Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Returning to Walt Whitman High School, home of supposed overachievers

And now for something completely different ... But I thought this might have some connection to the theme of this blog here since this was a bit about education ...

Yesterday I was a member of panel of alumni from my high school Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD discussing the book "The Overachievers".

Why on Earth was there a panel of alumni from my high school discussing a book?  Well, there is a course at UC Davis "Integrated Studies Honors Seminar" which was for this quarter discussing the book The Overachievers. The book is by a WWHS alum (Alexandra Robbins) about WWHS students.  Anyway, Sharon Knox, a WWHS alum heard about this course and suggested to the instructor Jim Shackleford the idea of a panel of WWHS alumni to discuss WWHS with the students.  And thus the WWHS panel was born.

I got an email from Sharon a month or so ago inviting me to participate and found out there would be three other WWHS alums who are in the area involved.  Sue Greenwald (ex mayor of Davis and husband of one of my faculty colleagues Michael Syvannen.  Max Chertok - a UC Davis physics professor.  And Kim Addonizio a poet/artist living in Oakland.

Anyway .. the panel discussion was at 4 PM yesterday on campus at UCD.  I showed up a few minutes early, and eventually went into the room where I was the first of the WWHS alumni to arrive.  Eventually the others showed up as did the ~ 100 students and we had a somewhat interesting discussion of Whitman (we covered the 60s, 70s and 80s pretty well with the different people on the panel).  Most of what we discussed was whether we thought WWHS was somehow different in producing overachievers in some way.  Most of the panel felt that it was not really about the school - that it was really more about the demographic (in general this apparently agrees with the message of the book which also said WWHS was no unique in any special way).

Anyway - I don't want to bore people with discussions of WWHS.  But one thing came up in the discussion with the students that was quite interesting and disturbing.  This relates to the excessive march towards having everything in K-12 be about preparing for college and about getting in to college.  Students are clearly more stressed these days about their futures.  They (on average -- not everyone obviously) get tested and prodded and tested some more.  They have coaches and counselors and parents and others all telling them what they need to do.  And it seems they are less and less doing things they are passionate about and more and more doing things they think they should do.  This sounds bad.  Amazingly and sadly I even see this in my kids school.  And my kids are five and seven years old.  In Davis, there is, for example a "GATE" program for the supposedly gifted and talented students.  And kids get tested for this and if they score highly they can move into a completely separate "GATE" program - segregated from the other kids.  This program is very controversially right now in our town (e.g., see here)  and I personally think it should be dumped.  I must say I am pretty shocked by all of this.  Don't we want kids to be able to just be kids.  To have fun?  To play a little bit?  Do they really have to have second graders getting stressed out about how they will do on a test to determine if they are gifted?  Uggh.  I mean - I am all for doing well in school and for education for educations sake.  But to plot out your kids lives when they are seven seems wacky beyond recognition.

Anyway - going to probably expand more into K-12 education issues here on the blog as my kids get more into the school system ...


  1. The worst part of going through that process and then looking back is that so many of the things I did to be a strong applicant for college feel meaningless in retrospect. In senior year almost all of my teachers spent class time helping us prepare our applications instead of teaching their respective subjects. When I look back at senior year these days, I feel like it was a wasted year in which I alternated between being miserable and stressed or bored out of my mind.

  2. The problem is that schools get assessed by metrics like "x% percentage got into University" "y% got into a Ivy League school". So, the schools feel the need to tailor their teaching to increase these values. It's the same thing with those standardized tests that take too much of class time. Of course, it's really a symptom of the larger problem of society measuring success through simplified metrics, just like the obsession with journal impact factors...

  3. I'm really glad to see other scientist parents talking about this. It worries me quite a lot. The over-focus at schools has lead to way more homework than I think is prudent. I don't personally remember homework until high school, even then not really very much except for term papers. As a parent, I have tried really hard to make sure my elementary school kids have fun being a kid.

    My saddest thought when reading this was a conversation I had with a neighborhood kid who was in high school band. I never did that, so I asked what it was like. She responded, "well it's something to put on my college application." Her friend nodded in agreement. Neither of them really enjoyed it apparently, but felt pressure to distinguish themselves on their resume.

    1. What you describe is the type of thing that completely drives me crazy. Doing stuff just because it looks good on the resume is the path to hell ...


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