Are students under too much pressure? West Seattleites discuss

Story and photo by Evan Miglorie
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

More than 200 people gathered in the West Seattle High School theater last night to watch – and talk about – “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that sets out to examine what it warns is “the dark side of America’s achievement culture.”

The night began with an introduction delivered in person by the film’s director, Vicki Abeles. Her film interviews five several students on their experience with the intense pressures of our education system. Teachers were also interviewed, contending that modern educational systems place too much emphasis on memorization for tests, rather than actual learning. Another main concern voiced by parents, teachers, and psychologists was the unyielding pressure to perform. The impacts of this come at a high cost, they warn – drugs, cheating and even suicide can result from too much pressure put on young students.

So what do local students think? Some spoke out right after the film.

After the film, a panel of students sat on the stage to share their reactions to the film. One offered, “Finals is the most stressful time of my year, I end up prioritizing badly and place more value on my finals than on myself. I forget about my health.”

Eventually, other viewers got the chance to chime in; one parent said, “This isn’t an issue unique to students, it’s an issue of our culture. We are all functioning on an ideal of success that is related to a business ideal. Kids shouldn’t feel isolated; the adult world is living through this and working through it as well.”

Parents explored ideas of how to support and motivate their children in a way that is true to their own character. Another viewer said, “When we tell our children ‘I want you to be happy,’ we need to mean that. If they make a decision of their own, value their authenticity and their choices.”

The event advocated, both through the film and a promotional flyer, many different ways you can help keep your child healthy and motivated. Some suggested ways for teachers and parents to help: Attending PTA and school board meetings to voice your opinion; challenge accepted homework policies; avoid overscheduling; reduce performance pressure; limiting the number of advanced classes your child takes; stop grading homework; find ways to assess students’ progress beyond tests and homework. Finally, eating dinner regularly as a family was deemed as an important ritual, for a multitude of reasons.

“Race to Nowhere” contends the education system is damaging U.S. children’s growth and character, but offering hope if parents and teachers choose to take action to change that. It’s been screened in schools and similar venues – the West Seattle showing was co-sponsored by the Washington Education Association – and at film festivals. Its website ( says it’s expected to be out on DVD this fall.

16 Replies to "Are students under too much pressure? West Seattleites discuss"

  • Adam June 19, 2010 (6:42 pm)

    Oh please. Maybe I’m getting insensitive as I get older, but things have been getting easier and easier for students as time goes on. Everyone gets a trophy, and nobody gets left behind.

    The reality is, school *IS* a stressful time. Those who can’t hack it in school will do even worse when they get to the “real” world and have to support themselves. If you can’t manage to pass a basic algebra class or read A Rasin in the Sun, the farthest you’ll go in life may be working at a gas station in Oregon. Stressful? Maybe. Life? Yup.

  • Petunia June 19, 2010 (7:07 pm)

    Give me a break!!!

  • Jennifer June 19, 2010 (7:16 pm)

    Apart from the stress adolescents face in school, and adults face in the business world, our test-centric public school system is just plain flawed, because we do not do a good enough job of transitioning students to the world of work. For example, there are jobs being created in Green Technologies. Cedar Grove Composting and Rabanco Recycling are ahead of the national and international pack in this regard. Individual teachers and school coalitions are trying to get students interested and involved, but there has been no push from district officials to do this. That’s because, basically, ‘If we don’t test it, we don’t teach it’. High-stakes tests and simplistic reasoning are not serving our students (or society) very well at all.

  • lenguamor June 19, 2010 (7:37 pm)

    Students are under too much *of the WRONG pressure,* and not enough of the right pressure to succeed at LIFE.
    Too much emphasis on the bull**** skills that will help them function in the dysfunctional world of the modern, “Peter-Principled” corporate structure and not enough of how to balance their checkbooks or, for that matter, their lives in these complicated times.
    Or, how about not enough emphasis on language skills and HOW TO READ for self-benefit and enjoyment?!
    Yesterday on another post we saw an example of a student who doesn’t understand the difference between the place for “text-speak” and the place for proper language usage. Why is that? Why are we turning out young people who really, honestly believe that good language skills are superfluous in their lives and their communication with others?
    These are the adults of tomorrow; the leaders, the executives, and – yes – THE TEACHERS of tomorrow. Can’t we give them a better understanding of the FACT that if language is key to communication, then the overall consistency of language is vital?
    Jennifer is right about our “if it’s not on a test, it’s not important” culture. Why can’t we aspire to a better RESULT FOR REAL LIFE, not bull**** measurables that provide us no measure of what’s truly important?

