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Suicide and the stress from school

Posted by Jim Stergios  March 2, 2013 09:44 AM

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We often hear that kids are stressed by school -- and most times MCAS testing is considered the culprit. Let's look at the broad picture first. Indiana University's High School Survey of Student Engagement suggests the following about US District High School students:

  • 82.7% spend no more than 5 hours a week on homework.
  • 42.5% spend an hour or less each week on homework.

In contrast, according to a 2009 Korean National Statistics Office:

  • The average Korean high school senior spent 11 hours per day studying
  • The all student average was 8 hours (with about 3 hours per day of studying occurring outside the classroom).

Of course, that begs lots of questions -- important questions about culture, familial expectations, and the kind of education we want for our kids. It also ignores the distinction we should make between competitive high schools (schools that churn out lots of Ivy and top college applicants, where homework loads can be seen as a badge of honor or academic grit). I think all reasonable people can agree that homework loads ("I study 4 hours a night"; "well, I was up till 4 last night studying") are hardly a barometer for a serious education.

A simple comparison between South Korean hours and American hours studying also forgets to include distractions like social media. As the American Press Institute noted in a summary of three analyses of media usage by teenagers:

Technology has powered an explosion of media usage among young people in the last five years – so much so that young people spend about as much time consuming media every day (7 hours, 38 minutes) as their parents spend working, according to a study of 8- to 18-year-olds by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That's far too much for one blog post, but I did want to focus briefly on some statistics that are often considered indicative of stress and need to be taken off the table because misrepresented by anti-testing advocates.

Often the "let them play and read what they want" advocates cite suicide rates in South Korea, Japan and Singapore as an example of what we are creating in the US -- and in Massachusetts particularly by insisting that kids attain a knowledge level appropriate for a 10th-grader in order to graduate. And they counterpose Finland as the answer -- a system that does well on the PISA international tests but poorly on the TIMSS tests of math and science. (Massachusetts does well on both the PISA and TIMSS when it tests as a country, which always suggests to me that we might want to look at what we are doing right -- instead of always focusing on the negative or seeking redemption in some mystical Nordic land).

Anti-testing (and pro-Finland) advocates love to cite rates of suicide in Singapore and South Korea, claiming that they are double and triple what we see in the US. These assertions are not only wrong, stupidly wrong, but frankly suggest a racial stereotyping that you might expect of cultural troglodytes.

An OECD study seeks to harmonize the definitions of suicide in each country, and on page 2 of the report it summarizing the changes in suicide rates in countries, looking at 1990, 2000 and 2008 data. Smartly the data looks at teen years instead of referring to the entire populations of countries, which distort questions of how school and testing impact children's psyches.

It just shows how upside some of the debates are on standards and testing that anti-testing advocates can point to Finland as a garden of youth, where children play and learn so well -- when Finnish kids are in fact having the greatest difficulty with questions of life and death. Finland has among the highest suicide rates for 15-19-year-olds in the world. South Korean teens have a lower suicide rate than the US as a whole (amazing, given the umbrella of war under which they live every day), and Japan has a slightly higher suicide rate than the US.

And this data overstates Korean and Japanese suicide rates in as much as it is single-year data and therefore catches blips that are not representative of broader trends.

A better view of the data would agree on to stipulate that we

  • avoid single year data and instead opt if possible for averages across 5 or 10 years in order to avoid referencing data blips
  • not use countrywide data on suicides (that is for the full population) instead focusing on data for age groups that are in school or immediately after their schooling
  • be open to looking at the historical data for periods when economic, cultural or institutional changes or events occurred which had long-term impacts on suicide rates.

I have looked at a variety of data for the suicide rates per 100,000 of young persons aged 15-19 in 26 countries with data available over a 35-year period (1965-1999) and here is what any reasonable person would draw from the information we have:

  • In the 1980s the US suicide rate for boys jumps 50% from 10 per 100,000 to 15 per 100,000. In the 1990s, a decade during which standards and testing were first put into place in states around the US, there is little change in boys' suicide rate (an increase of 6%). For US girls, the suicide rate rises from 3 per 100,000 to 3.5 per 100,000 in the 1980s, then during the 1990s (again, the period in which standards and testing are put into place) it declines.
  • In Singapore, boys’ suicide rates rise from 5 per 100,000 to 6 over 30 years. (That's less than half of the US boy's rate.) Suicide among Singaporean girls declines by 40% (going from a higher rate than boys to having a significantly lower suicide rate). The Singaporean testing culture does not lead to higher suicide rates than the US for this age group -- and the increase in suicide over time for boys comes, happily at a much lower pace.
  • Japan sees over the 30 year period measured a decline in suicide rates for boys of 40%, to the place where they are below half the US rate. Japanese girls drop by half to a suicide rate that is equal to the US rate for girls (3.25 per 100,000).

As for South Korea? Perhaps due to the fact that the country only really opened up to the West decades after Japan, I could only find data for the 20-year period from 1986 to 2005. What I found is indicative of how careful we must be in discussing suicide.

  • The data suggests a decline in the overall (boys and girls) 15-19 year old suicide rate from 9.5 per 100,000 to 7.6. That puts South Korea squarely below the overall US rate in the 1990s of 10 per 100,000.
  • Where the jump is in Korea is everyone from 30-34 year olds to 75-59 year olds.
  • The jump in suicide has a specific historical context in as much as the data points directly to 1998 and the currency crunch as a cause for a long-term shift in South Korean suicide rates. Not for kids under 20, but rather for the 30-24 through 75-79 year old groups.
  • The suicide rate for 75-79 year olds is particularly sad in South Korea, going from an already high 37 per 100,000 in the late 1980s to a devastatingly high 127 per 100,000 in the early 2000s.

The data also shows that Finland, for all the waxing eloquent we get from edupundits in this country, has an ever-worsening problem with youth suicide. The data suggest that the suicide rate for boys 15-19 went from 19 per 100,000 in 26 per 100,000 from the sixties and seventies to the 1990s; for girls suicides rates did not change significantly.

Do kids in the US feel stress? Yes. But ensuring that public schools provide them with 10th-grade academic attainments before they move ahead in life is not the cause of stress.

You have to go look for answers elsewhere. Perhaps the answer is an economic one (a society hell-bent on seeking ever more stuff), institutional one (where high school's brutal social atmosphere is in fact made worse by teachers who don't give kids sufficient focus on things outside their navels), a cultural one (the corrosive concept of "cool"), or something altogether different. And what impacts will we see from the fascination with social media?

Anti-testing advocates should abandon their Luddite views that rival those of the most anti-scientific conservatives who deny that our climate is changing. In fact, their constant pointing to Asian countries as robotic, lacking creativity, and all the rest, is worse. Racism has an ugly history -- and as little changes in the human spirit I am sure it has an ugly future.

South Korea's focus on homework and cramming right for the US? Hardly. I am always amazed that the US does as well as it does on international tests given the challenges of educating a diverse population and the 180-day limit we have on the school year. Just imagine, however, how well our kids could do if we all focused more on a serious academic and cultural education so that our kids are able to gain the humanity and knowledge that would allow them to look beyond their immediate, subjective situations?

In essence that is what academic rigor is and what our schools should aim at: Getting kids who are emotionally raw, tender and yet ready to gain the grit and toughness for the world, to reach beyond the subjective. Toward objectivity.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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