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Academic achievement and stress - US vs UK

(34 Posts)
randomparent Sun 27-Dec-15 07:47:16

I recently came across the following articles about the level of stress experienced by students at high-achieving schools in the US, in some cases leading to suicides:

I sense that the pressure is similarly intense at selective schools in the UK (I have a DD who has just started at an academic secondary school in London) but yet you hear effusive praises from students at these schools of a great learning environment, inspiring teachers, etc. In other words, they seem to view their educational experience much more positively than their US counterparts.

Why do you think there is a contrast between the two countries?

CallMeACynicBut Sun 27-Dec-15 08:31:50

My guess - assuming that there's a real difference here, and indeed I have the same impression as you that there is - is that it's because there's so much more continuous pressure on US school students. It isn't enough for them to get good grades in externally-marked exams at the end of school: they have to maintain a high GPA (grade point average: combination of compliance and excellence score for both classwork and homework). That means their teachers are the ones they have to please, rather than, as here in the UK, teachers and students being on the same side, both wanting the student to do well in externally-marked exams.

Another factor is that, because university admissions in the US take extra-curricular activities scarily seriously, those also to be chosen and engaged in with a view to the impression they're making, not just based on what the student wants.

Duckdeamon Sun 27-Dec-15 08:35:11

What DC say publicly about their school (and they're basically trained to say positive things!) might not reveal what they think or feel about it.

Needmoresleep Sun 27-Dec-15 09:20:24

I agree with Cynic. There is huge pressure on London pupils aiming for top American colleges. Kids who are carted around from specialist sports coaching to music lessons and maths tuition from their primary years. Quite a lot of cultures represented in London (not just Americans) seem to lay large emphasis on going to the right school and once there, on your position in class.

London schools, and both mine have been through private selective schools, seem to do their best to protect students. Children are usually told their mark in a test but not those of other children. (Which once lead to a mum doing the rounds at a class social to find out what marks other children got, so they can put their child's marks into context. I was clearly a failure as I did not even realise my 16 year old had had a test.) Predictions also don't seem to happen, so DD's Y13 report is full of "if she continues the good work/makes more effort/actually learns something blah blah she is capable of a top grade." There is no definition of "a top grade".

I also agree with Duck. We have come across more than a few kids whose sense of self worth seems to depend on the fact that they are achieving academically. Children who like their school because it is "the best school". Which potentially leaves a problem if a child starts to fade once subjects get more complex. Coaching and hard work can only get you so far if you struggle to understand maths/chemistry concepts or lack a talent for English/History. The "so far" may be a good University. A child may be the real deal, in which case all the pressure and preparation was probably not needed, but for those who are not, resiliance, self acceptance and self motivation will be key skills. In real life we don't always get to be top of the class.

Now we are at the end of the process we have seen some serious casualities, though I can't be sure whether this is because there will always be a proportion of kids who get lost during their teen years. But also children who have turned off or who perhaps are not as rounded as they might have been, despite the real efforts of some London schools to offer a broader education and give more qudos to participation and non academic achievements.

One observation has been that US University entrance seems to throw up more surprises than, say, Oxbridge. Perhaps because they seem to be looking for (a lot of) boxes to be ticked: SATS, extra-curricular, leadership, community, academic and so on. There is a lot more to do, and this requires pretty complete dedication from both child and parent, but if you do it you probably have a better chance than a child whose main enthusiasm is their subject. SATS practice alone seems to start three years before the test and then you resit the test several times until you get a good enough score. London consultants charge £10,000 a time to help prepare the entrance applications. Awful.

randomparent Sun 27-Dec-15 10:28:15

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts/insights. I agree that the broader criteria that US universities use to assess applicants may give the impression that you can never do enough to strengthen your application, thereby adding to the stress (I have to say that I have favoured the US approach as a way to assemble a diverse student body but now see that there may be a serious downside to it).

I agree that some UK students spout the standard "I love my school" spiel (particularly when school staff are nearby) but I also get the sense that some of them are genuinely enthused by the experience at their academic schools.

