The Pressure to Achieve

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The scratch paper was ready, the pencils were sharp, and the iPads were distributed. It was ‘GO’ time. As a math student, Jenny usually did pretty well on her assignments. So why was her heart pounding as she faced this assessment? And what about the sweaty palms? She thought she was a pretty good test taker…maybe not.

Meanwhile, as Mrs. Brown checked her laptop to monitor her twenty-one students taking the test, her heart was beating pretty fast, too. She knew she’d taught the concepts, and the students’ homework indicated that they were grasping the material. Sure, it’s TESTING SEASON, but I’ve done my job well all year….the kids will do fine. This thought rambled around in her head – did she really believe what she told herself?

Two individuals experiencing anxiety and upset – one a child, and one an adult. Is school really such a stressful place for so many people? Emerging research shows that to indeed be the case.

In fact, anxiety and depression rates have never been so high among children. Teachers are also expressing serious concerns with burnout, stress and anxiety–why do we think there is a teacher shortage in most U.S. states?

Why All the Stress?

It is all about test scores. Now more than ever, students, teachers, and administrators are feeling pressure to constantly improve achievement. So why are test scores so important?

Parents need high test scores so their children get scholarships.

School principals and administrators need high test scores to show that students are achieving.  School districts need high test scores to attract students.

Neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states need high test scores to keep real estate valuable and encourage buyers to become residents.

School board members need high test scores to get reelected.

…and so it goes.

It may sound obvious that high test scores are desirable – after all, isn’t that the point of school?

Yes, teachers are there to teach, and students are there to learn.  Simple, right? Not really.

We are quick to forget that the “point of school” is for children to actually learn and grow. Learning and growth doesn’t happen when you are being weighed down by the pressure to perform on high stakes tests.

Tests that, by the way, do nothing but serve the agenda of others. Most people want to tout their school or district as one that is “performing” or “meeting standards.” But shouldn’t we be measuring performance and success by more than test scores?

A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that teacher’s assessments of student learning are as reliable as standardized test scores. And yet we keep pushing for more standardized testing and giving teachers less autonomy.

Knowing that the weight of testing is crushing students.

Knowing that the weight of testing is crushing teachers.

We have moved students from an environment of school being a place for learning and growth, to an environment where the focus is performance on tests.

The Misconception about “Good” Schools

We don’t need to worry. We are in a good school district.

False. Yes, there is huge focus, especially in the media, on testing in lower performing districts as those are the ones who are under a microscope. But high performing districts are doing just as big of a disservice to their students–even though test scores may show that they are doing “fine.”

Did you know that a recent study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine added students from high performing (often wealthier districts) as an “at-risk” population due to the excessive pressure to excel?

These students are at-risk for chronic elevated mental and emotional stress. They are now considered “at-risk” in the same way students who have experienced poverty, food insecurity, discriminination, and family trauma. They aren’t “doing fine.”

Students are tested a lot. There are weekly classroom assessments, quarterly district tests, and annual national tests. These national assessments are usually in reading, math and science, at a minimum. Teachers are expected to spend about a month preparing for national testing, which obviously takes away from teaching anything new or engaging in anything that isn’t perfectly mapped out in the curriculum. Tests are measuring content in silos. They are not measuring mastery.

Teaching Can’t be THAT Hard…

Teachers have a lot on their plates – plates which are constantly filled, but never emptied.

In addition to the ever-growing list of content that needs to be covered there are a whole host of behavioral issues that are enormous obstacles to teaching and learning.

Students come to school today with a variety of experiences, many of which get in the way of learning. Drugs, alcohol, divorce, ineffective parenting, incarceration and obsessive use of technology are pervasive influences on student achievement.

Student’s early childhood experiences greatly influence their behavior in school. When you have kids who haven’t learned to regulate their emotions, who are terrified of failure, who refuse to take healthy risks, who have developed learned helplessness… combine this with often developmentally inappropriate expectations, overcrowded classrooms, unsupportive administrators, district personnel or parents, new initiatives that change every year, pressure of your performance being tied to high stakes testing….and it’s no wonder teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

Today students come into the classroom still eating breakfast and exhausted because they were up at youth hockey practice until 8PM, or up until 2AM doing homework, or on social media or playing video games.

The school day might begin with a class meeting to ensure that everyone is emotionally ready to learn–because we have to also teach social and emotional awareness since students are not coming to school in a good headspace. There goes 30 minutes to check in with every one of your 25-30 students.

Or it takes 15 minutes for everyone to actually settle into learning and pry themselves away from their phones while they process the SnapChat picture their ex-boyfriend just sent.

On top of all this each classroom will have multiple students who are struggling with learning disabilities that need a more individualized approach. Yet, as much as we differentiate there is no way to provide TRUE individualized learning to those students–let alone every student.

There are plenty of logistical things about school that interfere with teaching and learning, too. Because a school can only afford one band teacher, band students have lessons in the middle of reading. Math tutoring occurs during the science block. Students receiving speech and language therapy are taken out of class for twenty minutes during writing time. There is a very strict set of topics and lessons that have to happen and by a certain date…so what happens when a student misses school? Or is having a hard time grasping the content? Sorry, we have to move along.

These are real-life examples of disjointed, disrupted learning.

Exhausted yet?

Going Back to Basics

Students and teachers alike are feeling unprecedented stress.

We need to shift our mindset and focus on letting teachers engage students in meaningful work that builds on individual passions. We need to stop implementing programs that are band aid solutions.

We have to go back to the basics.

We know how children learn. We know what kinds of reform would be a game changer. We know elementary kids need more play. We know homework does nothing for kids. We know that we should have school times that align with the biological clocks and AAP recommendations. We know that there are ways to relieve some of the pressure to achieve on both teachers and students.

We just have to decide what’s more important. Grades, test scores, and college admissions or developing an innate love of learning and helping students follow their own path to success.

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to playin ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

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