The IncrediblesBy LAURA PAPPANO - NYT, Jan 7, 2007QUIZ yourself: One American history course gets at pre-Civil War tensions through primary source readings, including William Lloyd Garrison’s editorial from The Liberator in 1831 and Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. A second American history course leans on primary sources, too. Students parse each Supreme Court justice’s opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott decision as well as texts of the first and second Lincoln-Douglas debates. Students must also demonstrate knowledge of historic maps.
So which is college and which is high school? Which is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and which Dalton, the private K-12 school on Manhattan’s East Side? If you can’t tell, you can see why students who graduate from high-powered high schools experience academic déjà vu even at elite colleges and universities. (The first course is M.I.T.’s, the second Dalton’s.)
“My first two semesters at Brown, I was shopping for science classes, and I would be in a bio class or a chem class and think, ‘I learned this in high school,’ ” says Carly Rush, a Brown junior who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Alexandria, Va., where “you would know your G.P.A. to the fourth digit” (hers was 3.931).
Ms. Rush’s experience echoes the new reality for high-achieving students: work crazy-hard in high school and cruise in college. In high school, they pile on the college-level Advanced Placement courses, face reading lists that can’t realistically be completed and tackle complex, advanced ideas once reserved for undergraduates. “The high-end students have greatly expanded their preparation and their exposure to the life of the mind and scholarship,” says John C. Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford. “This has been a huge change, especially in the last decade.”
In past eras, good high schools provided the educational foundation for an intellectual awakening in college. But for the mostly affluent students in private and competitive public schools — from T.J. (as Thomas Jefferson is known) to urban intellectual cocoons like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant — high school has become the defining academic experience. The much-touted leap to higher education has become more of a lateral step, or even a letdown.
“Our students find college not as challenging,” says Temba Maqubela, dean of faculty and assistant head for academics at Phillips Academy, the boarding school in Andover, Mass. Former students have written to him expressing frustration with college courses that are too basic. (Consider this collegiate-sounding offering from Andover’s English department: “Feasts and Fools: The Topos of the Festive Social Gathering.”) Andover alumni tell John Rogers, dean of studies, that college “is not as difficult as their experience here,” he says.
Jeff Zhou, a freshman at M.I.T., for example, would appear to have a killer schedule, with philosophy, physics, chemistry and multivariable calculus. But Mr. Zhou, a lanky water polo player from Buffalo, N.Y., dressed in baggy jeans, a natty black and white zip top and leather flip-flops, sinks into a chair in M.I.T.’s student center and looks sheepish as he pulls his orange spiral chemistry notebook from his backpack. In two weeks, he has taken only four pages of notes. “Most of the material so far,” he says, “for me has been review.”
“I’m probably not having as hard a time as I should be,” says Mr. Zhou, who graduated last spring from Andover having earned 4s and 5s on 10 Advanced Placement tests and completed three years of chemistry, including organic chemistry. At M.I.T., he has time for water polo, Frisbee, surfing (yes, in New England) and even television. “I’ve started watching ‘The Office’ and ‘Family Guy,’” he says..
It’s not that M.I.T. has eased up.
Regina Goldman, a junior at Yale, says the 538 pages of course readings for her upper-level seminar in American studies is less than what she was assigned for “Constructing America,” a required history course at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. “The workload was absolutely more than I’ve had to do here,” says Ms. Goldman, whose typical high school day began with a 6:15 a.m. swim practice and ended about 1 a.m. with homework.
The course description for “Constructing America” even cautions: “The demands and content of the course far exceed those of a typical A.P. U.S. history course.” Ms. Goldman says the class was so difficult that she shied away from history when she got to college. “I was so scared off because of high school that I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m at Yale. I can’t take history.’” There was no reason to worry, though.
What’s happened to high school?
THERE are currently two national conversations about high school.
In September, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a report on how ill-prepared high school graduates are for college, citing statistics like this one: 40 percent of college students take remedial courses. Of 1.2 million seniors in the class of 2006 who took the ACT, only 27 percent reached its college-readiness benchmarks in biology, 42 percent in algebra, 53 percent in social science and 69 percent in English composition. The United States secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, has called for accountability testing in high schools.
At the other end of the academic spectrum, however, are the stellar students who are doing ever more difficult work at ever younger ages.
Most college-educated parents share the suspicion that if they applied today, they would not get into their alma maters. It’s not so much that they’ve forgotten basic trigonometry — which is cosine? — as that they likely don’t measure up to today’s students. Academic accomplishment has become a hallmark of upper-middle-class family culture. (As Regina Goldman’s mother says: “What do you expect for $31,000?”)
