Educators and parents have started this school year with anticipation. The stress of the past year has resulted in record levels of teacher burnout and mental health issues for students.
Even before the pandemic, a mental health crisis among high school students was looming. According to a survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, 37% of high school students reported feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness and 19% reported being suicidal. In response, more than half of all US states have required schools have a mental health curriculum or include mental health in their standards.
As mental health professionals and co-authors of a book about the pressure and stress high school students face, we’ve spent our entire career supporting student mental health. Traditionally, mental health interventions have been individualized and focused on helping students manage and modify their behaviors to deal with the challenges they face. But while working with schools and colleges around the world as we researched for our bookwe realized that most interventions do not address the systemic issues causing mental health problems in the first place.
It’s time to recognize that our education systems are directly contributing to the youth mental health crisis. And if we take student well-being seriously, we must change the systems in which they learn.
Here are five bold steps high schools can take to improve mental health.
Limit homework or make it optional
Imagine you’re applying for a job and the hiring manager informs you that in addition to a full day’s work in the office, you’ll have three extra hours of work every night. Does that sound like a healthy work-life balance? Most adults would consider this expectation ridiculous and unsustainable. Yet, this is the workload that most schools impose on high school students.
Research shows that excessive homework leads to increased stress, physical health problems and a lack of balance in students’ lives. And studies have shown that more than two hours of daily homework can be counterproductivebut many teachers attribute more.
Proponents of homework argue that homework improves academic performance. Indeed, a meta-analysis research on this issue has found a correlation between homework and achievement. But correlation is not causation. Does homework lead to success, or do high achievers do more homework? While homework completion is likely to signal student engagement, which in turn leads to academic success, there is little evidence to suggest that homework itself enhances engagement in learning.
Another common argument is that homework helps students develop skills related to problem solving, time management, and independence. But these skills can be explicitly taught during the school day rather than after school.
Limiting homework or moving to an optional homework policy not only promotes student well-being, but can also create a more equitable learning environment. According to the American Psychological Association, students from more affluent families are more likely to have access to resources such as devices, the internet, a dedicated workspace, and the support needed to complete their work — and homework can highlight these inequalities.
Whether a school limits homework or makes it optional, it is essential to remember that more important than the amount of homework assigned, it is important to design the type of activities that engage students in learning. When the students are intrinsically motivated to do their homework, they are more engaged in work, which in turn is associated with academic success.
Limit the number of PAs students can take
Advanced placement courses give students a taste of college-level work and, in theory, allow them to earn college credit quickly. Getting good grades on AP exams is associated with higher high school GPAs and college success, but the to research tends to be correlational rather than causal.
In 2008, just over 180,000 students took three or more AP exams. By 2018, this number had climbed to nearly 350,000 students.
However, this expansion has come at the expense of student welfare.
Over the years, we’ve heard many students express that they feel pressured to take as many AP courses as possible, which overwhelms them. This is troubling, as studies show that students who take AP courses and exams are twice as likely to report physical and emotional health issues.
AP courses and exams also raise complex issues of fairness. In 2019, two out of three freshmen at Harvard said they took AP Calculus in high school, according to Jeff Selingo, author of “Who Enters and Why: A Year Inside College Admissionsbut only half of all secondary schools in the country offer the course. And opportunity gaps exist for advanced courses such as AP courses and dual enrollment, with an inequitable distribution of funding and support impacting which students enroll and pass. According to the Center for American Progress, “national data from the Civil Rights Data Collection shows that students who are Black, Indigenous, and other non-Black people of color (BIPOC) are not enrolled in AP classes at comparable rates. to their white and Asian peers and experience less success when they are — and this report’s analysis reveals that this is true even when they attend schools with similar levels of AP course availability.
Limiting the number of AP courses students take can protect mental health and create a more equitable experience for students.
Eliminate class leaderboards
In a study that we conducted on mental health problems among high school girls, we found that one of the main stressors was their perception of school as a hyper-competitive zero-sum game where pervasive peer pressure for performance reigns in master.
Class leaderboards fuel these unforgiving environments. They send a toxic message to young people: to succeed, you have to do better than your peers.
Ranking systems help highly selective colleges decide which students to admit or reject for admission. The goal of high school is to develop students to their full potential, rather than forcing them to compete against others. Research shows that filing systems interfere with student learning and damage social relationships by turning peers into adversaries.
Eliminating class rankings sends a powerful message to students that they are more than a number.
Become an Admission Test Objector
COVID-19 ushered in the era of optional test admissions. Decentralizing standardized tests in the college application process is unequivocally a good thing. Standardized tests do not predict student success in collegethey only widen the achievement gap between privileged and disadvantaged students and damage student mental health.
Going “optional testing” is a great first step, but it’s not enough.
Although more and more colleges have made testing optional, wealthy students submit test scores at a higher rate than their low-income peers and are admitted at higher ratessuggesting that testing always gives them an advantage.
Secondary schools must adhere to standardized testing mandates, but they are not obligated to approve them. They can become test objectors by publicly proclaiming that these tests have no intrinsic value. They can stop teach the test and explain to parents why they do it. Advising departments can notify colleges that their school is a test objector so that admissions teams do not penalize students.
Of course, students and families will always find ways to use these tests as a competitive advantage. Over time, the more schools and educators unite in speaking out against these tests, the less power they will have over students and families.
Big change starts with small steps.
Stand up for what you value
Critics may argue that such policies could harm student achievement. How will colleges assess academic rigor if we limit AP classes and homework? How will students demonstrate their merits without class rankings and standardized test scores?
The truth is that the best school systems in the world succeed without homework, standardized test scores, or obsession with rigorous coursework. And many American schools have found creative and stimulating ways to showcase student merit beyond rankings and test scores.
If we are unwilling to change policies and practices that are detrimental to student well-being, we must ask ourselves: do we really value mental health?
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be one or the other: we can design school systems that help students to develop academically and psychologically.