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John Thompson: Fear, Teen Stress and High Stakes Tests

Guest post by John Thompson.

I am a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1953, during the greatest economic boom in history. Tomorrow, we knew, would be better than today. And, today, according to the American Psychological Association, we remain less stressed than subsequent generations. 

My generation's fate could have been less rosy. Our parents survived the Great Depression and World War II, and some imposed an extreme competitive, stressful value system. The symbol of hard-charging fathers who lived their lives through their sons was the Jimmy Piersall story.  My father and I watched on television when the Hall of Fame baseball player had his infamous meltdown in the centerfield of Yankee Stadium. Across the nation, this led to conversations between parents and children about the dangers of living up to the external demands of others. With the assistance of the movie, Fear Strikes Out, a cross generational conversation helped young people learn how to seek balance in their lives.

Piersall's Yankee Stadium breakdown, by the way, occurred during the Sputnik "crisis" years. This was a time when a supposed crisis in American education was manufactured. During this panic, some demanded that a new rigor be imposed on students who had grown "soft." The hysteria subsided and the 1960s "Counter Culture" emerged, along with an understanding that adults and schools must buffer children from the stresses of adult life, as we nurture an "inner directed" sense of self-control and personal autonomy.

I've long wondered when this generation would have its Jimmy Piersall moment or, at least a series of shared cultural experiences growing out of the anxiety that has been imposed on it.   NPR's Tom Ashbrook moderated a discussion on teens and stress that should be a part of such a wakeup call for all of us. Ashbrook reported that members of the Millennial Generation (aged 18 to 34) had been the most stressed but, now, it is teenagers.

The American Psychological Association survey found that on a 10-point scale, teens report a 3.9 level of stress is a healthy amount.  During the school year, however they rate their stress to be a 5.8. Worse, 1/4th of teens feel stress at the highest levels (an 8, 9 or a 10 on the 10 point scale) during the school year.

Worst still, stress during the teenage years is likely to produce longterm health effects.  We all have genetic vulnerabilities, and stress brings them out.

Ashbrook and his guests, doctors David Palmiter, Michael Bradley, and Kristen Race, agreed that stress is the result of interconnected problems that have grown during the last forty years. Not coincidently, those four decades were a time when the middle class was shrinking and the economy has become more unpredictable. Today's teens anticipate a more stressful future. They do not have the same hopefulness of generations, like the Baby Boomers, who could mostly assume that tomorrow will be better and more equitable than today.

Much of this stress is communicated by adults; parents facing economic pressures inadvertently pass their tension on to children. Also, adults have not made enough of a conscious effort to teach children how to become inner-directed persons, who respond to intrinsic motivation. Today's teens respond more to extrinsic pressures, such as the desire for material wealth and external attractiveness and rewards.

Neither have parents taught children how to use digital tools and social media, rather than to be used by them. As John Merrow explains, we have allowed young people to assume the role of "digital natives," without teaching them to be "digital citizens." Parents must also share some of the responsibility of teens having schedules which result in 50% less free time and a hour less sleep each night. And, some parents practice "hovering and rescuing" or not teaching children how to take responsibility for their actions.

Finally, Ashbrook's experts made several practical suggestions, with sharing a family dinner being crucial. We need less homework and more conversations across generational lines. Another "no brainer," I believe, is demanding an end to output-driven school reform. The last things our children need are more tests, and more objective targets and objectified education value systems stressing competition.

I wish the experts had probed more deeply into socio-economic class. The discussion centered mostly on the stress felt by middle class and affluent families. Being a former inner city teacher, I assume that my students' stress levels were even higher. And, sadly, market-driven reform has inflicted even more damage on the poor children of color who it supposedly sought to help.

It is not just in urban schools where reformers have tried to combat the stress of poverty by dumping the stress of high-stakes testing on teens. It is not just in the inner city that the values necessary for living a happy, healthy, and rewarding life have been subordinated to a competition in order to finish on top in a dog-eat-dog world.

For reasons that I still find inexplicable, corporate reforms have instilled an outer-directed value system on schools and students. They have nurtured an ethos of reward and punishment. They created a pseudo-education crisis, and tried to pit Baby Boomers versus the Millennials. Reformers have tried to drive the professional autonomy of teachers out of schools and, in doing so, they turned children into collateral damage. They promoted a culture of sort and punish that is the antithesis of the inner-directedness and personal autonomy that America once honored.

What do you think? Are corporate reformers living vicariously through children? Why would they impose the ruthless competition of the global marketplace on students? How did we get to this point where we fail to buffer kids from the stress of adulthood until they can handle it?

 John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom. 

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