When I first joined Millburn High School as a freshman, I was intimidated by the high rankings and expectations my new school was infamous for. Walking the halls with a new cohort of students I had never met before, wearing Vineyard Vines and Timberlands, was unfamiliar. While we were all the same age, it felt different.
Millburn High School is, by all quantifiable metrics, an outstanding institution. I have been educated by teachers with degrees from Princeton University, the London School of Economics, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University. We live in an affluent community that was called the wealthiest zip code in America in 2014 by Time Magazine. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of learning in classrooms with air conditioning, school-provided laptop carts, and Smartboards, luxuries that many students never experience throughout their years of high school.
We consistently send students to Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and other top schools. We have astronomically high percentages of students that score fives on their AP exams, and an average of 1322 on the SAT, ranking second in the state of New Jersey in 2016. The question we’re uncomfortable asking ourselves is, at what cost?
It doesn’t take long to feel the pressure to take the most rigorous courses, pursue the most prestigious universities, and hold the highest GPA. The toxicity of competition seeps into every aspect of life, from dozens of students running for student council spots they only seek for their resumes to completing community service for stamps of approval from the administration. The feeling of loneliness, of inadequacy, and of imperfection is deep-seated and universal.
Millburn High School is not alone. Hundreds of high schools around the United States gain prestige and notoriety for the difficulty of courses, at the expense of students’ confidence and mental health. An article from The Atlantic in 2014 found that more and more teenagers are suffering from mental illness and anxiety disorders, in large part due to rising competition and expectations for students.
In an effort to distance myself from academic stress and the focus on grades, I pursued my interests outside of the classroom by writing for our school paper and joining our debate team. Unfortunately, I’ve met plenty of kids who joined solely because they felt it would strengthen their resumes. “This will look great along with the community service I’m doing.” Pragmatism is increasingly overtaking passion, serving as the prime motivator for why students join clubs in the first place.
Emily, from a competitive high school in Texas, told me that since her freshman orientation, “we were told to be cognizant that education was now a competition, with winners and losers playing a zero-sum game for a better class rank than the people you surround yourself with. One of the biggest advantages of attending public school is learning from one’s peers, but competition removes the incentive, especially among students in the top 10 percent, to help others understand a concept.” In my high school, this toxicity manifests in fake study guides that are shared to sabotage other people’s GPAs or refusing to share notes because it would help a peer.
Margaret Yee, a high school teacher from San Francisco, said that Asian American students whose parents hold high expectations struggle the most with increased pressures. Many take the hardest courses, pursue the highest honors, compete for the highest GPAs, and join as many clubs as possible to earn a spot at one of America’s elite universities. As students feel less and less secure about their place within their schools and communities and are increasingly asked to compare themselves with the accomplishments and grades of their peers, we stunt the ability of students to flourish at their fullest. Instead, we force them to compete in a race to nowhere, hurting their mental and physical health along the way.
It’s also easy for students like us to forget our positions of privilege. While students contemplate between attending prestigious schools, we too commonly forget that 30 percent of high school graduates enter into the workforce right away, often times due to economic constraints and familial obligations. Competitive schools like mine are also often filled with kids who don’t have to work second jobs to support their families, are able to afford SAT tutors, and can access review books or private classes. At Millburn High School, only 1 percent of the student body is considered socioeconomically disadvantaged by US News and World Report.
Compared to lower-income students, children from wealthier families are often exposed to less stress, more spoken and written language, and more enriching educational resources in childhood. A 2015 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University concludes that these differences cause differences in their brain anatomy. Lower-income towns are trapped in cyclical poverty through education funding reliant on local property tax revenues. Lower-income students of color are penalized more harshly, held to lower expectations, and become victims of a school to prison pipeline that places them into a vicious and carceral system. These structural inequities merge to form the achievement gap between rich and poor households in America that far too often is unacknowledged.
The socioeconomic chasms of our education system are what damages us most. Ms. Greenberg, a teacher at our school, said: “We know that educating kids in schools characterized by concentrated poverty is detrimental to those kids’ learning and life opportunities. If you spend enough time in schools with concentrated affluence, you realize that those kids, too, suffer consequences, in the form of toxic competitiveness, elevated anxiety and skewed perceptions. It really is a shame that we, as a society, can’t find a way to make our schools more socioeconomically diverse, to the benefit of all of our young people.”
I am not asking to fix all these problems. I know that many are pervasive and institutional, and will take a long time to reform and change. What I’m asking for is for my peers to be more cognizant of their privilege and place in our society. Hopefully, our self-awareness can motivate us to make a difference for the world, instead of for our resumes.