1Supp cover 7.27.12
1Supp cover 7.27.12

Back to School: Expert says unhealthy pressure an obstacle to success

Stanford scholar Denise Clark Pope spent a school year following five students in a high-pressure Bay Area public school. What she found alarmed her.

“What the kids showed me is that it’s not about learning anymore; it’s about getting the grades and balancing all the extracurriculars,” she said. “If you really wanted to learn the material in a high school science or English class, you wouldn’t have the time.”

At its worst, this environment can lead to some of the problems Pope observed: students who were sleep deprived, cheated on exams and suffered emotionally.

A senior lecturer at Stanford’s School of Education and a nationally recognized expert in curriculum studies and engagement in learning, Pope is working on solutions.

Denise Clark Pope (center) leads middle and high school teachers in a “Teaching for Engagement” workshop in 2011.

Basically, parents and educators need to change the way they define student success, Pope believes, and she is doing her best to bring about that change. 

“There’s too much of a focus on performance, grades and other external measurements of success,” she said. “This is not allowing students to focus on the things they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

With three children of her own, the 45-year-old Los Altos resident and her husband have two students at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, where Pope has served on the school board; her oldest graduated from Hausner and is in high school.

Pope’s 2001 book “‘Doing School:’ How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students,” documented the lives of the five high school students she observed. “Doing School” was recognized the year it was published as a “notable” book in education by the American School Board Journal.

Since then, Pope has worked both in the academic world and with Challenge Success, the Stanford-based nonprofit she co-founded in 2007, to facilitate change. Challenge Success focuses on research and intervention aimed at reducing “unhealthy pressure” on youth and promoting a “broader vision” of success.

Pope has a long-held connection to Jewish education. Her parents founded the Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., where she grew up. Also, in addition to her work with Hausner, Pope has assisted Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto with special projects, including evaluating the head of school.

Pope appreciates Jewish learning environments because she believes they teach values and promote learning for learning’s sake. She cites the example of how havrutah, the method of seminar-style Torah learning, corresponds with what she and her colleagues at Challenge Success promote when they work with schools. 

Denise Clark Pope

“You don’t get a grade in the havrutah study session; it’s not like you’re going to get an A-plus on your Torah,” she said. “It’s learning for learning’s sake and that’s the essence of what we’re trying to help schools think about. We’re trying to get kids to enjoy cracking the code instead of trying to get the grade.”

Pope got her start in the field of education in 1989 as a teacher at Mission San Jose high school in Fremont. But after a year teaching she became “frustrated” with the educational environment, she said, and left to teach composition and rhetoric at Santa Clara University. She then went back to Stanford, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree, earning her doctorate in education in 1999.

Her dissertation turned into her book, and since its publication Pope says that there has been both good news and bad news in education trends.

On the one hand, it is clear to her that “many, many more” students are “doing school” instead of learning for the sake of learning, she said.

“On the other hand, there have been more strides in social and emotional learning. Now it’s become more common for schools and even leaders to talk about the value of social and emotional skills instead of just academic skills.”

Challenge Success has done what it can to continue this trend, working with more than 100 schools since 2007. Suggestions for schools include adding periods for students to meet with advisers, reducing the number of scheduling blocks per day and implementing later starting times.

As for advice to parents, Pope suggests they be on the lookout for signs of stress such as chronic headaches, stomach aches and changes in mood or eating habits. Sleep is also very important; Pope said the average high school student should get at least nine hours a night. In order to promote healthy sleeping habits, she suggests that parents impose a rule that their children cannot have electronics in their bedrooms after bedtime.

Pope also recognizes that there can be added pressure on children in Jewish families.

“The stereotype is that Jews push grades and academics and that that is what lifted us out of the ghetto,” she said. “I’m not against a focus on education by any stretch of the imagination, but there are many good professions beyond being a doctor or a lawyer.

“There are lots of studies that show that the name of the college you go to is less important than your fit [with the school you attend]. That’s hard for the typical old-school Jewish parent to hear,” she said. “People need to really trust that their kid loves learning and also that the very important skills of character, resiliency and health are more important in the long run than what schools they get into or their SAT scores.”

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.