I feel as though I am sounding like a broken record, but I have education on the brain a lot lately. Yesterday I spoke about how and why to avoid having your children placed on a remedial track in public school; but what about children like me who are placed in advanced tracks from Elementary school? Is it beneficial? What are the ramifications of having high expectations set on you for achievement from a young age? We look at our overachieving smiling kiddos and assume they’re happy, but a lot of times they are under tremendous tension.

As parents, we all want our children to have the best education possible. Unfortunately this often gets lost in translation and becomes more about the ability to say that our child is a straight A student, on the honor role, getting into the best colleges, all while being class President and captain of the football team. What the child endures internally in the midst of achieving all that gets chalked up to a normal childhood experience, without any thought given to the underlying result of all the pressure.

American students are given upwards of 4-6 hours of homework a night, while running around from activity to activity. Families have no time to spend together. Teachers are pressured to have maximum results, and focus their time on passing state tests for federal funding. Children on high achievement tracks have so much of their identity placed on their grades that when classes become more difficult, or the workload increases, they often cannot deal. Many fall into depression, drug abuse, self-mutilation, and even suicide (which is at a 30 year high this year according to this article).

Race to Nowhere

I remember being placed into the Challenge program in Elementary school. It meant I got extra reading assignments, attended special field trips with kids from other Challenge programs, and received all sorts of kudos from administrators. It was so much fun, as I loved to learn and had extra opportunities to do so. As I got older, however, this advanced track was no longer about the love of learning. It was about performance and keeping up with my peers.

I remember pulling all-nighters several times in Middle School and High School, being completely stressed out to the point of making myself ill, cramming for tests, looking for shortcuts, and getting involved with as many extracurriculars as possible to set myself apart on my college applications. I myself struggled with thoughts of suicide in adolescence, trying to balance my academic life with the realities I faced at home. School became my entire world, and I was still nowhere near the top percentage of my class.

Years of being overburdened supposedly lead to getting into a good college, which is said to lead to a good job. Yet the majority of college Freshman are not properly prepared once they get there. I know I wasn’t. Being on an advanced track my entire grade school life did not teach me how to study. It didn’t give me a higher work ethic, love of learning, or even a broad knowledge base. In fact, all the external pressure has the opposite effect on internal discipline. Overachieving students get so used to living up to other people’s expectations that they often fail at managing themselves when no one is telling them what to do.

We push these strenuous paths on our kiddos from the time they start grade school, completely burn them out on their journey, and send them off to these schools to be put in debt for years to come. However, unlike what we’ve believed as a society, a 4-year degree is not what guarantees success in life. I know plenty of people who were excellent students on paper throughout High School and College who are struggling as adults, living paycheck to paycheck. Yet…

Bill Gates (Founder of Microsoft) = 2 Years of College

Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Atlantic) = Zero Years of College

Janice Fields (COO of McDonalds) = Zero Years of College

Steve Jobs (Founder of Apple) = 1 Year of College

(Source: “Race to Nowhere” on Netflix)

I can go on and on. The bottom line is that we’ve painted this picture of what success looks like, and placed a high demand on our children to perform, but this race often leads to nowhere. We need to take a step back from the road we’re traveling with our children and redefine what a happy, successful life looks like. Let’s be concerned not only with achievement levels, but also with the mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social health of our children.

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