Thankfully, my DD's school also does not rank students (even when US universities ask for an indication, DD's school will not divulge it).

The schools discussed in the articles are all non-selective state schools (you only need to live within the school district boundary to secure a place) and I wonder whether this worsens the pressure, particularly for students who are less academically inclined but whose parents are highly ambitious in terms of their DC's academic achievements. By contrast, perhaps the early selection in the UK via the 11+ or 13+ exams (which of course has its own set of issues as not all children develop at the same rate) means that those under the most pressure academically (students in selective schools) are better able to handle it.

Needmoresleep: What do you mean by "some serious casualties"?

YeOldeTrout Sun 27-Dec-15 11:01:31

I am American & am dealing with a high achieving DD who has bouts of mega-stress in English system.

I went to ordinary (govt) schools & DD is attending ordinary (govt) school, so not really relevant to this thread, but still the broader comparison is close to my heart.

The narrow English emphasis on results from just a small number of exams seems to be exactly what is causing such enormous stress to DD. She is so worried about not getting the highest marks in what she sees as her only chances to get the marks. The US system of a long-term large diversity of inputs to grades & exam results, seems much more balanced & sane to me. But then again, DD's personality is a huge driver. DH & I were never ambitious like she is. Someone put an Oxbridge flea in DD's ear & it's not helpful, now she sees anything less as substandard, argh.

As for Ivy League (what other posts in this thread seem to care about): they want future leaders. The applicant needs to show high broad spectrum achievement & especially leadership evidence & future potential. Win the (UK) national Judo competition 3 yrs running, be Head Girl & win regional/national public speaking contests while organising successful charity fundraisers, get to Grade 8 by age 10yo & be teaching other pupils & act as soloist in regionally important concerts, etc. Leadership potential is more important than academic results (for Ivy League).

Duckdeamon Sun 27-Dec-15 11:06:46

Most brits (even those able to pay school fees) can't afford Ivy League universities, so it's probably a small group of wealthy, very bright DC affected by the entry requirements.

mummytime Sun 27-Dec-15 11:08:23

Not all UK areas select at 11 or 13. Lots of high achieving areas are mainly comprehensive for State schools.
There is a lot of pressure, often more keenly felt by girls. There is also a lot of eating disorders and other anxiety issues. Most "top" schools do deal well with these issues when they come to their attention, and are willing to deal with parents who are too pushy.
Maybe the biggest difference is that all teachers are expected to take some pastoral responsibility for their students?

The teen years are a horrible time, and the worst time to be put under pressure to perform.

Needmoresleep Sun 27-Dec-15 12:04:53

Duck, I guess what we have seen in Central London is a curious mix of an English school system used by a number of very high achieving international parents wanting their own children to have the same higher education opportunities. It may not be that dissimilar to the demographics of the schools/districts used in randomparents articles.

I am not claiming this demographic is typical, nor that some of the parents are not extremely well off. However by and large I see the pressure coming from the parents, and then from a child to other children, not from the schools. Indeed I have seen schools take active steps to try and minimise it, which, like in the first article quoted is not always welcomed by some parents.

On another thread recently BoboChic described the situation in Paris:

"The internationally mobile classes are, as always, better informed than the sedentary nationals about the best way onwards and upwards."

I don't really think it is French, or British or American or Chinese, just a specific class who have been very sucessful themselves and wanting the same for their children. One expample was Chris Martin adversitising for a nanny for his then five and seven year old children and making knowledge of Japanese, tennis and chess prerequisites for the role.

Getting into a top school is tough, whether Harvard, ENA, or Oxford, and it is getting harder. Application numbers are exploding. And yes kids really are winning the (UK) national Judo competition 3 yrs running, are Head Girl & win regional/national public speaking contests while organising successful charity fundraisers, get to Grade 8 by age 10yo & be teaching other pupils & act as soloist in regionally important concerts, etc. If you want to go to a top University, England is almost certainly easier as you only need to be very good at your subject. Some are genuine, but other all singing all dancing renaissance kids start early and are whisked from sports training to music lessons to tutors all weekend, every weekend from an early age.