“I’ve been a critic of the low end of our preparation,” observes Michael Kirst, professor at Stanford’s School of Education, who has written about the disconnect between high school and college. “But at the high end, it just gets better and better every decade.”
Robert Zemsky, professor and chairman of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, sees academically driven youth — he labels them zoomers — as bookish versions of athletically driven children who train seriously for a sport from an early age. “It’s the same thing: You have to focus, you have to specialize, you have to excel,” he says. “Those kids are told that, one way or the other, over and over again.”
The debate about how much children can and should do is not new, but several recent books are renewing concerns. In “The Price of Privilege,” Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist in California, describes an “epidemic among privileged youth” who are successful academically and socially but inwardly anxious, angry and disconnected. Alexandra Robbins’s book, “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” chronicles the pressures that drive highly competitive high school students in Bethesda, Md.
Philip Burns, a 2005 graduate of Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, Calif., and a Brown sophomore, says of his high school experience, “I would be more apt to compare it to working life.” The culture of high expectations helped keep him focused, he concedes, “but that view of what teenage life is like, where you have a lot of time to hang around, not do anything, go out to pizza parlors, go to football games, whatever, we didn’t have that. We were too busy.” Now, he says, “I’m glad I learned what I learned, but they could have throttled it down a little.”
It doesn’t take a genius — or a precocious high school student — to understand that ramped-up achievement is tightly connected to ramped-up competition for slots at prestigious colleges. At top high schools, tension about college admissions permeates the atmosphere, and students push themselves to the limit.
But with so much college coursework before college, educators say, the academic progression is out of whack. “We are pushing kids to do so many things to get in, so what do you do when you get in?” asks Terrel Rhodes, vice president for quality, curriculum and assessment for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in Washington, D.C. “If high schools are teaching more and more of what we have been doing the first year in college, what is it college needs to do?”
As they stretch to accommodate students at both ends of the preparation spectrum, universities are grappling with that question: How do you challenge and engage undergraduates?
One answer is to focus less on the acquisition of knowledge and more on how it can be furthered. Undergraduates are being offered more research opportunities and interdisciplinary programs, which require them to apply related concepts in different fields. Other efforts connect extracurricular and community service to coursework so students can road-test what they have learned. A HIGH SCHOOL’S status is tied to its rigor. The tougher, the better. “Nobody wants to be the first one to break the cycle,” says Rita Goldman, upper school principal and college adviser at Germantown Friends School, a private Quaker school in Philadelphia.
Advanced Placement is no longer the zenith of academic challenge. Now there are “post-A.P.” courses, for which a good grade in the A.P. course is the prerequisite. Other schools have scrapped A.P. entirely, arguing that the curriculum is too restrictive; they are creating homegrown courses that are more like college work in tone and depth but may still cover A.P. material so students are positioned for the exam.
At Thomas Jefferson, students choose among 14 post-A.P. courses, including a new class on bionanotechnology that studies the relationship between small biological systems and technology. Most telling is that several advanced math courses — for example, “Complex Analysis,” which blends abstract math with practical applications in physics, electrical engineering and fluid modeling — are taught by Robert Sachs, a math professor and former department chairman at George Mason University. Dr. Sachs uses the same text for some high school and college classes, and says “Complex Analysis” covers the same material a college junior or senior would take.
“If you ask me, ‘Is it like the honors curriculum at M.I.T.?’ we’re probably real close,” says Dr. Sachs, who notes that he had the most students ever, 35, enrolled this past semester. The number is particularly impressive because students gain entry to the course by completing a full year of advanced math after A.P. calculus. “The courses I teach are actually a second year beyond A.P.,” he says.
Such high-level offerings, says Nina Pitkin, director of student services at Thomas Jefferson, reflect the fact that a lot more students arrive having completed algebra II and geometry in middle school, though these courses are typically taken in 9th and 10th grades. Some students actually enter ninth grade having taken the A.P. exam in calculus.
Of course, there have always been smart kids. But whether out of fear, cultural conditioning or some inherent spark, more adolescents than ever before are emerging from the pack and distinguishing themselves academically. Super-achievers aren’t just bright; they crave that distinction.
A high-level math class at Andover “is no longer a group of geeks,” a teacher says. Such classes may include students whose focus is history and international relations.
