In a recent art assignment, a middle school student depicted an overburdened child who was being berated for earning an A, rather than an A+, on a calculus exam. In the image, the mother scolds the student with the words, “Shame on you!”

The above comes from a New York Times article covering the ethnic divide between Asian American and white families in a top performing NJ school district.

The reason?

As one parent explains:

“It’s become an arms race, an educational arms race,” she said. “We all want our kids to achieve and be successful. The question is, at what cost?”

In one corner, Asian American families understand the reality of living in a competitive world.  Excelling academically prepares their children to succeed.

In the other corner, white families state that their children are overburdened and are experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress.

What’s one to do?

The superintendent of this district agreed that things were going too far in the pursuit of excellence.  According to the article:

In the previous school year, 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. And on a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “Coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s appeal for a more holistic approach has only further divided the two ethnic cultures.

Speaking of ethnic cultures, for the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at top performing Finnish schools based on the interview of Gabriel Dahlgren, author of Real Finnish Lessons.

Based on his extensive research, Dahlgren concluded (although he admits there is no direct evidence) that the success of Finnish schools was/is largely attributed to the cultural value of grit (discussed here).

To corroborate the notion that the cultural value of grit strongly impacts academic performance, one can take a look at the Asian culture.

Dahlgren states that Asians do well wherever they are.  In fact, Asian Americans outperform all others on the PISA – an international assessment. 

But is doing well on a test the same as being happy and successful?

Most would agree that we’re talking about two different things here.

So then, is there a trade-off?  Can achieve the maximum scores result in producing the happiest people at the same time?

I would say no.

Every action we take in this world of ours comes with an opportunity cost.  This is no different.

This world of ours.  May be subject to copyright.

Think about it.

Really think about it.

Doesn’t it seem to demand balance?

You see it in ecology.  Ecological balance.

You see it in physics.  Newton’s Third Law of Motion.

You see it in mathematics.  Algebra.

You see it in philosophy and religion.  Karma.  Or “reaping what you sow.”

You even see it in Star Wars!

BALANCE

I personally picture a balance board. May be subject to copyright.

Now before I continue with this balance board analogy, and to avoid what I’m saying to be misconstrued, let me go on the record to state that I respect the Asian culture enormously and believe that yes, their cultural values are directly related to their success.

And let me also go on the record as a proud American.  I believe though that MANY American students (and Americans) can benefit from a healthy dose of these values, as a sense of learned helplessness and entitlement has crippled us as a nation.

Now, what happens when we move too far in one direction on this figurative balance board of ours?  Say our goal is to be the top performing nation according to international test scores?

With this idea of balance in mind, what do we give up?

Well, if you take a closer look at the data, you’ll see, as Dahlgren states, that Finland, with its envied scores, has fewer low performers.

But they also had fewer exceptional performers.

And how about creativity? Imagination? Passion?

Check out this CNN article.  There are plenty more articles out there expressing a similar sentiment:  An overfocus on test scores comes with a price.

Maybe even a deadly one. 

Of course, enabling learned helpless and entitlement can be just as deadly.

That’s why here at Powerhouse Education, a company where we devote ourselves to best practices, we believe:

Balance is best.