Though to be fair, a level of this high aspiration and willingness to work hard has rubbed off on my own childen. Hopefully though with an understanding that most of the time good enough is good enough.

Zodlebud Sun 27-Dec-15 12:24:44

I work at a top summer camp in the USA and honestly, seven year olds "know" what university they will be heading to. This comes entirely from the parents!!!!!!!!!

I have comforted an eight year old girl who was totally exhausted. She attends an exclusive Manhattan Prep, comes home after one or two extra curricular activities, eats, starts homework at 8.30 and into bed at 9.30. She was crying because she failed to make the camp gymnastics competitive team and was worried what her parents would think.

Don't get me wrong, all this hard work is with the best intentions of the parents who want their child to go to the best colleges, but when there is pressure to be an A grade student as well as top in sporting and arts circles, I am not surprised something cracks.

There was an interesting article in the Huffington Post recently by an admissions coach, who said that universities are finding it increasingly hard to differentiate between candidates because they are all too perfect. Dropping a few points off your GPA and going travelling just to have fun (as opposed to intern or other worthy volunteering abroad) as a result makes for a more interesting and balanced applicant.

Perhaps in the UK we are a bit more prepared to let our kids have a bit more downtime and do things for fun than thinking about putting together an amazing CV for ten years down the line?

Noofly Sun 27-Dec-15 19:42:18

I'm a Harvard legacy so you can imagine the pressure on me to attend an Ivy when I was growing up. grin I was a much much busier child than either of my DC. I played the violin in a travelling orchestra right through high school which meant that I only attended school p/t. The rest of the time I was off to DC or NYC for the weekend or away on tour in Calfornia or New Orleans or the Caribbean etc. On top of that, I had a near straight A average and near perfect SAT scores. I was 4th in my high school class- #1 only applied to Harvard and MIT (accepted MIT), #2 went to Stanford, #3 went to Columbia and I turned down an Ivy in favour of a Little Ivy.

I'm very glad my DC are growing up in Scotland and don't have the same amount of pressure that I did. I had to get top grades in classes I didn't enjoy (physics!) while DC can drop areas where they aren't strong by Highers time- lucky things! They also don't have the pressure of finding extra curricular activities that they will excel at. They can try lots of things out and find what they really enjoy. I didn't have that opportunity until college.

randomparent Mon 28-Dec-15 08:17:38

Thanks, everyone. It seems that all systems have their own issues - UK's narrow focus at A level (3-4 exams that largely dictate one's university admission chances) can put DC under enormous strain while the US's broad high school curriculum demands all-around excellence (I was the opposite of Noofly and loved physics while finding English much less interesting).

Zodlebud: I can't believe there are "top" summer camps - aren't they meant to allow children to while away the time between school years?

All: What can parents and schools do to prevent things from getting totally out of hand, particularly in a place like London?

I suppose I am rather fortunate in that I had a highly-relaxed childhood growing up in a small community and yet (through a combination of luck and an interest in discovering the world) had the same educational (tertiary) and professional opportunities as those who - raised in places such as London, Paris or NYC - had to work at a more intense and deliberate pace.

I yearn for DD to have a similar childhood but accept that it is not really possible in a city like London - nonetheless, I am trying to keep things (activity-level, stress) manageable for her.

mummytime Mon 28-Dec-15 10:12:01

The summer camp DH worked at had one of his 7 year olds away for a day because there were papers he needed to sign as a company director.

roguedad Mon 28-Dec-15 10:15:23

It might help to have a broader geographical comparison here. I wonder how the claims of stress in UK/US systems compare with what happens in Korea and China. Anyone got experience of a direct comparison?

Vagndidit Mon 28-Dec-15 10:35:37

The thing about the US system is that for every kid that is supposedly Living in an Ivy league bound pressure cooker, there are hundreds of kids who are leading well-rounded, less pressure lives and will still get into decent universities and be sucessful. The high pressured society is entirely driven by parents choices--by where they choose to live, where they choose to educate their kids, who they choose to associate with (no different than class obsessed people here in the UK)

I grew up in the US, and attended an average private school, didn't get stellar Entrance exam scores but still managed to get a funded education at a decent university. I felt no pressure to be the best, did an assortment of extra curricular activities (theatre, newspaper, volunteer tutoring) b/c I wanted to, and not to create a stellar CV. My peers were similarly successful, and not a one was Ivy league educated.

Bottom line is, most American kids really aren't bothered about getting into Harvard, etc. They know that hard work whereever they go will being them success---where as class mobility is a huge limiting factor in the UK.

I know where I'd rather educate my kid...

Zodlebud Mon 28-Dec-15 11:43:50

Trust me, some summer camps are seen as status symbols with waiting lists to get in. They are networking opportunities for kids and parents - with children mixing with those of other like minded parents.

Don't get me wrong, camp is totally all about having fun and the kids have amazing summers and cry when it's time to go home. But when these camps charge $12-$14k for seven weeks per child, it is nothing short of having the "right camp" to be seen at.

It's a real eye opener with parents even offering to make significant donations to the camp / charity of their choosing so that their child can secure a place.

Camp is all about giving you independence, patience, social skills, decision making and leadership skills. It is the most amazing thing a child can experience, but I bet a very high percentage of Ivy League applicants spent some time at sleep away camp. It's part of an engineered process which starts at a very early age.

SenecaFalls Mon 28-Dec-15 14:10:38

Bottom line is, most American kids really aren't bothered about getting into Harvard, etc. They know that hard work whereever they go will being them success

This really is true. Many of the public state universities are excellent (and much less expensive). Also not doing well in high school is not the kiss of death for a high-flying career. My daughter did not have a stellar high school record so she went to our local community college for two years, then transferred to a large state university, where she did well. Like many careers, it's her performance on the job that counts now, not where she went to university.

randomparent Mon 28-Dec-15 16:31:29

Here are a couple of stories on South Korea and China:

The US and UK look mild by comparison.

I think the academic success mania has spread in the US, reaching parts far from the major metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, I would agree that the US system provides more opportunities to achieve success (at different educational stages including beyond secondary school) and there is greater recognition over there that one need not attend Oxbridge/Ivy League (or equivalent) to realize their career aspirations (with the possible exception of those seeking a position at top management consulting, I-banking and law firms).

YeOldeTrout Mon 28-Dec-15 17:40:59

I have many (US) cousins who are doing well without having been to Uni at all. In a place that has house prices to rival Greater London.

Shall we just point out that neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg have a Uni degree?

Davros Mon 28-Dec-15 19:17:13

*The thing about the US system is that for every kid that is supposedly Living in an Ivy league bound pressure cooker, there are hundreds of kids who are leading well-rounded, less pressure lives and will still get into decent universities and be sucessful. *
This is our experience in central London with a 12 year old DD at an independent school. We live a normal family life without lots of pressure to be "the best" or "successful". I think maybe one of the differences is that both DH and I are both from London, grew up here, went to fairly well known independent schools ourselves, both travelling alone on the tube. We are relaxed and it works perfectly well. The most competitive parents we have come across, who know nothing about and do nothing in their local community are Americans. Maybe that's just the particular ones we've met. Its perfectly possible to have a normal, well balanced life, taking part in your local community and not be eaten up by pressure in London. If people scratch the surface and get out of their bubble, we're all here, we do exist, lots of us!

YeOldeTrout Mon 28-Dec-15 20:04:01

My back of envelope calculations in USA...

Available approx. 15,000 freshman spaces at Ivy League colleges each year.
For approximately 3 million US-native kids who start their first year of university.
Or 1 in 200 spaces.
I think that's similar to Oxbridge, approx 0.5% of British youth who got to Uni at all go to Oxbridge, and they aren't necessarily the best and brightest.

Out of the 4 million or so born each yr in USA.

About 1/3 of those 3 million who start will never get a Uni degree.
The % of USA population who have at least one 4-yr-Uni degree has been consistent for decades at around 37%.