  • Noelle June 19, 2010 (8:33 pm)

    School should teach you how to find out about the world and thrive in it. Learning how to learn is the most important lesson of all. Success in life is made fare easier when a person knows how to read, write, and do basic math. Exposing students to new ideas and developing life long learning habits is a goal every school should set.

  • BadwolfZanda June 19, 2010 (9:05 pm)

    I quit teaching at the college level in 2001. I was teaching introductory physical science. Most of the material I had learned easily back in England as a 6-8th grader equivalent. My students thought my classes to be ridiculously hard – because they occasionaly had to reach for a calculator – to calculate a percentage.
    I breezed all the way through school in
    America, all the way to a PHD. But nothing I faced in this country was ever as hard as the GCE A-Levels I took in high school in England.

    Students here have it very easy.

  • BadwolfZanda June 19, 2010 (10:11 pm)

    Oh.. And in regard to my previous comment, in case anyone take me for an arrogant genius – I ain’t!! I’m just an average person with a disappointing IQ (116) – but they kicked my ass anyway. I have boot prints all over my butt!! And I thank them for doing it. My education never made me rich – but it’s made me very happy.

  • islewrite June 19, 2010 (10:32 pm)

    The film reflected many of my own thoughts and observations as a former HS teacher: Children are overscheduled; school starts too early (I’m an advocate of 9-3); there’s a lack of respect (and opportunity) for vocational educational. Back east and in the midwest, vocational high schools are available. Here? Not so much.

  • M June 19, 2010 (11:15 pm)

    There are so many wrongs in our education system. If I could afford to put my children in private school I would. Even Bellevue schools who claim to be so damn good have serious problems. Teachers are not valued and respected by students, administrators and parents. Kids hound their teachers daily about grades grades grades and teachers are driven crazy by students who watch their Grades online by the hour with the online grade system. Parents call teachers daily asking why grades have not been entered within a day of an assignment being turned in. Students want good grades – not the building blocks for their future….they don’t really seem to want to learn much anymore. Students just want an A and they beg for it. Yeah, I’m a teacher and I hate my job sometimes because of these many reasons. Last week I gave out an evaluation form to my students so I could get some feedback about how the semester had gone for them in my class. One kid wrote “I hate it when you ask us to solve our own problems. It’s just so much work and like I can’t see where that’s going to help me in the real world.”.
    Serious problems people, serious problems here….

  • gtothen June 20, 2010 (9:33 am)

    There are a couple of different issues that interest me about this idea of ‘pushing our kids too hard’. I totally agree about the danger of “teaching for testing” & have seen really good teachers get in “trouble” for not doing it. There simply isn’t enough time to do both hands on, experiential, fun learning AND prep for the WASL (MAP now). So it’s not just what they are learning but how they are being taught. They are not grasping concepts because they are not able to spend the time exploring & therefore not learning to enjoy & appreciate education. Cramming for a test in elementary school does seem absurd.
    Then there’s the idea of “overscheduling”. I, sadly, almost want to laugh when I read that “dinner together every night…” I have tried over the years to keep a consistent dinner time but now we are lucky if we sit down twice during the week. (Always on Sunday). Basketball practice three days, voice lessons, soccer practice, volunteer work (community service hours) one night/wk for 6 weeks, staying after for club meetings, friends, tryouts, debate, drama… And I only have two kids! And two parents! Sometimes it’s literally 9pm when we sit down together. But why is all of this extracurricular activity necessary? Because these kids need to compete at such an intensely high level. And because public school doesn’t offer a lot of these opportunities within the school day. Basketball for example – my son has played for 7 years and continues to practice every day. Last fall his AAU coach told him he needed to play on 3 teams. He had always played on 2 but now he added a middle school team (with CYO & AAU). This was ridiculous & took over our whole life. I can hear you saying now – “just don’t do it, simple”. Not simple because the truth is that if you want to compete or even just play high school & college sports you have to train at this level. This is exactly where the “pushing kids too hard” comes in because its not just sports. Those with true talent compete with those who have private coaches, trainers, kids who do nothing else. Have you seen those TV shows about the toddler baby pageants? It’s all sick! Not to mention expensive, exhausting and comes with definite drawbacks. Its about consciously trying to find AND TEACH balance. I think kids need to work hard in school & be prepared for working hard in life. They NEED to have writing, spelling & grammar skills; math skills & knowledge of history & science. They also need to have critical thinking skills and coping skills so that they can support themselves in ways that are not just financial.

