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Racing to the Top of the Cliff (and Beyond)

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Will we ever learn? The latest evidence that the "Race to the Top" program leads over the edge of a cliff comes courtesy of the depressing results reported in "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010."

Alarming numbers of American college freshmen are suffering from depression and other stress-related disorders. This is directly related to misguided policies and practices in American schools. And these poor kids are the "winners" in a dysfunctional system that insists on viewing learning as a "race" with winners and losers, as all races require.

Few would question that America's educational system is ill. Even the modest increases in test scores in some places can be more than accounted for by test prep and/or barren curricula that only serve the accountability frenzy. Generally, things are pretty dismal and getting worse. If education is sick, the most current educational policy is likely to kill the patient.

From pre-kindergarten through post-secondary education, the fear of failure and sky-is-falling attitude toward our global status is driving policy and practice. Despite abundant evidence that early childhood education should focus on social development and play, more and more pre-schools are introducing academic work -- and learning becomes ever more stressful thereafter.

In the craziness of New York City private schools, many four-year-olds are taking test prep courses to prepare for kindergarten admission. Kindergartners are under enormous pressure to accelerate their achievement. Middle school students are medicated for anxiety as their parents fret over high school admission. High school students, often as early as the ninth grade, are up half the night cramming for exams and worrying about any stain (less than A) on the transcript that might reduce the possibility of getting into Harvard or Dartmouth. The debilitating effects of "high-stakes" testing, accountability and earlier introduction of stressful expectations are nearly universal.

Years ago, the noted cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, Ph.D. observed that pressing children to do too much too soon negatively affected learning. Bruner observed that this pressure leached the natural pleasure from learning and conditioned young children rather quickly to see school as a place to do only one thing: figure out how to please the demanding adult (teacher or parent) and not ask questions or do anything imaginative or original that digressed from the adults' expectations. Recent developments in neuroscience confirm Bruner's observations and suggest that the consequences are even worse than he thought.

While there are many biological and developmental landmines exploding in America's schools each day, perhaps the corrosive effects of stress are the most insidious. Several fascinating pieces of research hint that such educational policy is not merely ineffective, but may be destructive.

Neuroscientists have known for some time that chronic stress, lasting for weeks or months, impairs the cell communication that is critical to learning and memory. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have recently discovered that this effect is equally pronounced with short-term stress. Hormones released under stress rapidly disintegrate the dendrites (connection between neurons) that facilitate the synapses that process and store information and memories. Another study, conducted by the National Institute on Aging, finds that the hormone Cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, disrupts the hippocampus, the region of the brain most responsible for learning and short-term memory. This would suggest that things like pop-quizzes and high-stakes tests might actually reduce cognitive ability!

An especially intriguing piece of the stress/learning puzzle came in a Newsweek article last year that, among other things, examined the effects of exercise on stress and stress reduction. Exercise has long been considered effective in stress reduction or management. In this study, two stressed rats were yoked together on a pair of exercise wheels. One rat had the ability to initiate exercise, the other had to exercise when and only when the first chose to do so. Rat #1 benefited as predicted: Exercise reduced stress and his brain "bloomed with new cells." Rat #2, exercising at precisely the same time and rate, lost brain cells. Researchers concluded that:

"He (rat #2) was doing something that should have been good for his brain, but he lacked one crucial factor: control. He could not determine his own workout schedule, so he didn't perceive it as exercise. Instead, he experienced it as a literal rat race."

There may be no other field of human endeavor where daily practice and official policy are so stunningly inconsistent with advances in knowledge. While small children are sent each day to stressful settings where their ability to learn is arguably impaired, older students are in a rat race, cramming for high-stakes tests and striving -- sometimes desperately -- to meet the anxious expectations of parents and school officials.

Nearly all of this is done at the adults' bidding, placing children on exercise wheels over which they have little control. In the face of failing schools and the growing numbers of anxious children, our national response is to push them to run a little faster. This scenario reminds me of Albert Einstein's famous quote, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."