Quick Thoughts on Academic “Achievement”

The performative nature of our educational system led my daughter to believe a 34 on her ACT wasn’t good enough.

I have four girls, age 9–16, and the education of my oldest, now in her first year of college, was a real eye-opener. She has intellectual gifts and was conditioned by her school system to base her value on how many meaningless “achievement” hoops she could jump through, the end goal being the elusive Ivy League admission.

Ok. Admitted.

Now what?

She is coming to terms with the fact that the payoff she has been promised for all of these years isn’t forthcoming after all…because it’s not real.

It was a performance.

Harvard? Check. Yale? Check. Happiness? Not even close. Meaning? Elusive. Satisfaction? Impossible.

Shocked the hell out of me. I came from working-class stock and we didn’t know about things like competitive preschools and CogAT testing. (Un?)luckily, her district jumped in and pushed her, using her to elevate its own status. “We produced a National Merit Scholar!” Sure. One with crippling anxiety and paralyzing resentment at being bred as a show pony.

She was taught to play a game where even if she “wins”, she loses. Her real gifts — her love for learning and curiosity — were sacrificed to the gods of “merit”, “performance”, and superficial accolades.

She nearly drowned in her perfectionist soup when she fell asleep at the dinner table after countless nights of doing busywork until 3 am.

We are working like hell on resuscitation.

Because the prestige of her “accomplishment” certainly isn’t going to bring her back.

Parents — Teach your kiddos empathy and kindness. Challenge them. Nurture their creativity and curiosity. Let them fail. Let them discover. Let them get dirty and ride their bike around the block without you hovering. Those pursuits will deliver.

Kids get tied up in knots when their “performance” (i.e. how well they can fill out forms and regurgitate rote memorizations) is conflated with their self-worth.

Especially when the cookie they were promised, if they managed to “succeed”, doesn’t actually exist.

My 13-year-old eighth-grader was recently given an application by her school counselor to the local magnet high school for “high-achieving” students. The literature sent home bragged of its “selectiveness” and a summer reading list four pages long.


This kid will learn things besides how to tow a line and chase someone else’s idea of success.

She will be creative and brave and strong. She will question her teachers and push back when someone can’t answer her “Why?”s. She will pursue projects that actually develop her mind — not exploit it — and she will fail in the process because failure is not antithetical to learning — its a prerequisite.

She’s not going to perform knowledge — she's going to actually acquire it.

And her “achievements” will not be any less valuable than her sister’s.

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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