“I have pushed myself as hard as I can here,” Prateek Kumar, an Andover senior from Albany, N.Y., says between classes on Civil War literature and international relations. “There have been those nights I am completely stressed because I have two papers due, in English and history, and I have a math test.” But, he adds, “I have enjoyed it.” Mr. Kumar, a top scorer in national math competitions who has discovered a love for history and become editor of the school paper, lives by the credo that school is what you make of it.
Such thinking is one reason Peter Watt’s Physics 580 is a popular course at Andover. The appeal? It’s the accelerated version of A.P. physics that completes the curriculum in two trimesters instead of three. Take a seat in his classroom and it is at once obvious how this happens: Dr. Watt speeds through linear motion equations for projectiles with no resistance, filling multiple blackboards with chalked Greek letters while attracting nary a quizzical look from any of the 18 students seated at the lab table facing him.
When he begins a problem involving shooting water from a garden hose at some angle to land on a wall, a student suggests a complication: “What if you have a fire hose?”
“You can’t just throw out Newton because you have a fire hose!” retorts Dr. Watt, who throws up more calculus to explore variations of the hose’s spray, including an equation that would foolishly send water directly overhead.
Dr. Watt’s course is fast, fun and all theoretical. He boasts while scanning several blackboards worth of equations that “there’s not a number in sight.”
“Physicists are lazy,” he quips. “Do you know how much energy it takes to put numbers into a calculator?” Dr. Watt’s students are anything but lazy. He has had to turn students away from this course — last year, only students earning a 5 or a 6 on a 1-to-6 grade scale in Physics 380 could enroll; this year, only those with a 6 got in. He also turns away applicants for his “post-A.P.” course on quantum mechanics and relativity, limited to 16. What’s more, students take the quantum mechanics in spring of their senior year, when it’s too late to impress admissions officers. “They don’t need to burnish their transcripts,” says Dr. Watt, a Harvard Ph.D. in physics who says the course is what a physics major would take sophomore or junior year. “They are just voracious.”
At Andover, enrollments are up significantly over the past five years in all of the most advanced courses.
This shift is apparent to William H. Pahlka, director of studies at Riverdale Country School, who was teaching 29 years ago when the school instituted its signature course, “Integrated Liberal Studies.” The class, required for all seniors, stretches the definition of survey course, spanning ancient Greece to the early 20th century. Students rotate daily among five teachers covering philosophy, literature and the history of science, music and art. Readings come from a who’s who in civilization.
While students grumble loudly about how difficult the course is — something Dr. Pahlka dismisses as “braggadocio” — he is struck by how much harder they work than students of a decade ago, even though he believes they are brighter and could get away with working less. Today’s students “fear not being at the top,” he says, and are hyper-prepared for class, raising the quality of discussions and coursework.
“I am amazed at the drive of students in the independent school world in New York right now,” he says. “A lot of kids were able to get through our course years ago by doing very little, faking knowledge.” Students now, he says, “are saturated with the details we give them.”
DAVID OXTOBY, president of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., is troubled by the trend. He believes that professors can no longer count on high schools to make sure students have fundamentals down cold. “High schools are trying to imitate college and teach college-type material instead of the high school material they used to teach,” he says. “They are now learning the advanced stuff, but not the basic stuff.” He continues: “We are finding students who have learned about s-, p- and d-orbitals — a theoretical concept in chemistry — but they don’t know that chlorine is a gas.”
Some colleges have been pushing back against A.P.’s, which students rack up hoping to waive entry-level courses. At Stanford, departments are less willing to let students with top A.P. scores (4 or 5) skip courses. As of this fall, says Laura Selznick, a freshman adviser there for 28 years, “a 5 on A.P. Econ is no longer an express ticket into the economics department.” Partly this reflects doubt that A.P. classes actually cover college-level material. But also, “part of it is that students think they know it, but they don’t know it all,” Ms. Selznick says. She insists college academics are different from high school, even if the texts are the same.
Dr. Rhodes, of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, concurs. High school-age students are not mature enough to grasp the subtleties of some material, he says.
Many colleges frown on letting students skip entry-level courses, even with placement tests, he says. “Some say, ‘You start out at the beginning, even if there is repetition; we want you to get what we’re offering the way we’re offering it and have our education,’ ” he says. In any case, placement tests are “an imperfect system” for matching students with course content, he says. Facts and vocabulary may escape students taking the tests; but in class, the material “all starts coming back,” he says. “Very quickly, they get bored, or they see it as a waste of time” — although, Dr. Rhodes adds, sometimes students are so burned-out after high school they don’t mind repeating material. They can decompress while getting an easy A.
