Even before the pandemic, a mental health crisis among high schoolers loomed. According to a survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, 37 percent of high school students said they experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness and 19 percent reported suicidality. In response, more than half of all U.S. states mandated that 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 facing high school students, we’ve spent our entire careers supporting students’ mental health. Traditionally, mental health interventions are individualized and they focus on helping students manage and change their behaviors to cope with challenges they’re facing. But while working with schools and colleges across the globe as we conducted research for our book, we realized that most interventions don’t address systemic issues causing mental health problems in the first place.
It’s time we acknowledge that our education systems are directly contributing to the youth mental health crisis. And if we are serious about student well-being, we must change the systems they learn in.
Here are five bold steps that high schools can take to boost mental health.
Limit Homework or Make it Optional
Imagine applying for a job, and the hiring manager informs you that in addition to a full workday in the office, you’ll be assigned three more hours of work every night. Does this sound like a healthy work-life balance? Most adults would consider this expectation ridiculous and unsustainable. Yet, this is the workload most schools place 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 counterproductive, yet many teachers assign more.
Homework proponents argue that homework improves academic performance. Indeed, a meta-analysis of research on this issue found a correlation between homework and achievement. But correlation isn’t causation. Does homework cause achievement or do high achievers do more homework? While it’s likely that homework completion signals student engagement, which in turn leads to academic achievement, there’s little evidence to suggest that homework itself improves engagement in learning.
Another common argument is that homework helps students develop skills related to problem-solving, time-management and self-direction. 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 supports student well-being, but it 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, internet, dedicated work space and the support necessary to complete their work successfully—and homework can highlight those inequities.
Whether a school limits homework or makes it optional, it’s critical to remember that more important than the amount of homework assigned, is designing the type of activities that engage students in learning. When students are intrinsically motivated to do their homework, they are more engaged in the work, which in turn is associated with academic achievement.
Cap the Number of APs Students Can Take
Advanced Placement courses give students a taste of college-level work and, in theory, allow them to earn college credits early. Getting good grades on AP exams is associated with higher GPAs in high school and success in college, but the research tends to be correlational rather than causational.
In 2008, a little over 180,000 students took three or more AP exams. By 2018, that number had ballooned to almost 350,000 students.
However, this expansion has come at the expense of student well-being.
Over the years, we’ve heard many students express that they feel pressure to take as many AP classes as possible, which overloads them with work. That’s troubling because studies show that students who take AP classes and exams are twice as likely to report adverse physical and emotional health.
AP courses and exams also raise complex issues of equity. In 2019, two out of three Harvard freshmen reported taking AP Calculus in high school, according to Jeff Selingo, author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” yet only half of all high schools in the country offer the course. And opportunity gaps exist for advanced coursework such as AP courses and dual enrollment, with inequitable distribution of funding and support impacting which students are enrolling and experiencing success. According to the Center for American Progress, “National data from the Civil Rights Data Collection show that students who are Black, Indigenous, and other non-Black people of color (BIPOC) are not enrolled in AP courses at rates comparable to their white and Asian peers and experience less success when they are—and the analysis for this report finds this to be 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 Rankings
In a study we conducted about mental health problems among high school girls, we found that a primary driver of stress was their perception of school as a hypercompetitive, zero-sum game where pervasive peer pressure to perform reigns supreme.
Class rankings fuel these cutthroat environments. They send a toxic message to young people: success requires doing better than your peers.
Ranking systems help highly selective colleges decide which students to admit or reject for admission. The purpose of high school is to develop students to their own full potential, rather than causing them to fixate on measuring up to others. Research shows that ranking systems undercut students’ learning and damage social relationships by turning peers into opponents.
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 test-optional admissions. De-centering standardized tests in the college application process is unequivocally a good thing. Standardized tests don’t predict student success in college, they only widen the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students and damage students’ mental health.
Going “test optional” is an excellent first step, but it’s not enough.
Even as more colleges have made tests optional, affluent students submit test scores at a higher rate than their lower-income peers and are admitted at higher rates, suggesting that testing still gives them an edge.
High schools must adhere to standardized test mandates, but they don’t have to endorse them. They can become test objectors by publicly proclaiming that these tests hold no inherent value. They can stop teaching to the test and educate parents on why they are doing so. Counseling departments can inform colleges that their school is a test objector so admission teams won’t penalize students.
Of course, students and families will still find ways to wield these tests as a competitive advantage. Over time, the more schools and educators unite to denounce these tests, the less power they will hold over students and families.
Big change starts with small steps.
Stand For What You Value
Critics may argue that such policies might hurt student outcomes. How will colleges evaluate school rigor if we limit AP courses and homework? How will students demonstrate their merits without class rankings and standardized test scores?
The truth is, the best school systems in the world succeed without homework, standardized test scores or an obsession with rigorous courses. And many U.S. schools have found creative and empowering ways to showcase student merit beyond rankings and test scores.
If we aren’t willing to change policies and practices that have been shown to harm students’ well-being, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really value mental health?
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario: We can design school systems that help students thrive academically and psychologically.