Trend Lines: Challenging Achievement Culture in Schools

Winter 2022

By Beth Cooper Benjamin

hbarczyk_JourneyGroup_IS_Trendlines_final_PROCESS-(1).jpgStudents, particularly high schoolers, are stressed out. They’re managing heavy course loads and sports and extracurricular activities. They’re not getting enough sleep. They’re contending with parental expectations. They’re managing complex social lives and social media presences while engaging with urgent social and political issues. On top of all this, some students also shoulder significant family and financial responsibilities. At independent schools, students from all but the most affluent families may feel particular pressure to excel because of the perceived financial burden their tuition places on their household economy.
What may be more surprising is that this stress among students had reached alarming levels well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2009 documentary Race to Nowhere, filmmaker Vicki Abeles shared the voices of scholars, educators, students, and parents lamenting how the structures and culture of schooling were undermining students’ well-being and decreasing their engagement in learning. Over the next decade, university-affiliated projects such as Stanford’s Challenge Success and Harvard’s Making Caring Common began to offer data-driven recommendations for moderating achievement pressure and perfectionism in schools. In 2018, a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warned that “excessive pressure to excel” had become a significant risk factor for the mental health of students in “high-achieving schools” (a designation that includes but is not limited to independent schools). 
As students continue to navigate the pressures of school and the world, while living through a pandemic, many independent schools are taking on achievement culture—which has steadily been cultivated to give independent school students a leg up but is now recognized as an environment that can bring them down. Schools are looking to national research and doing their own on student behaviors and engagement. They are rethinking their philosophies and strategies and considering how achievement culture impacts adults in independent schools, too. In doing so, there are deep conversations about rigor, perfectionism, and the pressures that seemingly continue to mount. And they realize the urgent need to confront these issues head on.

A Look Inside Achievement Culture  

Many schools have long recognized concerns around student stress and anxiety. Recent research, however, might have been the wake-up call that has led so many independent schools to reflect on their cultures and practices. Suniya S. Luthar and Nina L. Kumar of Authentic Connections, a group that works closely with schools to foster resilience and build momentum for meaningful change within the community, have been studying student behaviors and levels of stress across the country. They found that attending a high-achieving school—one with rich extracurricular and academic offerings, above-average scores on standardized tests, and graduates going to selective colleges—is a top risk factor for mental distress, resulting in issues from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and substance abuse.
Unlike student populations impacted by the other major sources of risk (poverty, trauma, and discrimination), those in high-achieving schools tend to be affluent and white and come from families with highly educated, professional parents. This profile does not describe all independent school students—students of color and/or those from less-affluent families may face additional risk due to financial strain and/or racial bias.
In these high-achieving schools, achievement pressure is aggravated by a tendency toward social comparison, which drives feelings of both envy and self-criticism. And technology, from social media to online grade books, has both enabled and intensified opportunities for comparison. Of course, the shadow hanging over these students is their looming appeal to the gatekeepers of financial and professional viability: selective college admission.
In pandemic-impacted 2021, the 20 most selective colleges and universities had acceptance rates of 15% or less. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia universities all accepted fewer than 5% of their applicant pool. Although many colleges accept a much higher percentage of applicants, the sense of scarcity created by conditions at the most selective institutions has rooted itself deeply into the culture of high-achieving schools. 
It may seem obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic added stress and pressure for our students, but the overall picture is more complex. As schools shifted abruptly to virtual instruction, canceled student activities, and revised grading criteria, some students experienced a respite from a relentless grind and fear of measuring up to exacting standards. According to “Risk and Resilience During COVID-19,” an October 2020 article in Development and Psychopathology, Luthar and her coauthors suggest that anxiety and depression among students at high-achieving schools declined. The relief was short-lived, however, and preliminary research suggests that student stress came roaring back in the 2020–2021 school year.

