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Friday, June 24, 2011

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

  Fascinating. Disturbing. Inspirational.

Alexandra Robbins
The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is a fascinating investigation into the lives of some of America's top students - the kids who want to do it all and oftentimes do, but at great personal cost and for dubious reasons.

Alexandra Robbins befriends and follows several students from Whitman High School in Maryland through one school year as they try their best to score perfect 1600s and 2400s on the SATs, be accepted into Ivy League schools and pad their resumes to impress the admissions officers with tons of extracurriculur activities (one student she interviewed had SIX typewritten pages of extracurricular activities!).

Robbins intersperses research and interesting facts with her stories of the students and discusses the unhealthy obsession with perfection and how the true values of education (knowledge, exploration, wisdom, self-discovery to name a few) is often subverted in the name test numbers, be they SAT, ACT or No Child Left Behind tests. 

She correctly notes that honesty and any actual learning is routinely sacrificed for the GPA points due to widespread cheating, especially by the good and even great students. I've been teaching for 19 years now and I've never encountered so much cheating (and plagiarism) as I have in the last three years. It's rarely the weak students - the ones that outsiders would suspect. Nope - it's the good students - the ones with so much riding on maintaining super-high GPAs that they cannot afford even one bad quiz.

The students ring true to me. I know kids like she's profiled here - the flirt, the Slacker, AP Frank, the Meathead, the Superstar. They come from a variety of homes and financial situations (though most are upper class - money does not seem to be a worry for most of them).

I hope that Alexandra Robbins turns her talents to documenting other groups of kids in schools someday, but in the meantime this is a fine and thought-provoking introduction to the modern American high school.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 19, 2008.

Update: I am now in year 30 of my teaching career. The comment on cheating is still true - even more so with the advent of smart phones. Students can take a picture of an assignment and "airdrop" it to everyone in class with little effort. They can text it to friends in other classrooms or even post it on Instagram (if it is a textbook-based assignment it is on Instagram). 
This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.

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