long way toward rectifying society’s obsession with “elite” status. As Vicki Abeles suggests, “For starters, we can press high schools to change. Some have outright eliminated advanced placement courses, and their students still get into fabulous colleges.” Colleges and universities can do the same by shifting the focus of admissions away from these traditional metrics to emphasize achievements that showcase a student’s deep interest and ability to focus on a long-term project that makes a difference for the community.

Employers can also help shift the focus back toward deep learning. Employers know that 21st century skills like creativity and problem-solving matter to the success of their employees, but résumés still prominently feature traditional school experiences and grades. Instead, what if résumés transformed into a portfolio of work and life experience that highlight a student’s path toward developing these real-world skills? Then, students might focus more on achieving these in order to become more marketable to future employers.

Moreover, even for students going to college right after high school, there is still a better way to earn admission instead of playing the “rat race” game. Though this may sound counterintuitive, Cal Newport articulates his “relaxed superstar” approach in his book How to Be A High School Superstar. He offers several compelling reasons why college admissions officers at the top schools want to see a more relaxed high school experience.

The “rat race” becomes so predictable that admissions officers can tell when a student is just playing the game and not showing any genuine learning interest. If your résumé is littered with the typical achievements — president of this club or activity, captain of this sport or team, perfect grades across the board — then all the college sees is that you’re following the standard formula, instead of being yourself.

Cal Newport suggests that students take the opposite approach by becoming “relaxed superstars”. His three pieces of advice are to give up a majority of commitments to give yourself time to explore, then to focus on one or two activities in a meaningful way and lastly to find ways to innovate within this one specific field of interest. In this way, students can make themselves stand out from the crowded field of overachieving rat racers while at the same time avoiding the stress and burnout of the high school experience.

Parents can also help eliminate the rat race by supporting their students in adopting the “relaxed superstar” lifestyle. Parents should encourage students to not be so involved but instead develop one or two deep interests and follow those pursuits. Parents should support their students in achieving reasonable grades and test scores, but place more emphasis on developing a growth mindset and grit toward overcoming challenges along the way. As Vicki Abeles shares,

“We help our children succeed, in fact, by providing them with a healthy balance of time, space, encouragement, and an emphasis not on the building of resumes but on the discovery of their own interests and values.”

So, it’s up to everyone to help change the current traditional survival-of-the-fittest school experience.

Imagine what might happen when students focused on developing their passions and creativities instead of jumping through the hoops of college admissions?

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