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Amid privilege, crushing pressure to excel

Amid privilege, crushing pressure to excel

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Posted on Mon, Dec. 11, 2006 — Facing parent and peer expectations, high-achieving students may cheat.
Four grueling hours cramming for a calculus test left Ashley Tedesco on the verge of tears Tuesday night. The Central Bucks East senior, who was sick when her class took the exam, just wasn’t getting it.

The next day, her teacher placed the makeup test in front of Tedesco, then stepped from the room. The opportunity was obvious.

“I wish I could send a text message to my friend at Penn and ask, ‘How do I do this problem?’ ” Tedesco thought as she sat alone. “I wish I were a bad kid, and not a good student, so people wouldn’t expect so much from me.”

Tedesco didn’t cheat. But she and other students in the area understand how the unattainable goal of perfection might lead to temptation for some high-achievers.
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At Cherry Hill High School East – where news got out last week that five students may have paid a hacker to doctor their computerized grade transcripts – classmates say the burden to excel at a fast-track school may have led to the cheating scandal.

According to a new study, that’s a reasonable theory.

More than 40 percent of teens feel intense pressure to succeed academically at any cost, according to a national teen ethics poll released last week by Junior Achievement and Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, a financial advisory firm. And 22 percent of the 787 students surveyed said they had cheated on a test in the last year.

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Anxious students usually take their cues from their parents, says clinical psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

Well-meaning parents “are afraid their kids aren’t going to be successful,” said Levine, whose book is one of several about teenagers and intense stress out this year.

Some pass their fear on through warnings that anything but perfection dooms their children to a life of diminished possibilities, Levine said. Children, in turn, may think their parents will love them only if they do well.

The resulting pressure – for better grades, more extracurricular activities, stronger SAT scores – leads to more than just a temptation to cheat. Often, Levine said, children from upper-middle-class families show up in her office in need of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental-health problems.

“In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints and unhappiness of any group of children in this country,” wrote Levine, who practices in Marin County, Calif.

The pressure seems to be most intense among girls.

Studies of public school students have shown that as many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from well-off families suffer clinical depression, Levine said. That’s triple the national rate for teenage girls, she wrote.

The Junior Achievement/Deloitte survey also found a gender discrepancy. Half of the girls, who were between 13 and 18, said they felt “a lot” or “overwhelming” pressure to succeed in school, compared with 38 percent of the boys.

“Kids who cheat to get better grades are in a state of desperation,” Ashley Brown, a senior at Radnor High School, said in an e-mail interview.

A school’s prestige and expectations of parents, colleges, and even classmates, create pressures that can lead to a “feeling of despair,” said Brown, who hopes to attend law school. Grades start to be thought of “as a reflection of the person as a whole.”

Tedesco and other high-achieving Central Bucks East seniors said pressure to succeed does come from parents, teachers and classmates. But mostly, they said, it comes from themselves.

“We’re in this crazy race,” Amanda Whitbred said Thursday. “Gossip started halfway through junior year about who the valedictorian would be. It’s like, ‘Did you hear Rachel got a B in gym? That could bring down her GPA.’ “

The students interviewed last week could recall vividly each of their rare B-plus grades. “A ‘B’ is a scarlet letter,” explained Brian Cianni.

“I know it’s a stupid thing to get upset about,” said Briana Finegan. “But it’s not the best I can do.”

Society needs to determine where young people are getting the message that success is worth any cost, says Harold Tinkler, chief ethics and compliance officer for Deloitte in the United States.

“I feel that’s troubling not only as a chief ethics officer, but as a parent,” he said, explaining that students will need to make good value judgments throughout their lives.

Students know that cheating is wrong, Tinkler said, but the belief that anything less than an A is failure can distort their judgment.

Deloitte has given $1 million and pledged an additional $1 million to create and improve lessons on how to make ethical decisions under pressure.

In the current curriculum, used in schools’ Junior Achievement programs, students discuss moral dilemmas they are likely to face, such as cheating on a test or illegally downloading music.

They also are taught to recognize when life has become overwhelming and when they need to consult someone.

The revised curriculum, expected by the end of 2007, will be designed so it can used outside the Junior Achievement program.

At Central Bucks, students said lessons in time management might help them manage their workloads better. With help, they could fit in the studying, the reading, the homework, the sports and clubs – and maybe even some sleep.

But no matter how intense things get, they and other local students said, there is no excuse for cheating. It’s wrong – and it’s just not worth it.

“We’ve worked so hard,” Denis Yanishevskiy said. “One moment of weakness could completely destroy that.”

“Even if no one else is around,” said Joan Bradbury, “I see it and I know that God sees it.”

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Kellie Patrick and Lini S. Kadaba
Inquirer Staff Writers
Contact staff writer Kellie Patrick at 215-489-2035 or kpatrick@phillynews.com.
For more findings from the teen ethics poll, contact Deloitte & Touche USA LLP at communityinvolvement@deloitte.com.