High Stakes High School


Lewin Powell III, 16, admitted that he killed his mother with a baseball bat after an argument about his grades at a prestigious Maryland school. What is America’s plan to manage this generation’s newly competitive high school milieu?  Thanks to nothing more nefarious than demographics – the children of baby boomers are numerous – the competition for top colleges is intense.  There are just more college-bound kids around now than there were 30 years ago – lots more.


Yet Americans still have this Pollyanna notion that kids should continue to enjoy a carefree youth.  I guarantee that parents in China and India, veterans of school competition wars, must think our concern with giving our kids a “normal” adolescence is humorous and naïve.  For generations the best students in France, for example, finish high school and then compete to get into the best “prepa” schools – spending another two years studying hoping to get into the top universities. 


Now that it is America’s turn to taste the bitter pill of formidable competition for the best universities, will we manage it well?  Or has murder, suicide or popping amphetamines in high school become de rigueur?  Surely there is a way to acquire a robust high school education without experiencing the dark side of unendurable pressure and competition.


10 Responses to High Stakes High School

  1. Namita K says:

    As parents we need to stop pressurizing our children to excel academically, and need to raise confident children who do not give in to peer pressure which only rewards brilliance. As a parent of a high school senior I want my daughter to go to a college which is a good fit for her emotionally,intellectually and offers her the diversity she has experienced as an expat. This does not necessarily mean going to a “so called top college”. Yes she needs to compete to survive in this world but not at the cost of her health, or happiness. There are hundreds of colleges which offer an excellent education in the U.S – it really comes down to what your child makes of his college experience. How successful you are as an adult very often has very little to do with the college you went to, but more about your work ethic and the opportunities that you took advantage of.

  2. Jeannie says:

    Students also experience high stakes pressure as ninth graders at the lunch table from their peers when discussions arise about older students, siblings, and the branding conversations of colleges and universities.

    Encouraging students to build and develop and pursue interests, skills and expertise in a subject, project, community or religious group to keep them in the moment, rather than focus on the future college/university setting is a great way to build self confidence.

    Parental guidance and building self confidence will enable students to pick and choose the conversations, avoid the high stakes college preparation conversations and pressure, and help prepare to take on the challenges ahead in a timely manner.

  3. Doreen says:

    I agree with comments posted by Jeannie and Namita. As a parent, how do you describe your happiness? You can be successful but not fulfilled. A student can be described as successful because they achieved a placement at a top university but will they be happy there.

  4. Melissa says:

    This year marks the most college-bound high school graduates ever in our history. This at a time when financial security is lacking for many families, and university endowments and State funding to help students pay for higher education are decreasing. The competition in the top tier schools goes beyond academic credentials; it is financial too. We may be getting a taste of the intensified competition students in other countries with limited college seats have felt for years. However we are fortunate to have so many choices here. As bloggers before me pointed out, life is not about where you go to school, it is what you do with your education and your life that matters. Keeping student and parent expectations real and in-synch will go a long way toward positive outcomes in life, whether higher education is part of that or not. We have choices. Baseball bats should not be involved!

  5. Kristina says:

    Sadly, winning at all costs has become part of the global culture. Even when parents communicate to their children that their mental and physical health are and must be valued above achievements, there is still massive peer pressure to succeed.

    I think parents can play a major positive role in this by discussing and reevaluating with their children the expectations that their children have for themselves and give real-world perspective by helping them to understand that college and university are not the final destination, but merely stops along the way.

  6. findingschools says:

    This is indeed a worrisome issue for many families. While continuing on to postsecondary studies immediately after high school is a great path for many,I wonder if more North American students should follow the tradition of many British students and take a ‘gap’year to mature and learn through life experiences before deciding where to go to college and what degree to work towards. Sadly, for many, success is still measured by what college one attends and we forget post secondary education is not for everyone. How do we convince those students who choose not to go to college that they are not ‘losers’?

  7. Lauren says:

    Love the comment about the gap year- I definitely would have benefited from that. I am also a firm believer that two year and vocational programs may be a better choice for some students who are instead going to four year programs that may not really suit them in the long run.

  8. Catherine S. says:

    As a currently college-bound student, I really do want my “college experience” to be meaningful as well as helpful for the rest of my life, and I want to think that with a little hard work and perserverance, I’ll be able to get into a college that fits me personally.

    But as the economy takes a turn for the worst – and who knows for how long – it is certainly possible that there simply will not be enough jobs for so many well-qualified applicants. It will be then that the name-brand school will stand out, despite the soothing, touchy-feely messages of the college councilors.

    It’s getting into these schools in the first place that creates the stress. It’s the competition, the willingness to stand out among so many, many applicants. This is why Lewin Powell III killed his mother with a baseball bat – he broke under the pressure.

    But other students will not break, and it’s them who I’ll be competing against. Cynical as it is, that’s the way it works.

  9. Vicky Singh says:

    Unfortunately, as Kristina pointed out, winning has become everything for most of us and competition is an ugly word. My vision of healthy competition is really about being the best you can be and committing to the process rather than the outcome of that process. The process of schooling, college selection, application and admissions are all part of the process of self development and self discovery. More importantly, our kids need to feel a sense of accountability and committment to the choices they make. We can start this journey by giving our children more opportunities to make decisions, however small they may seem and allow them to reap the rewards or face the consequences of their choices.

  10. Claudia says:

    I attended a fascinating 5-day workshop held by “All Kinds of Minds” (nonprofit institute for learning differences founded by Dr. Mel Levine – learning expert and pediatrician)last summer. The “Schools Attuned Program” is a neurodevelopmental approach to identify and recognize someones individual strengths and weaknesses. The focus is too often on the weaknesses instead of using the strengths to compensate or improve weak skills and concentrate on strong areas which every person has.”Success is a vitamin that every child must take in order to thrive during his or her school years.” (Dr. Mel Levine)

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