Education Can Be Fatal

I didn't know Madison Holleran, but looking at her face in a photo, focused with effort during an Ivy League cross-country meet, was heartbreaking. As recalled in the New York Times this week, Holleran, a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, jumped to her death from a nine-story parking structure last year, only months after the photo was taken.

Holleran, a talented and successful young woman, was beginning the second semester of her freshman year. As a grandparent of two girls, I shiver at the culture that seems to have contributed to this tragedy. Worrell-Breeden, a middle aged educator, was similarly described as successful and popular. As an educator, I also shudder at the culture that seems to have led to her suicide.

Holleran, a 19 year-old white woman and Worrell-Breeden, a 49 year-old woman of color might appear to have little in common, but I believe both are victims of an education system gone rabid from stress and competition.

It appears that Holleran's death was due in part to competitive pressure to chase acceptance to a highly selective college and the anxiety and depression that often accompany or follow that quest.

A growing epidemic of eating disorders, depression, binge drinking and other physical responses to chronic stress is seen at the most elite institutions. Too many students arrive at their coveted destinations suffering from severe "burn-out." They appear incurious, dispassionate and lost. These students have been conditioned to do what I called "learning to the test." They have a primary, if not sole, goal of getting the answers right on the next exam and never soiling their impeccable resumes with any As. I frequently talk about this epidemic at admission events, making it very clear that Calhoun does not encourage competition, "gaming the system," long hours of homework or other stressors.

At such an admissions event a few years ago, a parent of a prospective 9th grader approached me. He introduced himself as an administrator, involved in admissions, at an Ivy League professional school. Responding to this part of my speech, and requesting my confidence, he said, "About 50 percent of the students in our current first year class are in mental health treatment." Even with my sensitivity to this issue, I was astonished.

In the fall of 2014 I had verification of this collateral damage. I hosted a breakfast with parents of pre-school or kindergarten children who were new to Calhoun. In the context of talking about why they chose a progressive school this issue of stress and pressure arose. It was clear that part of their attraction to Calhoun was the relative lack of competitive pressure and stress. To emphasize the point, I related the story of the Ivy League administrator (whose son indeed came to Calhoun) and his report of 50 percent in mental health treatment.

I knew that two of the new parents in the room teach undergraduates at Columbia University. I anticipated that they might balk at this statistic, become defensive, or report a much different experience. Both of them responded, "I think that percentage is probably low."

The Times story on Holleran cited clusters of similar suicides among highly successful students. Holleran was one of six Penn students who committed suicide in a 13-month period. Penn is far from alone. Six students killed themselves at Cornell in one year. Five died at NYU in one year, all of whom jumped to their deaths.

Worrell-Breeden was a victim of another kind of stressful competition. Just before her suicide, she had been accused of forging answers on third graders' standardized tests. She "cheated" to protect her students, her school or both from the potential adverse consequences of failing in the high stakes testing era. In public schools across America, wonderful teachers and administrators are caught in this vise, occasionally exploding as they are put under pressure to keep their jobs or save their schools.

Most adult educators quit before they become desperate enough to cheat or jump in front of a subway train. But the testing and accountability era has destroyed the spirit of countless teachers and administrators who entered the profession because of their love of children, not their devotion to data. Teachers see their schools and students demeaned in the local newspaper as test scores and rankings are released by bureaucrats and politicians who have never taught a single child.

Education is not a game. It should be a rich, cooperative, loving process. Holleran and Worrell-Breeden are just two vivid, painful examples of the consequences of seeing education as a data-driven, competitive enterprise.

Many are complicit. Colleges submit to the absurd US New and World Report rankings surveys. Prestigious schools solicit tens of thousands of applicants so they can break more hearts, knowing it will boost their own reputation. Parents press children to achieve conspicuously so that they can put a bumper sticker or window decal on their car or brag at a cocktail party. Secondary schools press students to apply to elite institutions so that they can burnish their own school's status.

Politicians and "education reform" economists press for more testing, more discipline, and longer school hours. Because of these policies, schools offer fewer of the things that can and should make school a joy instead of a burden.

The price paid by women like Madison Holleran and Jeanene Worrell-Breeden would be too high even if competition, data and stress produced "results." But the tragedy is even deeper because the educational culture that contributed to these suicides is utterly unnecessary. Competition, ranking, constant testing, perfection, stress - all of these things inhibit real learning. I make this case much more thoroughly, from a neurobiological and psychological perspective, in a forthcoming book titled, "First, Do No Harm."

Fortunately, most high-achieving students and public school administrators don't end their lives to escape this toxic culture, but that makes it no less malignant. For millions of kids and teachers the toxicity is a relentless cancer.

Education is doing a great deal of harm.