The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins
I just finished reading this book a few days ago, and I must say it has only confirmed my fears about what “top” public schools have become in the wake of No Child Left Behind, SAT-mania, US News rankings, and all that go with these cultural developments. Robbins follows a handful of student overachievers through a year and alternates between their personal stories and her own investigative research on the “bigger issues” of overachiever culture.
The kids are doing way too much, and they are mostly (some extremely) miserable, never feeling good enough even with crazy high GPAs, yadda yadda. She admits she’s one of them, a Yale grad and NYT best-selling author in her 20’s. But she is recovering, as she nicely explains in a Forbes essay from this March. Here’s a quote that captures her book’s thesis:
“We live in an achievement-oriented, workaholic culture that can no longer distinguish between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. It is time to stop prioritizing how children look on paper over their health, happiness, and well-being. By now the message should be clear: Ease up, calm down, and back off. If students are free to follow paths toward their personal joys and interests, then it is worth trusting that everything will be all right in the end.” (p. 400)
I highly recommend this book, if nothing else for a conversation starter in your own family on the meaning of achievement. As a parent, it reminds me of what I don’t want for my daughter. It reminds me of my own grade obsession, which started in first grade when I got my (literally) first wrong answer. (It was a worksheet with drawings and we had to fill in the blanks to make words. The picture was a 3-D square with a jagged top and it said “B” with two blanks. I wrote “A-G” in the blanks, but the answer was “O-X.” I was horrified and indignant. And, yes, I remember the worksheet. Overachieverism starts very early.)
I’m considering alternatives to public school for my daughter, which I never thought I’d say. I don’t want her to be over-tested by first grade, as NCLB requires (and my husband sees first-hand as a public school teacher). I don’t want her surrounded by kids with cell phones whose parents drive big SUVs and take big vacations and wear big designer clothes.
I know I can’t avoid it all, but I can at least try to find educational settings where there is an awareness of these issues and a true desire to lessen their impact. What I can do: not overschedule her (I’m already boycotting all the baby classes!), not give into the consumer crazies, be aware, not push her to “achieve,” but rather show a love of learning for its own sake in our home. Still, it takes a village and all that.
We are considering Waldorf education, a philosophy we really like but we need to see it in action. We’re also looking at California charter schools, many of which allow for full or partial homeschooling and other alternative learning methods (and are free and public!). My brother and his wife homeschool in Maryland, and are loving it.
I’m still unsure for us. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts or experiences about school settings that allow for joyful and holistic learning, and don’t push children too fast, too soon, too competitively. And, also, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins!