On Wednesday, I joined the District 2 Community Education Council in a Town Hall with Chancellor Carmen Fariña. The Chancellor answered many questions across topics in k-12 education, but emphasized an important challenge that many students and families are struggling with in schools today—stress.
“Of all the grades in kindergarten through twelfth, the most stressful is seventh grade,” Fariña stated. The Chancellor likely identified seventh grade as the most challenging year for students due to its role in determining high school admissions. In New York City, the high school choice program encourages students to apply to a range of schools across the city, but given the key role that high school plays in college admissions, the school choice process is extremely high stakes.
Beyond seventh grade, the Chancellor voiced concern for the declining mental health she has witnessed among students in all grades and the proliferation of suicidal ideation in schools today. In response to a question posed by a member of the community regarding funding for courses that address mental health, Fariña asserted, “courses won’t change anything.”
Instead, the Chancellor strongly suggested that students engage in more conversation, or “real talk,” with their peers, teachers and parents. As a grandmother of two kids who attend NYC schools, Fariña has observed, both personally and as an outside spectator, that students are losing social and interpersonal skills. Fariña’s hope is that if students are able to build supportive relationships with other people in their community, then they will be more equipped to handle the stress and pressure of school.
While I agree with the Chancellor’s suggestion to promote more conversation in schools, her proposal only places a bandaid on an issue that is more deeply embedded in the fabric of our current k-12 system.
Many schools today focus on college and career readiness, causing curricula to narrowly focus on the skills, knowledge and requirements that open doors to higher education. A recent New York Times article on college admissions emphasized the same issue, stating that college application criteria “sends a powerful message about what matters, not just to admissions officers but in life, and students often respond accordingly.” Rather than pursuing their interests or curiosities, students must learn material that will appear on the standardized tests that will determine their acceptance to college. Educators must continue to teach lessons that align to state standards despite their dullness or irrelevance, in order to keep students on track towards college readiness.
The pipeline between primary and higher education makes learning a means to an end. Students are constantly producing work with the distant goal of college in mind, but are not truly engaged in the process of learning throughout their entire primary school experience. This causes students to resent their education as they don’t feel that they are gaining much value skills or knowledge to live a meaningful and informed life. If you add on top of that, the rising competition for college admissions, it should come as no surprise that students are increasingly stressed, anxious and depressed in school.
It is important to identify the role that higher education plays in shaping the goals and expectations of k-12 education. Utilizing a more qualitative set of criteria in college applications, such as providing an option to submit a project portfolio (which MIT has started offering), allows for more flexibility in k-12 curricula. Additionally, accepting more students in admissions cycles can lessen some of the stress around competition. Reforming the system by which students are accepted into universities is far from simple, but change can occur if we influence the people on college admissions teams to develop applications that capture the skills which are not reflected through grades or standardized tests. The critical link between k-12 and higher education is a reminder that schools don’t exist in a vacuum; reform must be implemented in tandem with other fields in order to progress our education system.