Stanford researcher and Los Altos parent Denise Clark Pope had some parents at a Jan. 31 PTA-sponsored lecture at Egan Junior High School feeling a little uncomfortable as she outlined a sobering scenario.
Her research shows many children in high-achieving areas such as Los Altos aren't necessarily learning - they're "doing school." Attempting to plot a "successful" career path, students are pulling out all the stops to score high GPAs that will land them at elite universities. This, the reasoning goes, leads to that coveted high-paying position.
In so doing, Pope contends, students sacrifice happiness in their adolescence, a joy replaced by stress, anxiety and depression.
Instead of learning, Pope said students are memorizing and/or cheating. The goal is simply to achieve a high score on a test. As a result, some students are faced with taking remedial English and math courses in college.
The way it should work, students receive a well-rounded education and along the way find a passion in a particular area that ultimately leads to their chosen career path. If they love what they're doing, learning and achieving are natural outcomes. In many cases, we believe this occurs.
But Pope's findings, documented in her book "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students," has us wondering whether we are helping our children plot a course of passionate, lifelong learning or simply enabling them in "Doing School."
The issue of homework is also controversial. Some say homework helps students form good study habits, but are they really benefiting from it? Pope says no, at least not during the elementary school years.
In the Los Altos School District, where special attention is paid to test scores, guidelines have students doing homework that starts at 30 minutes a night in the first grade and increases to two hours nightly by the time they are in middle school. Again, is the end game a well-rounded education or a good SAT score? The answer for many of us, of course, is both.
The debate over homework and the degree of stress on children has district officials re-examining their current homework policy. Regardless of the outcome, the question remains whether students are getting the most out of school.
It's a profound question that can only be answered by parents and students honestly confronting their values about education. Real solutions will only come when enough see there are problems and are willing to make changes. District policy and teachers can also make a big difference, but ultimately, learning is about choice and commitment.