Greenleave Mon 28-Dec-15 20:22:21

Compare to couple best Univs in Seul or Tokyo, the stress and tough level of either US and UK are way less. Many times for these Univs there are unnecessary stress due to the modules structure and the mass competition to gain the scholarships and the best results which will be used to show off once applying for the jobs. In Asian countries all marks/results are always public and every single child/parents/relatives/etc know the ranking of the child in the class/school/Univ

BoboChic Mon 28-Dec-15 20:25:43

I think that adult-directed learning in groups is a major cause of stress.

DC need time for self-directed activities in which they pursue things they enjoy at their own pace.

MuttonWasAGoose Fri 01-Jan-16 21:34:12

Gates and Zuckerberg both dropped out of Ivy League universities. They had the cultural capital to get in, and the genius to drop out.
Far more numerous are the graduates of mediocre universities saddled with crippling student loan debts stuck in dead end jobs with stagnant salaries.

mathanxiety Fri 01-Jan-16 22:37:08

I went through the completely exam dominated Irish education system, and my DCs were/are in the American system, with the gpa/exam combo determining grades/SAT/ACT/common app/university applications featuring multiple essays, form filling, expectation of being a terrific all rounder and future President, and I know which system I would prefer.

DD3 has just completed her ten university applications, and it has been a rough few months for her, as schoolwork and a heavy homework load proceeded apace alongside hours spent writing and perfecting essays with titles like 'Why?' for the purposes of her university applications. But I would still prefer that to the looming Leaving Cert, a single exam on which rides the rest of your life, at the end of secondary.

A friend of DD2's went abroad for a semester during high school and attended a very expensive (but not selective) girls' school close to my old school, and reported insane levels of stress related to the Leaving Cert.

Stress certainly exists in American high schools. But the choice of good universities is much wider than that in Ireland or even in Britain. If there is something in particular that you want to do, and you are willing to apply to 14 or 16 places, you may get lucky with your biomedical engineering plans. There is a wide band of very decent universities below Ivy League level, where graduates will emerge with a good chance of getting a good job, depending on the major. Finance grads from say the University of Iowa, with appropriate personal qualities can do very well for themselves.

American universities also offer the beautiful concept of liberal arts education, where you do core coursework for two year sand spend two years on your major. You don't have to decide at 17 what you want to do for the rest of your life. DS started out thinking aviation, dumped that owing to cost factors, decided a psychology track would be his best option, and ended up with a degree in Biology and minor in Chemistry. American students for the most part have options, and can find what interests them best while they are in university.

Many American students get extra coaching, tutoring, have parents willing and able to ferry them around their region for travel teams in various sports, or to music or art classes, or to special music camps, or the right summer camp, or to residential sport camps -- the entire boys' varsity soccer team in my DCs' public high school used to spend summers in the U of Michigan soccer camps from age 10 onwards -- that cost a lot. However, there are also many students who put in the work and dabble in a sport or two and do some volunteering and still get into great universities.

Many students who are not at hoity toity summer camps are also aware that the band of university they will be applying for is 'very selective' and from an early age. I would suspect that there are very few students who end up being accepted at Ivy League schools whose parents didn't steer them in that direction from an early age. The steering doesn't have to be Amy Chua-style explicit or direct exhortation or pressure. But I know several families who are American of all backgrounds, as well as Irish, Nigerian and Russian immigrant families whose children have known from an early age that in their families, members apply to a certain band of universities, and the sort of time commitment for homework, and the sort of motivation to get the grades necessary are understood. It's just a quiet assumption made by people who know from their own experience of other school systems that their children have what it takes, or in the case of American families, knowing that their children are bright.

I do not consider this a bad thing. There are children in the 'hood who are told in kindergarten that they can be anything they want to be by their teachers. This sort of thing makes me cry, because no, these children will not be what they want to be unless someone takes them firmly in hand and makes them do the necessary work, and it is very likely that they know nobody who understands what sort of work goes into getting a student to the point where they send off an application to Cal Berkeley or even to Eastern Kentucky with any hope of success.

In the last few decades, the prospects for those in the US without a degree have diminished rapidly. People who are now doing ok without degrees are possibly the last generation who will be able to get by without one.

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