  • me on 28th Ave SW June 20, 2010 (11:56 am)

    gtothen: thank you for expressing what I was thinking.

    My children are both in high school now. Somewhere around the 4th or 5th grade the “pressure” started. School seemed to be for a) passing state-mandated tests and b) prep to get into the more rigorous classes in middle school or “you’ll never get into the rigorous high school programs”. For athletes, it became competion to get on elite teams which meant more practice and likely private coaching. For musicians, private instruction; all so the kid “doesn’t fall behind”. We have tried very hard not to succumb to the pressure, but still catch myself second-guessing our deliberate decisions.

    All the things that used to be “fun experiences” for me as a child, have become “portfolio builders” for my kids. It is a strange dynamic.

    Many, many people are profiting from a modern-day parent’s desire to help their child achieve. SAT prep classes, college “headhunters”, even the creators of the JumpStart programs that are sold everywhere for kids as young as preschool. I think that this competition has been driven even more by those profiting from praying on the fear that “my child will not be able to compete without this” than by the parents. It is up to us parents to rebel against it. I wish I knew the answer…

  • seals June 20, 2010 (1:49 pm)

    I was there and thought the film was really poignant and powerful. If you are interested in the issue, you should see it. Save the “oh, please!” comments until you’ve actually seen the film.

  • Former Seattle teacher June 20, 2010 (2:00 pm)

    Childhood stress is actually a little more complicated than I’ve seen the comments so far.
    Some kids really do have too much (music, sports, school plays, family obligations and, oh yeah, academic demands). That said, there are other kids who could use some serious pressure – kids who are not in sports, plays, or most anything social and yet whom generally do not get around to doing their homework or preparing for any test (high stakes or just next week’s quiz). Indeed, some don’t even bother showing up to all of their classes at the HS level.
    Insofar as the movie, which I have not yet seen, helps parents of those whom are over-committed and stressed out find a better life balance, it can be good. However, for those parents who notice their kids are not doing much of anything except hanging out, texting and playing video games “because they’re just kids”… caution, as young adults they will have only kids-level skills and thus really hurt in the job market.
    It’s a balance – as many noted above some kids have it easy and slack to their later detriment, but indeed some parents can overdo and contribute to their child’s detriment in a different way. Know your kid and find a good balance of push while letting them grow up healthy and happy too.

  • uglybrowncrow June 20, 2010 (7:09 pm)

    Kids don’t even write in cursive anymore today, but know how to type 100wpm.

  • Student June 20, 2010 (10:36 pm)

    If anyone would like to know what the students actually think, why not ask them. All I see in these comments, and well the article as well, is adults stating their opinion. I see not one quote from a high , middle, or elementary school student. Flaws can not only be found in the schools but also in the teachers who formulate their curriculum around the state-regulations and test-based learning strategies. The students are simply going along with what they have always known. Can you blame someone for not knowing anything different? Can you blame someone for not being exposed to anything different?

    Second of all do you really understand all the pressure placed upon students by articles and comments like this which only state their own fears? Your comments stab at a students self-confidence. The comments only allow students to put one more item on the list of things they a) do wrong, or b) things that are wrong that they cannot control.

    I don’t think these “Give me a break!” comments do anything but aggravate people. If you feel the need to state your opinion, then state your opinion in such a way that will RESULT IN CHANGE.

    If these negative comments are being posted by parents… then all I can say is TAKE YOUR OWN ADVICE!
    If you cant say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!

    • WSB June 20, 2010 (10:49 pm)

      Hi, “Student.” Please read the story again. Paragraph four is a student quote from the panel. Sorry the story isn’t longer, but we didn’t realize the event was going to be really big until just hours ahead of time, so it was a last-minute assignment accepted by a new contributor – who himself is a college student, FWIW – though his opinion is not in the story, since we do news, not opinion, here – the opinions come from commenters – like you! Thanks for voicing your opinion! – Tracy (editor, and parent of an incoming high-school student)

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