As students in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), not a day goes by that we are not reminded of our great fortune to be in such a prestigious district. Our students rank among the top in the nation, perform above average on nationwide testing and often obtain coveted internships in many academic fields.
While all this may be true — and then some — nobody ever seems to ask: “At what cost?”
Although Palo Alto High School students are bright and ambitious, we have been thrown into a system that force-feeds information, thus restricting our capacity for application of knowledge and lessening enthusiasm for learning. In the end, the purpose of a holistic education has been defeated.
While we as students certainly experience the trials and tribulations of a stressful academic and extracurricular workload, the rigor is not put into perspective until graduates have the opportunity to reflect on their high school years.
Unfortunately for us, graduates seem to wish their high school experience was just a tad different. In fact, some think they are over-prepared.
PAUSD recently conducted a survey of its high school graduates from Paly and Henry M. Gunn High School from the Class of 2012 and found that most prepared for college in respect to the ability to complete multiple choice tests and homework.
“High school needs to stop teaching students to make them excel at college and should start teaching them so they can excel at just being people,” one Paly graduate wrote. “The college focus (which is literally palpable at Paly) leads many, many people… to look at a class as a means to a grade, and not as a means to knowledge.”
This constant, “palpable” and unspoken expectation of achieving academic perfection has destroyed the infatuation of learning that many students possessed yesteryear in the naïve days of elementary school and middle school.
“People forget to enjoy high school because they are so pushed to get a 4.0 [GPA] or 2400 [SAT score],” a graduate wrote. “I am terribly over-prepared for college and I wish that I’d known that would be the case so I could have taken a step back in high school and relaxed more.”
Education does not only mean systematic training in certain topics, but is also defined as “an enlightening experience.” For many Paly students, “an enlightening experience” has lost its true meaning and is now associated with the moment of receiving an A on an assignment, which means an A in a course, which means a higher grade point average, which signifies reaching the Mecca of Palo Alto: college admission.
“Stop trying to only work for what colleges will want to see,” a Paly graduate warned students in the PAUSD survey. “It makes it hard to become interested in learning for the sake of learning.”
I challenge you to find more than a dozen students on campus who wake up each morning excited for the material they will learn that day in all their classes. Rather, they are more likely dreading the impending note-taking and piling-up of work that will greet them.
This regression from learning for the sake of learning to learning for the sake of a grade has also led to a rise in the great elephant in the room: cheating.
Few teachers are aware of the reality where many students hastily copy a peer’s assignment five minutes before it is due. But why couldn’t this student just do their own homework? Because they spent the whole night completing a project and only got five hours of sleep. So as a sacrifice they chose not to do their homework for another class, copied the information they were supposed to learn as if they were a computer and as a result failed to learn the actual material. And this cycle will continue for days, weeks and years. This is the cycle that has taken a toll on the well-being of our students.
“There’s some questions as to how well we’re preparing [students] socially, emotionally or for some of the life skills you need to have when you go off to college,” principal Kim Diorio said. “I’ve always thought that there’s just way too much work and pressure on students.”
Less than 50 percent of the class of 2012 felt adequately prepared in “making ethical, constructive choices” and “resisting peer pressure.” Has the ability to act as a moral member of society become secondary to the ability to bubble in A, B, C, D or E?
Time and time again students complain about the monotony of Living Skills, a course required by all PAUSD students to complete before graduation and one that promises “to make informed, responsible decisions about issues that affect personal health and well-being,” according to the 2013-2014 Paly Course Catalog. However, alumni input from the survey clearly implies that there is merit in the argument that this course is not only a waste of time, but also that there is no course nor place on campus where students can attain sufficient skills that are applicable to the modern world in terms of maintaining ethics and principles as opposed to maintaining a 4.0. While students may be prepared to recite Shakespearean monologues and construct parabolic graphs, the emphasis on more applicable real-life skills is lacking.
“Money management was never mentioned [in a Paly course] and I felt unprepared to suddenly work three on-campus jobs without any previous money-making experience,” a Paly graduate wrote. “I was also unprepared for actually wanting to learn, as Paly was more of a machine to get good grades than a place to teach me a love of academics.”
Putting academic instruction aside, the real shame lies in the mental toll that students incur from this “educationpocalypse.”
“I hate when I hear people say they spent eight hours doing homework last night or spent all day on a Saturday or Sunday doing homework,” Diorio said. “I think teachers need to do a better job empathizing with what it’s like to be a high school student and I think they need to hear [student] voices. I’m very confident our kids are going to go off and be good students, but we need to make sure it’s not coming at the expense of something else.”
Even worse is the fact that students are not recognized for the pressure they place on themselves. Rare is the case when a teacher pulls a student aside after class and congratulates them for improving their grade on a recent test — which may be a result of studying for five hours, unbeknownst to the teacher. Students feel underappreciated and may not even realize it because methodically doing work has become so innate.
In fact, some of the brightest students on our campus are those who do not complete an assignment because they do not feel educationally prepared to properly finish it. Such students are often overlooked because their drive for learning is not evident in what schools use to quantify drive for learning: letter grades. These students ought to be admired more than those who simply fabricate their work to get the grade for completion.
Learning to be a successful student — and hopefully a model citizen — should not come at the expense of mental, physical and emotional well-being, which can be found most tangible in sleep deprivation. Only eight percent of high school students get enough sleep on a school night, according to a 2007 finding by the Journal of Adolescent Health.
According to The Oregonian, hypomania, a measure of anxiety and an irritable mood state, was six times more prevalent in students in 2007 than it was among students in 1938. The prevalence of depression among students has also increased sixfold during the same time frame.
The importance of mental health should not be overlooked. Rather it should be reinforced by things as simple as encouraging students to go out and have a good time and live a little.
“We don’t want to create a culture of workaholics,” Diorio said. “Work hard, play hard. You gotta play hard, too.”
A Palo Alto education is an opportunity that should not be overlooked and those who say we should continue to strive to be the best in academics are right. However, how we define “best” and how we educate our students must be amended.
Palo Alto should not apologize for its success, but our district must revisit its measure of success and how it achieves implementation of its first-rate education so it can be proud of answering the question of “at what cost?”
Students’ drives for learning has disappeared. Sleep deprivation is widespread. Applicable skills are undervalued. It is time to stop merely acknowledging Paly’s trademark stress problem and actually attack the root of the issue.