The Academic Race

Student Ambassador: Jessica Li

OWEd Ambassador Since: 2013

Grade 12

School Montgomery HS

Reflection Experience

Frosty morning. Christmas Eve. I woke to the cries of the tiger mother unsettled by the inconvenient truth that I had slept past 9:30 AM on the first day of winter break. “Time for SAT prep!” No smile. No breakfast. No “Merry Christmas, hon’.” Just a six-syllable imperative to start my long-awaited holidays. I sank like a brick on the comfy chair. In front of me rests a new book on the table— “Student’s Best Guide: What high schools don’t tell you.” In less than three minutes, I found myself plagued by a list of daunting “must-do(s)” for “Ivy-League bound families:

  1. “Intel Science Competition: judges tend to prefer previous winners. For that reason, an earlier start tends to be a major advantage in national science competitions…
  2. Physics Olympiad…the ranks of the USA Physics Team are largely filled by members of the Math Olympiad team and other top-math students…”

I had hopes that out of ethicality, the author would put forth some rhetoric inspiring young brilliant minds to unearth passions and dreams. But instead, pages upon pages of jaw-dropping resumes, cost-benefit analysis of prestigious competitions, and never-ending odes to exclusive, expensive summer programs clouded my vision with intimidation.

I need to accomplish something! Daunted and baffled, my hands clumsily snatched a copy of “Chemistry Problem for Olympiad Hopefuls” lying on the shelf. All thoughts of hot chocolate, phone call to my best friend, and a good read of Vonnegut were vanquished. Time for race to the top! I plowed through few dozen of problems on solubility and thermodynamics, meanwhile praising myself for my productiveness. “Did you know what you read this morning?” My mother’s voice echoed from a distance when lunchtime came.

I swear I could’ve delivered a gorgeous monologue on the formulas I just memorized or recite a couple of ten-syllable organic compounds. But something about mother’s question tied a knot in my heart. I had learned nothing save several sets of calculator stroke algorithms. Sure, I could easily breeze through a classic balancing equations problem. Yet I had no understanding of the intricacies behind the balance.   

I had gone through the same morning for the past three years, and so did many of my classmates in our magnet program. We were all plunged into an arena where only a few—determined by test scores and credentials—would emerge as ‘victors.’ This frantic race to score within the shimmering percentiles and collect sparkling trophies defines a prevailing ideal of our education system.

Origins of this pragmatist approach to education springs from both changing public policies and shifting philosophies of private institutions. In 2009, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, initiated a new merit-based, $4.35 billion funding program for state-level public education. Winning states of this grant are recognized for “spurring innovative reforms in K-12 education” which are measured by test scores. Consequently, to acquire the fund, teachers are forced to take evaluation tests while students are pushed to register for a dozen Advanced Placement Examinations. It is not uncommon when I see crowds of ambitious students eagerly comparing test scores. As I walk away awkwardly, I could hear my peers emerging from the crowd in needless self-reproach for scoring one percent lower. 

Even before Duncan’s program, since the passage of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, students are hustled everyday about preparing for state-wide assessments, which, according to their teachers, “may very well determine the course of [their] lives.” In reality, scores serve mostly as quantitative evidence for which politicians can laud their successes. By pushing students to enroll in advanced courses and intensive test preparation, the state’s public education system becomes a competitive candidate for national grants. However, many students fail to gain hands-on, 21st century skills under such a system and are sadly left behind. 

With the steps of globalization and intensified employment competition, entry into top-tier universities not only becomes more difficult, but understandably, desirable. Since the 1990s, highly selective American colleges reverted from searching for well-rounded students to identifying “angular” individuals who demonstrated superiority in particular fields. This change sent millions of students into a frenzy, as they obsessed over how to develop and prove their ‘specialty.’ To make matters worse, with expansion of the World Wide Web, driven and distressed students across the nation convened on forums such as College Confidential fishing for reassurance and insider’s tips, mounting to the most mind-poisoning amalgamate of rumors. Some of these rumors, for example, claim that to be accepted by a decent college (a hence lead a bright life) one must complete algebra I by sixth grade, become debate team captain and SGA president in high school, and win high honors in five or more nation-wide contests.

And the result? Widening resource gaps among schools, exhaustive extracurricular competitions that disregard ethicality, and superficial learning that creates little incentive for in-depth studies. Encompassed by high-ranking public and private schools, the Washington metropolis is home to this growing trend. In the Newsweek List of Best American High Schools (2012), around ten high schools around the area received prestigious honors. Pressured by family, school, and community, teens busy themselves juggling four-plus hours of homework, SAT preparation, and half-a-dozen extracurricular commitments. It is not surprising, therefore, for me to see schools flooded by ‘walking zombies,’ a term coined by the Washington Post for the 92% of high school students who are sleep deprived.

The most unfortunate consequence, however, is the death of genuine learning and passion among youths. I’ve often heard this proclamation among my peers—“I NEED to do this for college.” Whether it’s scoring perfectly on a history project, winning a debate about immigration laws, or championing in math competitions, much to our dismay, at the root of all this vigor is often the looming prospect of college admissions.Is this new ideology really the desired outcome of a decade-long education reform? Both Race-to-the-top grant and changes in admission philosophies were initiated as an impetus for youths to become passionate, innovative, and knowledgeable change-makers in every career. Yet, evidently these goals have created many negative side-effects.

So how do we cultivate dedicated, impassioned minds for the 21st century? I can’t provide a comprehensive answer as a 16 year old, but I do sense that something isn’t right. Seeing friends who are so stressed by competitions that they acquire insomnia and depression is simply unacceptable. Our education should value solid learning and the building of character, not encouraging students to become pragmatic strategists. We only have one prime time for education, and we can’t afford to exploit it in a futile daydream of the superficial.

Once, so vexed by homework and standardized tests, a couple of friends and I traveled down to the Sugarloaf Mountains in rural Montgomery for a picnic. It was earth day, and the idea struck our minds to plant a few sun flower seeds at the nearby field. As we busied ourselves with digging and measuring, we were washed by a mystical sense of relief and happiness. It wasn’t any stellar achievement, but the recognition that we are cultivating our world both physically and symbolically, that brought us rare delight.  

If enough people would perceive the triviality of pride compared to true learning and service, perhaps our system would change. Only then would the bane of undue stress be truly cured.