The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
The new school year is about to launch in Arizona. For many students, an intense school year of rigorous academic loads and over scheduling is about to ramp up, making it a good time to reflect on student goals and parent expectations.
The current trend in education is to shove college-bound kids through a cookie cutter pipeline of academic rigor to the exclusion of childhood. According to the College Board, AP test participation in Arizona is up 50% from a decade ago and many schools push all AP curriculums.
The risk of this one-size-fits-all educational format is that our brightest kids emerge from high school with a fairly singular experience and insufficient social and emotional development to set them on a fully realized path, not to mention the well-being to pursue it.
This hardcore focus on academic performance for future success deprives kids of what they need most—their childhood. It is childhood that produces adults who can fully capitalize on their potential because they have had the protected time to create and play, to explore varied facets of life, to investigate interests, and to mature their perspective of the world and how they fit into it.
High school is important — it helps lays a foundation for a life time of learning and responsibility. Yet, the most important thing a child can emerge from high school with is not subject matter.
It is sufficient social and emotional development and maturity to have some grasp of their unique combination strengths and weakness that will guide a meaningful journey forward. This is no small task, especially if it competes with a single-minded focus on academic excellence. Teens need the space to fail and adjust—failures teach consequences and resilience and often provide the best path to success.
Yet, we live in a time when a 4.0 GPA can feel like failure—particularly when it fails to be sufficient for admissions to the coveted top-choice college.
The feeling of inadequacy in well-accomplished teens can squash their full realization of their unique strengths. According to B.J. Casey, psychology professor and director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain lab at Yale University, adolescence is a critical time where teens need to learn how to cope and to fail.
Casey describes adolescence as a period of naturally heightened stress — making it a risky time to heap on academic stress that may not be developmentally appropriate.
The result is that roughly 25% of teens between 13 and 17 meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder and hospitalization of teens for mental illness have increased dramatically.
Further, according to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide among children ages 10-17 increased by 70% in the last decade. The least of these consequences is that many kids get to college burned out—only to realize that their childhood was betrayed.
As a scientist and professor, my most talented Ph.D. students were typically not the best high school students. Not because they are not bright, but because they might not have been decided enough as teenagers or because they were too busy pushing other limits to set the whole of their focus on academic excellence.
I have little doubt that in the process, they gained just the skills they needed to be great scientists—the ability to challenge and wonder and forge their own path. Maybe it is a rich childhood filled with age-appropriate challenges that makes sharp-minded adults.