The Toxic Consequences of Attending a High-Achieving School
Achievement pressure promotes mental anguish at the so-called “best schools.”
Posted June 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
Many parents strive mightily to get their children into a high-achieving high school. A high-achieving school (or HAS) is defined as one where students score high on standardized tests and a high percentage go on to prestigious colleges. Such striving occurs through various means. Some move to a wealthy suburban community and pay a premium on housing because the schools there are highly rated. Some pay high tuition to send their child to a high-achieving private school. Some hire tutors to help their kids get test scores that will permit admission to an academically selective public school. All these cost money, so, to a considerable extent, the striving is concentrated among parents with higher-than-median wealth.
What these parents don’t know is that they may be setting their kids up for failure. Not academic failure but life failure. If parents knew the facts and behaved reasonably, they would deliberately avoid an HAS for their kids. They would move out of that high-achievement school district. They would use the money otherwise spent on tutoring or tuitions for more enjoyable family pursuits. Here I present some of those facts, as documented by many research studies, especially studies conducted over the past two decades by Suniya Luthar and her colleagues.
Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools.
In the 1990s, Luthar was studying the effects of poverty on the mental health of teenagers. In research with inner-city youth from families well below the poverty level, she found high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Then one of her graduate students challenged her by suggesting that these problems might not be limited to children in poverty, so she began conducting similar research with teens in affluent suburban areas. Remarkably, she found that levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (including alcohol and hard drugs) were even higher among these presumably “privileged” young people than they were among the teens in poverty (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).
In subsequent research, Luthar and her colleagues found that the most significant variable in predicting such problems is not family wealth per se but attendance at a high-achieving school (HAS). They found that the suffering among students at HASs is not limited to those from wealthy families (Ebbert et al., 2019). Students from families of more modest means at such schools also suffer. What matters is the degree to which the young people feel their self-worth depends on high academic achievement and success at the extracurricular activities, such as varsity sports, promoted and valued by the school.
In one study, encompassing nine high achieving schools, some private and some public, they found rates of clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression that were six to seven times the national average for people in that age range (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020). They also found that the cause of these problems, for students at HASs, was very different from that for students in poverty. While students in poverty struggle for physical safety and survival, HAS students suffer from intense, unrelenting pressure to achieve (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020).
The harmful effects of attending a high-achieving school are long-lasting.
Longitudinal research has revealed that the harmful effects of attending a high-achieving high school continue well beyond graduation. One study showed that rates of clinically significant alcohol and drug dependence, among graduates of HASs, were two to three times as high as the national average throughout college and for at least several years beyond (Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). One very long-term study, begun in the 1960s, revealed that graduates of highly selective high schools were performing more poorly, at follow-ups 11 years and 50 years later, than were graduates of unselective schools matched for socioeconomic background of their family of origin (Gölner et al, 2018). Those who had gone to unselective high schools were not only psychologically healthier but were making more money and were more likely to be in high-status jobs than were those who had gone to selective schools.
The toxic achievement pressure for HAS students comes from parents, teachers, peers, and ultimately from within the student.
Surveys and interviews of students at HASs indicate that the fundamental source of their misery is unrelenting pressure to perform well in school and school-valued activities. The expectations are so high that anything less than what elsewhere would be considered excellent is considered here as failure. The adults and the peers in their life believe that excellent performance in the multiple realms of endeavor promoted by the school is essential to gain admission to a prestigious college, which in turn is essential for securing a well-paying, high-status job, and anything less would constitute life failure.
I myself have heard from students who believe that a B on a report card would ruin their lives (for examples, see here). As I have shown in previous posts (here and here) the idea that attending a prestigious college gives one a boost in careers or any other aspect of life has been proven false in careful longitudinal research. When one controls for background factors, such as parents’ income and indices of ability, it makes no difference what college a person attends. But that research has been ignored and the belief persists.
In multivariate research, Luthar and her colleagues have examined the relative roles of parents, teachers, and peers in creating the toxic pressure that students experience (Ebbert et al., 2019; Luthar, Kumar, & Zillmer, 2020).
Concerning parents, the researchers have found that young people whose parents stress extrinsic values are more prone to suffering than those whose parents stress intrinsic values. Extrinsic values have to do with publicly observable rewards that are presumed to be marks of achievement, such as A’s, trophies, honors, money, and high-status careers. Intrinsic values have to do with such things as enjoyment and meaning in life, decency, helpfulness to others, and true friendships. The research also shows that young people who feel that their parents’ love or respect for them depends on their achievements are especially prone to suffering.
Concerning teachers, the researchers have found that those who feel pressured to elicit excellent test scores from their students, and who fail to value their students for who they are irrespective of academic performance, cause more harm than do teachers who see beyond the scores and care for their students as human beings.
Concerning peers, an atmosphere of competition, accompanied by scorn for those who perform worse and envy of those who perform better, can inhibit the development of true friendships and thereby inhibit the emotional support from peers that teens especially need. Such an atmosphere also promotes subtle and not-so-subtle bullying and a high level of cheating.
With time in such an environment, students at HASs tend to internalize the pressure. They become their own harshest critics: “If I’m not perfect, I’m worthless.” This is when they begin to cut themselves or to fantasize suicide or even attempt it. We as a society have gone berserk in our emphasis on the value of high academic performance, and nowhere is that more apparent than at high-achieving high schools.
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Ebbert, A.M., Kumar, N. L., & Luthar, S. S. (2019) Complexities in adjustment patterns among the “best and the brightest”: risk and resilience in the context of high achieving schools. Research in Human Development, 16, 21-34.
Göllner, R., Damian, R. I., et al. (2018). It’s not only who you are but who you are with: high school composition and individuals’ attainment over the life course. Psychological Science, 29, 1785–1796.
Luthar, S., Kumar, N., & Zillmer, N. (2020). High-achieving schools connote risks for adolescents: problems documented, processes implicated, and directions for interventions. American Psychologist, 75, 983-995.
Luthar, S., & Latendresse, S. J. (2005). Children of the affluent: Challenges to well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science 14, 49-53.
Luthar, S. S., Small, P. J., & Ciciolla, L. (2018). Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood. Development and Psychopathology, 30, 315–335.