NPR and Me

Just before the break there was a message on the head’s listserve from Myra McGovern of NAIS. NPR journalist Tovia Smith was working on a story about what schools are doing to relieve the growing pressures and stresses on students and was looking for input.

This happens to be a topic close to my heart.

Growing up, being a teenager, coping with high school and navigating  college applications are hard enough without  artificially induced stress getting in the way of learning.

I instantly shot off a message to Tovia outlining a few thoughts. She responded within the hour and interviewed me in the afternoon.

She didn’t use me in the story that aired last  Monday.  She did, however, include an excellent interview with my colleague Peter Gow at Beaver Country Day School.  Here it is:

What’s New in High School: Stress Reduction 101

My email to her went as follows:

Dear Tovia:

I understand from Myra McGovern at NAIS that you are researching school stress and how schools are responding to the stress epidemic and the impact of the achievement culture on students and school communities.

I know you want short responses.

My few sentences are: Yes – school has become increasingly stressful. Schools are trying to address that but most of what they doing is akin to re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic. It’s  Band-Aids (e.g. therapy dogs) to stem the bleeding rather than address the cause of the problem.

It does not have to be that way. Schools can help children thrive and live healthy productive lives but they need to radically change some of their unexamined habits and routines.  The best thing schools can do to reduce unnecessary and unhealthy stress is not to induce it in the first place.

Below is my longer response to your query.

The testing culture, the drumbeat of accountability, the drive towards narrow standards and conceiving of education as a competitive “race” are all detrimental to learning and learners. I am sure you have seen “Race to Nowhere” and how the achievement culture is affecting the health and well-being of children.

The evidence is everywhere – lack of engagement in learning, the alarming drop-out rate and the mental health of stressed-out teenagers caught up in ACD (acquired college disorder). It’s a syndrome that includes a whole range of symptoms – cut throat competition, self-destructive behaviors, dangerous self-medication, misplaced entitlement and rampant cheating.

Denise Pope and Wendy Mogel both appear in “RTN” and they speak about the impact of “doing school” – the game of school that is not about learning but about making the grade. Tina Seelig of Stanford University speaks eloquently about the students who come to her college classes with impeccable credentials from high school but so burned out they are incapable of fluid and creative thinking. She is not alone in her observation that many of our most accomplished high students are ill-prepared as learners to continue their higher education.

But you know all this. Your inquiry concerns what schools are doing about it.

I want to tell you about Poughkeepsie Day School where we screened RTN last October. We are a small prek-12th grade college preparatory school in Poughkeepsie, New York – half way up the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. We were founded as an elementary school in 1934, and expanded to include a high school in 1971. So we have been around for a while.

Our students and our school do not fit those stereotypes outlined above. I say that from an anecdotal perspective that is backed by the results of the HSSSE (high school survey of student engagement) that our high school students took last spring.  That survey provided us with the statistical evidence that our students are very positively engaged intellectually, socially and emotionally in their work and life in school.

Poughkeepsie Day School accepts a broad range of students and prepares them to thrive in college and in life by focusing not on pitting one student against another in a competitive race to the top (what happens if they reach the summit? – is there no further they can go? – do they fend off invaders with a sharp stick?). Our focus rather is on collaboration and creative thinking. Our curriculum is not centered on  AP tests but on thematic and interdisciplinary options that allow for deep intellectual inquiry, personalized learning and team work.

Our high students are part of a community of children from age 3 to 18. They see their teachers as partners in learning not gatekeepers and graders. They are deeply involved in community service and fully engaged in the arts and individual expression. We do not assign letters or grades but rather engage every student in their personal progress towards their academic and personal goals. We open doors to the future rather than foreclose options and shut down opportunity. We make failing an essential component of learning. For us, mutual respect goes much deeper than treating each other with politeness. It means respecting and appreciating difference of all kinds and working together to meet a vision of the world not as it is but as it should be.

At PDS we know that the landscape for learning is changing. Students need the skills and ethical problem solving ability to confront the ever-evolving challenges of this century.  Expectations are higher and the ability to learn is now the key attribute for future success.  We have always gone beyond school as “test prep” and we meet this challenge by putting the joy of learning at the heart of the program.

We live in a time of incredible and unprecedented change. What made sense in the past for school no longer applies. In the 20th century it made sense – to many, at least – that education was an achievement-driven enterprise. Schools were the engines for the transfer of knowledge and skills; conformity and memory were prized. Teachers were experts in their field and it was their job to pass the knowledge along. It was about linearity, conformity, scarcity and sorting.

Education must go beyond the acquisition of knowledge. Critical thinking and digital literacy are essential but they don’t go far enough. We need to educate children for active and ethical participation. They need to be contributors and creators of knowledge and that means engaging in solving real problems from the very start.

At PDS we educate children to excel in all the ways that can’t be tested by the usual teach-and-test standards. We educate kids to have a healthy appreciation of themselves and others and to be smart as learners, dreamers and problem solvers. It means taking learning beyond the multiple-choice bubble test to real-world assessment of: Will it work? Is it ethical? Does it help solve a problem? That’s why we don’t confine assessment to grades and numbers. If you’re a straight A student there is only one way to go and that’s down. The emphasis is on “depth” beginning in the earliest grades.

Going beyond school as test prep means educating students for the world that should be, rather than the world we have.  It means presenting students with authentic problems to solve not answers to memorize.

Intellectual risk taking is essential for growth. We learn through our mistakes. We want our students to reach as far as they can and not limit themselves to the same old answers. We don’t penalize risk and impede progress with the limitation of numerical or letter grades. Rather we set the bar high for all the things that tests and grades can’t measure: character, imagination, perseverance, integrity and new ideas.

The mission of Poughkeepsie Day School is to develop educated students with a passion for learning and living. The community demands integrity, responsibility and mutual respect. And the program is designed to promote a life in balance.

Children are amazing and every child is capable of so much. Schools tend to prize very narrow aspects of human capacity and the truth is we need to draw upon the whole range of human skills and capabilities.

At Poughkeepsie Day School we have a definition of success that goes well beyond standard tunnel vision to include how well we function in the social, emotional and physical world. If small children are to learn they need to play and that is their work. We all learn through social interaction and we need to build that into the routines of the classroom.

From the early years to the demanding high school level courses, students in pre-k through grade 12 are immersed in activities and academic studies that capture the imagination, build skills, solve authentic problems and demand ethical and creative thinking.  Poughkeepsie Day School never forgets that learning should be joyful.  The purpose is to graduate students with an undiminished thirst for learning.

Growing up is hard work and being a teenager is increasingly complex and fraught. The least a school can do is work in partnership with students and their families to enable that growth to happen in healthy ways and toward constructive ends. Children need unconditional support and at the same time room to grow and become independent. They need to be known for who they are and who they might become. They need the space to try on new things and see what fits.  This means an environment that supports diversity and multiple perspectives. It means classrooms and playgrounds where it’s OK to be different, where it’s  OK to be from a different background or have different views. Our one rule is that you cannot interfere with the learning of another. With that essential demand for respect at the heart of the school program, there is room to develop fully as an individual and feel safe. The safe haven is not a cocoon but a sandbox for growth.

If you’ve read this far (!) thanks for listening. Schools and students are under increasing stress but it does not have to be that way.  At PDS we really work hard at ensuring school remains a happy place and learning joyful.

And …it works.


– Josie

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