New View EDU Episode 51: What Schools Can Do About Achievement Culture

Available March 12, 2024

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We all want our students to excel. In many ways, schools are set up to foster achievement—to help students reach their potential, strive for great things, and move on to success after graduation. But as Jennifer Wallace shares in her book Never Enough, focusing on achievement can create a culture that quickly becomes toxic to kids. Where do we cross the line, and what can we do about it?

Debra Wilson and Jennifer WallaceJennifer and NAIS President Debra P. Wilson join host Tim Fish for an in-depth discussion of the research surrounding the damage achievement culture is doing to American students, and what Jennifer learned through the process of writing her book that may be helpful to educators and parents. After learning that students at highly ranked schools in the U.S. were officially classified as an “at-risk” group, with higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety, and substance use than their peers, Jennifer probed to learn more about the factors that led to this trend.

Interviewing students and parents, visiting schools, and delving into research, she learned that social and cultural trends play a big role in the way parents and schools shape the educational experience. Less certain educational and economic outcomes for younger generations have led to a phenomenon Jennifer calls “status safeguarding,” where parents—even subconsciously—push to construct the best possible path to ensure their kids grow up attaining the same levels of success they have enjoyed. Unfortunately, she points out, the alarm bells that may be going off in parents’ heads, signaling them to intervene and put more pressure on kids to achieve, aren’t always accurate. Our assessment of the potential threat to our kids’ future success, and our reactions, may be not just overblown but harmful in the long run.

And the kids are picking up on this anxiety about their futures. Jennifer’s research shows that more than 70% of the young people she interviewed believed that their parents appreciated them more when they were successful in school. Further, a quarter of young people reported they felt their parents valued their achievements more than who they are as people. Whether parents and educators mean to send these messages or not, students are very much getting the idea that they’re viewed with “conditional regard”—that our opinion of them changes based on how well they do across different measures of achievement, like grades or sports.

The good news is that there are steps we can all take to reverse these troubling findings. Jennifer, Debra, and Tim discuss the importance of creating environments that support “mattering”—the idea that a healthy relationship to achievement can grow through allowing students to find places where they feel needed and valued and are motivated by a deep connection to the task. As Debra points out, not every student needs to have found a singular passion in order to feel a sense of mattering; we can foster communities within our schools where everyone feels needed and relied upon to add value in daily routines. 

While Jennifer highlights examples of school communities that help students make regular, meaningful connections to real-world problems, Debra reminds us that we can also make a difference through simpler interventions like having older students work with younger students throughout the school day, or structuring group work differently to highlight each person’s unique contributions to the project. Opportunities to give back at any level can build a healthier sense of purpose and help students connect to the idea that they’re more than their grades or their resumes.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim, Jennifer, and Debra explore in this episode include:

  • What’s behind the culture that leads schools and parents to push kids toward achievement? Are we communicating that we value status more than happiness? 
  • How can we build environments that are less competitive and more community-oriented? How can schools become part of a greater “safety net” for students, helping relieve some of the pressure parents are feeling to do it all for their children?
  • What does conditional regard look like, both negative and positive? What can we do to support our students without falling into the conditional regard trap?
  • How do we continue to uphold standards and expectations for students without piling on the achievement pressure?
  • What are the ingredients of an environment that nurtures healthy striving? What do students who have a healthy relationship to achievement have in common with one another?
  • How do we design schools for mattering?

Episode Highlights

  • “Unfortunately, in our modern society, we get a lot of false alarms. You know, we get the threat when our kid doesn't make the team or doesn't get the invite to the Friday night party that there is something, an alarm going off in our head, but it's really just a bagel burning. The whole house isn't going down.” (9:54)
  • “Parents, particularly mothers in our society in America, generally are noticing fewer and fewer guarantees and social safety nets for their kids. And so we are tasked with weaving individualized safety nets for each one of our kids. … Instead of blaming ourselves and pointing the finger at intensive parents, I think we need to zoom out and look at the larger context and realize how few supports we give mothers and families, and how much as a parent we feel burdened to make our kids a success and/or to create those safety nets for them, because we sense that those safety nets are not going to be there when they're older.” (14:38)
  • “When I asked the young students how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, ‘I feel like I matter for who I am at my core, not by what I achieve,’ a surprising 25% of students either agreed a little or not at all, meaning that one in four students thought that it was their performance, not who they were as a person, that mattered most to their parents.” (19:56)
  • “I was listening to a speaker at a conference a bit ago…he was actually talking about successful teams, basically, what makes an extraordinary team. And he was talking about competitiveness, but not competitive with each other, but for each other for a common purpose. … When you start building in project-based learning, and particularly if you can harness and teach kids how to harness that power of being collectively competitive for a common cause, for a common purpose, and to start mapping that with what we want them to learn, I just think that's an incredibly powerful piece of the equation.” (40:23)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guests

Jennifer Wallace is an award-winning journalist and author of The New York Times bestselling book Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic—and What We Can Do About It. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and appears on national television to discuss her articles and relevant topics in the news.   

After graduating from Harvard, Wallace began her journalism career at CBS “60 Minutes,” where she was part of a team that won The Robert F. Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism. She is a journalism fellow at The Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Jennifer serves on the board of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, where she lives with her husband and their three children.

Debra P. Wilson is the newly appointed president of NAIS, following the tenure of Donna Orem, who retired in summer 2023. Prior to assuming her new role, Debra served as president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). She began her tenure there in 2019 after serving as counsel/general counsel for NAIS for 19 years. Before joining the NAIS staff, Debra was a tax litigator at the Department of Justice. She received a B.A. in English from Sewanee: The University of the South, and a J.D. from the University of South Carolina at Columbia. 

In addition to serving on the boards of several schools, Debra’s board service includes The Enrollment Management Association (EMA), Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG), Mid-South Independent School Business Officers (MISBO), and National Network of Schools in Partnership (NNSP).