I recently heard someone remark that the U.S. school system — specifically elite private schools and public schools for gifted students — operates on a model that demands a high level of performance but not necessarily a high level of learning. I am inclined not only to think this is true but also to assert that this is one of the major problems in American education deserves immediate attention.

Schoolchildren today are pushed to be the ultimate Renaissance students — acquiring book smarts, making contributions to their communities, taking up athletics if playing an instrument is not an option and demonstrating leadership outside of the classroom. I question these measures of meritocracy. I am concerned that schools are sending a superficial message to students “to do more.” I am concerned that “doing more” doesn’t actually increase the depth of education, even if it does improve applications.

I remember the days of pulling all-nighters in high school, studying late nights for my Advanced Placement classes, going to Borders to buy books to prepare for the AP exams and searching for ways to raise my GPA a few decimal points. But now that I reflect on my high school years — specifically, my junior and senior years — I can acknowledge that the desire to be the best student academically induced anxiety and, consequently, extracurricular activities didn’t concern me as much. Institutions of higher learning and now selective high schools have created an admissions process that only adds to this pressure by using standardized tests as gatekeepers.

But I am critical of schools that use standardized test scores as indicators of a student’s ability to thrive in his or her school. A standardized test measures a student’s test-taking skills and not that students’ comprehension of the material. Though widely used, test scores are a superficial means of assessing a student.

I see this problem in newly proposed federal standards as well. As much as I love President Barack Obama and his policies, I suspect that the standards created for his Race to the Top program, an initiative in which states compete for financial support from the federal government, may merit a position in “Race to Nowhere” — the name of a documentary film that spells out the problems of pressuring youth to be high-achievers. In “Politics and Parsnips: Obama’s Common Core,” Susan Ohanian of The New York Times details the requirements that states like Michigan have to meet to compete for funds under Race to the Top.

According to Ohanian, in order for states to be eligible for aid, they must commit to the Common Core Standards document, which contains the Exemplar Text list as an appendix. According to Ohanian, the Exemplar Text includes books like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” as required reading for the an eleventh grader and William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” for a ninth grader. Obama wants students to have a firm grasp of a variety of classical literature. Though I understand that many of the titles on the Exemplar Text list demand high performance from students, I am not sure how much students will actually benefit since the list is so extensive.

Obama’s Race to the Top program encourages the overachiever mentality that has contributed to the stress of high school students vying for limited seats in the nation’s top-tier institutions. Obama’s policy is connected to the cultural issue of overworking our children in the name of academic rigor. Or is the aim of Obama’s policy for American students to be exposed to the breadth of classical literature and not necessarily its depth? That would be another example of embracing a superficial standard of education. It pushes students to know and do more but not necessarily to learn more.

Colleges and universities have an image of a high-performing student that expensive private schools and competitive public schools strive to produce. More often than not, this standard doesn’t promise the engagement of the student’s learning and understanding of material. But it is daunting and creates a high-stress environment that leads students to equate how successful they are with the prestige of the high school, college or university to which they are admitted.

But it’s not the fault of the student, parent or even Obama that this environment exists. Instead, the problem is the culture that has been created with the permission of parents, schools and the government. This culture needs to change. As remarked by a contributor of the documentary film, “The Race to Nowhere,” if the United States is going to “get off this treadmill” of measuring greatness by test scores, then “we’re going to have to get off of it together.”

“Brittany Smith can be reached at smitbrit@umich.edu.

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