Katherine Bergeron, dean of the college at Brown, believes the bigger issue is not about sequencing academic content, but getting students to view college as a time for reflection and exploration. It is part of the liberal arts ideal that pre-med students delve into Proust, but college leaders say many top students want to pursue serious challenges in their fields of interest earlier in their college careers. “The message they get from the admissions process already speaks against that liberal arts ideal,” says Dr. Bergeron, sitting in her University Hall office overlooking the grassy, tree-lined College Green. She says too many super-achievers have what she calls a “kind of professionalized attitude toward their education” as they rush to get to where they’re headed next.
“I just sent a letter to the seniors; they got it in their boxes yesterday,” she says. Her message: Try something different, unexpected. “Think,” it urges, “about the present tense.” Dr. Bergeron, who assumed her post in July, says her goal is to expand the advising program in the upper classes “to make it more reflective for students all the way through, make them aware of all the options available.”
As part of a revamping of its undergraduate experience, Stanford has also been working toward more thoughtful guidance. Previously, guiding freshmen was a volunteer job filled mostly by university staff and graduate students; now faculty members are recruited and offered an honorarium. This year, Stanford changed the way students were matched with academic advisers to more pointedly reflect common interests. “If you come in being a super-duper physicist, you get matched with a physicist,” Ms. Selznick says. “If you are a first-generation college student, you are matched with someone who is good at working with first-generation college students.”
To engage underclassmen academically, they are being offered expanded seminar-style classes, independent study and opportunities to do research with faculty members. In the past six years, the number of Stanford undergraduates doing research has risen from 300 to 2,000 a year, according to Dr. Bravman, the vice provost.
Other universities, and even liberal arts colleges like Davidson and Swarthmore, have likewise increased undergraduate research opportunities. In labs once the province of graduate students and teachers, undergraduates may find themselves injecting fish eggs with transgenic plasmids to test the technique of marking cells, or analyzing drill samples from the San Andreas fault.
Russell Fernald, who teaches two 300-student lecture courses in biology at Stanford, says working in labs pushes undergraduates to think about what they know in new ways. “In the classroom, we don’t teach them about the unknown, we teach them about the known,” he says. “In the classroom, I could imagine students being bored.” In the lab, he says, students wrangle with the nature of discovery: “How do you decide what is worth asking?”
He also sees value in the collaborative nature of laboratory work. “They need to learn to be a team, and research is all about that,” he says. “They have to identify with the problem, not their particular goals.”
Some high schools, of course, already offer a chance to do research; at Thomas Jefferson, it’s required for graduation.
WHEN Carly Rush, the Brown junior, arrived on campus, she figured she would just keep doing what had made her successful at T.J. She knew, she says, “how to prioritize your work, how to take a massive quantity of things and handle it.” Hunkered down in high school high-gear mode, she took her first economics test. She bombed. She scored in the 80s. She called home in tears over her poor beginning. Then the teacher applied a curve, a foreign concept at Thomas Jefferson, where you get what you get. Relative to her econ classmates, it turned out, she was at the top of the class.
Well-prepared high school graduates arrive on campus with valuable study skills. They know when to do the reading and when to just take notes at the lecture. They can zip off well-conceived papers while classmates who are unprepared for college writing struggle.
Ms. Rush had an epiphany: Unlike at T.J., she didn’t have to kill herself. So she has followed Dr. Bergeron’s playbook of exploration. Instead of cramming, she spends more time on her interests, like politics. “I wasn’t scared to go to the college Democrats meeting because I was confident I could handle my classes,” she recalls.
Wearing a high school ring with a pink birthstone, she zooms around campus, working with an education professor who is studying children’s perceptions of learning and cultural differences, organizing events for the Brown Democrats club, tutoring high school students, advising freshmen and being host of a Wednesday-night dessert social in her dorm room.
Ms. Rush acknowledges the advantages afforded by her high-school preparation, but she is blunt in saying, “I wouldn’t want to do it again.” She has a 3.9 G.P.A., and when “shopping period” rolls around at the start of each semester (students visit classes before deciding which to enroll in), Ms. Rush shops extra hard to make sure she hasn’t already had the material. “The first two days you are taking 10 classes a day,” she says. “If you’ve done Locke before,” you want to steer clear of a course heavy on 17th-century political philosophy.
“College has been less stressful academically,” she says, “but I have poured just as much of myself into it.”