Once upon a time, a college degree in any major at any college almost guaranteed career success for American students. When that held true, many high school students did not continue their education to post-secondary institutions. In the last decades of the 20th century, that number rose by the millions, and in 2017 at least 20 million students graduated from high school into college.
As the percentage of students pursuing higher education after graduation increases, the pressure to perform in the secondary, and even elementary, school intensifies, creating in American education a culture of overachievement.
Through her own research and interviews with students, faculty, and staff in high school and college, journalist Alexandra Robbins explores the new meanings of success and academic achievement that the overachiever culture has forced on academia.
For most of this study, Robbins focuses on a group of students at Walt Whitman High School, a prestigious public school in the Washington, D.C., area that ranked #1 in Maryland in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and among the top 50 high schools in America in 2009, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
In the first section of the book, she introduces readers to the “cast” of the story: juniors and seniors at Whitman and one college freshman just graduated from Whitman. A preview of their reputations at school accompanies the name and grade of each student. The nicknames selected represent different types of overachievers, allowing Robbins to present a full picture of the academic scene in American high schools today.
Her observations on these students span three academic semesters, from the weeks preceding the beginning of one term to the first semester of the next. She divides these sixteen months into seventeen intervals – seventeen chapters that contain snapshots of the students’ social and academic lives alongside essays compiled from interviews with admissions counselors, professors, and other faculty and statistics and stories gathered from Robbins’ study of this topic.
Through the lives of Julie the Superstar, Audrey the Perfectionist, AP Frank the Workhorse, Taylor the Popular Girl, Sam the Teacher’s Pet, Ryland the Slacker, C.J. the Flirt, Pete the Meathead, and the Stealth Overachiever, Robbins examines the effects of the overachiever mindset on student well-being and success. With the exception of Pete and the Stealth Overachiever, who conveys a relaxed attitude toward academics, the students who Robbins interviews all lead stressful, busy lives consumed with achievement. As C.J. the Flirt asserted to a friend,
“You can’t just be the smartest. You have to be the most athletic, you have to be able to have the most fun, you have to be the prettiest, the best-dressed, the nicest, the most wanted. You have to constantly be out on the town getting drunk and having fun, and then have to get straight As and busy fancy clothes” (Robins 117).
In an effort to bolster their high school resumes with impressive classes, high GPAs, and stand-out extracurriculars, the students in Robbins’ research overload themselves, and are caught in a cycle of working hard and late to complete tasks, making themselves sick with the stress, then working harder and later to keep pace, thereby worsening their sicknesses.
Quagmires assessed and discussed include the inflated importance of standardized testing, loss of childhood and creativity, and elimination of “average”.
This book points to the flaws in the overachievement shift in America’s educational system. A focus on quantity over quality and grades over learning have immensely impacted education and society. In exchange for working too hard, students have low self-esteem, extreme stress, and, sometimes, a corrosion of principles.
Federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind have sought to exalt the academic caliber of the United States in the world, but it many ways it has caused more harm than good. Robbins calls for a return to the original purpose of secondary and higher-education institutions: to teach students to learn well, not to teach students to test well.
The Overachievers is a thorough, engaging, and well-researched nonfiction piece, suited for anyone interested in taking a full and real look into the state of the American public school.
For more books by Alexandra Robbins that follow the style of The Overachievers, see her website.