Challenging Achievement Culture

Independent schools have approached achievement pressure and students’ anxiety and stress in a variety of ways. How a school thinks about and defines rigor can powerfully impact the student experience, as two heads of school explore in “The Dark Side of Rigor,” a Summer 2021 Independent School article. Moving away from centering difficulty toward an emphasis on challenge enables schools to push back against the idea that rigor necessarily requires suffering.
Some schools have made significant changes to their school schedules: Block scheduling can enable instructors to decrease the amount of homework they assign outside of class sessions—a major lever for student stress—and instituting a later start to the school day reflects research showing that teens have an increased need for sleep and that they naturally fall asleep later at night.
While students of all genders face achievement pressure, it tends to impact girls in unique ways—including what author and girls’ development expert Rachel Simmons calls “the cult of effortless perfectionism,” the belief that the effort required for girls and women to live up to a cultural ideal should be kept hidden.
At Westover School (CT), where I am the director of girls’ leadership programming, we have had deep discussions about mistakes and imperfection as part of the Westover Resiliency Project, a 2019 E.E. Ford grant-funded initiative designed to challenge achievement pressure and perfectionism. After years-long efforts to alleviate students’ stress by instituting limits on homework and shifting class and activity schedules, we could still see that anxiety and achievement pressure were undermining girls’ well-being and leadership development. The grant has helped us integrate soft-skills training and social-emotional learning into the curriculum, reflecting the increasing priority we are placing on students’ well-being.
Last year, during a schoolwide Resiliency Project workshop about reframing our relationship to mistakes and failure, students reflected on the story of Caitlin Kirby, a graduate student at Michigan State University who defended her dissertation in a hand-stitched skirt crafted from 17 rejection letters she’d received throughout her graduate studies. I had come across an article about Kirby and wanted to share her story with our community. She had said she wanted to follow the examples of sharing failures and successes that her adviser and other faculty had set along the way. Her “rejection skirt” project represents an act of creative resistance to the excessive pressure to excel students in high-achieving schools experience. Westover students were invited to consider how they, too, might push back against impossible expectations of success that affect our school community.
Before the pandemic, the Resiliency Project began with a group of faculty and staff that met weekly to examine how achievement pressure and perfectionism impact our school community and to develop and pilot new strategies to challenge it. This work generated a toolkit of resources and strategies, from assignments that build students’ tolerance for not getting the answer right away to encouraging students to leave “messy” board work visible. The pilot also produced some core principles that continue to anchor and inform our work.
Achievement pressure and perfectionism are the water students are swimming in. It’s so normative that it can be difficult to recognize. In a survey, many Westover students attributed academic stress solely to their own expectations, but we see that failing to recognize how they’ve internalized pressure from other sources leaves students feeling like they alone are to blame for their suffering. When adults increase transparency and visibility—naming the issue, explaining why teachers are implementing new strategies—it helps students recognize it, destigmatize it, and build capacity for critical analysis of the social world.
Fear of failure is inversely proportional to curiosity and joy in learning. The antidotes to fear of failure include promoting a growth mindset and authentic inquiry and normalizing mistakes as both inherently human and necessary for learning and excellence. Like the experimental method in science and the revision process in writing, every discipline leverages flaws to produce higher quality and more creative and innovative work. If we want students to be successful in their schoolwork and tackle thorny real-world problems, then tolerating and learning from imperfection is a muscle we must help them build.
Schools need to cultivate individual resilience and actively challenge achievement culture. Schools’ approaches to alleviating achievement pressure tend to locate the problem—and strategies to address it—at the individual level: bolster students’ capacity to tolerate excessive achievement pressure, and they’ll experience less distress. This is a necessary response to students’ immediate suffering, but it treats only the symptoms, leaving the root causes of toxic achievement culture unaltered.
A longer-term change requires investing in both individual and collective strategies (e.g., support individual mental health and shift shared culture). Schoolwide events like Westover’s workshop on mistakes and failure can build awareness of shared culture and buy-in for collective resistance. This is an important step in the longer-term project of building a school culture where students experience real joy in learning and where they know that their human value is evident and appreciated, not determined by their grades or team stats or where they will be admitted to college. 

Go Deeper

In Winter 2018–2019, NAIS partnered with Authentic Connections to launch the “High-Achieving Schools Pilot Study” with eight member schools. The survey is based on 30 years of peer-reviewed scientific research and is continually refined to include culture-specific items that are related to psychological distress and substance use. It also explores aspects of student life that can be modified to foster well-being and assesses students’ positive personal attributes, including empathy, altruism, and investment in the greater good.

For additional perspectives on well-being in schools, check out recent Independent School magazine articles:
Beth Cooper Benjamin

Beth Cooper Benjamin is an independent consultant and director of girls’ leadership programming at Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut.