Enough is Enough

We are in the second fifth of the 21st century yet many places are still educating as if we are in the 19th and 20th centuries. Why do the youth of today experience the same stress and ‘rat race’ we as parents once went through knowing that their future is extremely different with many more viable options?

I have been in education professionally since 1991 with experience as a student prior. Over these years I have had the privilege of designing and delivering forward thinking curriculum, changing assessment practices moving away from the traditional grades, implementing project based learning connected to internships and work placement experiences for high schoolers. Each time I set out to design a new high school I would look at what skills students need to be successful beyond and how might my school program put my students at the advantage. This worked at Animo Leadership, CALS High School and eCALS High School in Los Angeles in the early 2000’s. Now that we are in 2023 I would definitely change the design and build in what I have learned from my experience abroad, research and overall evaluation of student/teacher mental health and connectivity. We have to change our input and our design to secure a future of global citizens, passionate about learning and their communities.

Meanwhile I keep having these conversations with highly educated, mostly parents from socio-economic privileged backgrounds about their children’s high school programs being very stressful in academic areas that the kids have no interest in. When questioned, parents will respond “They have to meet the A-G requirements.” or “To be considered for a good university kids have to take lots of AP classes” or “GCSE exams are a requirement to be successful in life”…. many of these responses were what we were once told as high school students ourselves. Has the future not changed in over 40 years?

Here are a few of case studies to consider more deeply:

Student A named Xeno- comes from a upper middle class family who lives in an urban city and attends a traditional four year high school. The family enjoys traveling and Xeno has enjoyed several trips abroad in short intervals to know that the world is bigger than where they live. Both Xeno’s parents are university educated and versed in educational matters.

Student A named Xeno- comes from a upper middle class family who lives in an urban city and attends a traditional four year high school. The family enjoys traveling and Xeno has enjoyed several trips abroad in short intervals to know that the world is bigger than where they live. Both Xeno’s parents are university educated and versed in educational matters.

Xeno started their high school career in a local high school and has excelled academically in the assigned classes that are all aligned to the University of California(UC) requirements. Starting in Algebra 1 in 9th grade they have been advised to accelerate their math credits so that they achieve a higher level such as AP Calculus or AP Statistics by 12th grade and therefore should take Geometry over the summer. Xeno has little interest in math and is able to recognize the algebraic patterns so they have a strong A thus far. Xeno is more interested in the arts, design and entrepreneurship and would rather do something more interesting during the summer than sit 5 hours/day for 6 weeks to complete Geometry only so that they can get to Calculus by 12th grade. In addition to rigorous academics, Xeno was also advised to pick up competitive sports when in fact they have little like for this activity. They would rather join a service club or start her own fashion company. Why are WE (educators/parents) pushing Xeno to take a different pathway?

Student B named Joao comes from a first generation, immigrant family living in state funded housing. Joao has been identified as a ‘gifted’ student and attends an early college or college prep charter high school. This entire school’s curriculum mirrors the UC requirements and encourages students to take AP Spanish language and literature capitalizing on their native language abilities. In addition the school offers a full athletic program where Joao enjoys playing soccer but knows he is not good enough to go pro. The school starts immediately in 9th grade with teaching students about university options, prepping their academic skill set and helping to orient them to a future different then their own parents’ teen experiences. Joao’s family expertise is farming and he does have an interest in agriculture as an industry. Where is this interest being cultivated between early college academics, soccer and what WE have defined as ‘success?’

Student C named Cat attended a Russian language immersion program in elementary school. This school’s goal was to insure that their students would be fluent in Russian upon matriculating in the 6th grade even though the parents did not speak Russian. From there students were expected to continue their Russian studies into middle school and by year 7 or 8 take the AP Russian language test. Cat followed this pathway and before high school met the foreign language requirement for UC since she passed the AP Russian exam with a 4 out of 5. This achievement gave her room in her schedule to take double science in 9th grade including AP environmental science and physics. When asked Cat shared that she really was not interested in science but was advised by her college counselor to take as many APs as possible. Cat is proud that she is bilingual but has a deeper passion for helping animals and supporting others along with a desire to want to travel. What might be her trajectory and must she jump in to university studies if she is more interested in experiencing life first i.e. a volunteer program in some other country?

In each of these scenarios students’ interests, desires along with the understanding of what the future may hold are not taken into account. Instead there is this extrinsic push to get students to climb the ‘ladder of success’ without defining success or using a stale definition. Also curious is that each of these scenarios are following similar pathways to what I experienced in the 1980s and then replicated when I was a school leader in the late 1990’s -2015. The UC requirements have changed very little and high school graduation requirements also have changed little in this time period.

If these scenarios were UK based the common theme regardless of the students’ pathways is that they all end up taking GCSE exams (and A-levels) to meet their final qualifications before work or university. Though the exact exams have changed a bit, how they are evaluated and scores determined are still similar to what has existed for the last 50 years. Interestingly there are many families in the UK opting to de-register their children from secondary school due to mental health, bullying or other such challenges yet these same families still search for ways for their children to prepare for and take the GCSE exams. In both settings, the US and UK (and I am sure elsewhere) we as an educational sector have not advanced rapidly enough and this impacts the preparation for the next generation to really take lead.

When I ponder returning to a school leadership position (something I dream about regularly) I ask what would I do differently in 2023. Adopting a more personalized educational approach regardless of school size, socio-economics, private/public is a must. Though it is important to have common graduation requirements this should be the bare minimum required and instead students should be pushed to follow their passions and interests that could one day lead to sustaining them as an independent, contributing society member. All students need to have basic literacy and numeracy skills, think critically about the world around them with an understanding of the history and science that explains the what, how and why. 

When I think about of the year 2029 when my own daughter may be graduating from high school I ask what will she have accomplished in her studies? What will have been her impact thus far and what might she want to continue on thereafter? Between now and then I work to make sure she is afforded opportunities to expand her interests, tap her curiosity and exploit her talents (if any were to surface and sustain her interest longer than a nano-second.). Yes in life there are some ‘have-tos’ but why do we have to turn learning into a tick box of requirements?

Collectively we (those in the know) have a responsibility to call the bluff, ask the questions and be cautious of which ‘rat race’ we engage with. The mental health crisis in the US and UK is significant in youth with one in three girls diagnosed as struggling and one in four teens reporting issues. To what degree does the ‘rat race’ play in this strain and with modifications could help to mitigate the issues? There is always the balance of wanting your child to go further in their talents and interests but when their schedule is driving you every which direction it is crucial that they can identify what is giving them joy and fulfillment and what are they doing because it is expected.

As both a parent and school leader I rely on Don Miguel Ruiz’ Four Agreements to help guide decisions I make for my own life and in relation to the lives and programs I am connected with. These Four Agreements provide a good beacon to keep focus on sincerity, intentionality and authenticity. They are in short:

  • Be impeccable with your word.
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Always do your best.

If you have not read the book please do. This book served as a core text in every school I have lead and will continue to be one I include in future projects.

Moving forward perhaps together we can start to chip away at the unsubstantiated pressures we put on our learners/children knowing that the future is vast with many more options than ever. Forty years ago we did not have a career pathway called ‘influencer’ or ‘esportsperson’ or the option to work remotely… The use of AI and its applications were not on the doorstep of our future. Nowadays pathways to the future can vary greatly and post secondary educational options are also beginning to change too. IT is okay if not every university-bound student achieves calculus or AP English,… and instead find their own pathway that is fulfilling and tapping their curiosity, creativity and interests. Be bold and hit PAUSE the next time you are encouraged to sign your child up for somekind of ‘benefit’ and ask the questions as it relates to YOUR child.

Published by marasimmons

A passionate educator turned world traveler embarking on a nomadic lifestyle with my family. Learning to appreciate a life where we have the privilege of choosing our destiny and embracing it.

One thought on “Enough is Enough

  1. Love this piece, Mara. Thank you for sharing. I love the reference to The Four Agreements and could not agree more. Educational choices are essential for the learner, and it is never too early to start to empower students to make their own choices.


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