In defense of rigor

A Los Angeles Times headline recently proclaimed that “At Harvard-Westlake School, Some Wonder if Standards Are Too High.”  I, for one, believe that as a community, we would be much better off wondering if our standards are high enough.

When I arrived at Harvard-Westlake 12 years ago, I knew that I had come to a very special place.  The intelligence, warmth and integrity of the faculty and staff were impressive, the facilities were wonderful, but what really wowed me were the students:  they were the most thoughtful, most positive and most disciplined group of students I had ever been around.  I had attended an excellent public high school in a small town where most of my friends’ parents were college professors, had spent four years as an undergraduate at an Ivy League university and six years teaching at a very good private school in New York City, but the student population here impressed me more, as hard-working, confident and productive.

How is it that in a city that has countless high schools, one school becomes the consensus top school in the area?  The answer is simple:  by attracting the most motivated, dedicated and imaginative students and then asking more of those students than any other school does.   What other way is there?  By simply having more money than other schools?  By filling the school with genetically superior students and faculty?  These are, of course, ridiculous notions — the only way to make Harvard-Westlake the best school around is to ask our students to work the hardest and to do the best work.

Certainly it is in everyone’s interests that the work be interesting and stimulating and that it encourages real intellectual and emotional growth, and high standards need to be accompanied by a high level of compassion and support.  But we should never apologize for challenging our students to work harder than students at other schools, for that is precisely what makes us the school that we are, and more importantly, it is what prepares our students for success later in life.

We at Harvard-Westlake are fortunate to be part of such a special institution, which has a culture of excellence, a sterling reputation and tremendous financial resources.  All of these factors are the result of the hard work of past generations who were held to high standards with no apologies.  To relax those standards or begin to apologize for who we are is to begin the inevitable erosion of all that makes our school so special and to start an inevitable march toward mediocrity.

Students, of course, at times grumble about the amount of work that is expected from them — no one would expect it to be otherwise. I would challenge you, however, to find a single adult who would say, “Yeah, I had to work really hard in high school, I sure wish I hadn’t been challenged so much.”  But surely, you will find hundreds, yes, thousands of Harvard-Westlake graduates who will express gratitude for the knowledge, skills, discipline and confidence that they were required to develop by being deeply challenged while they were here.

A small but vocal minority of parents will always petition for the lowering of academic standards and reduction of workload, motivated by an understandable concern about their child’s stress level, or by more Machiavellian concerns related to college admissions.  But stress is an unavoidable part of growth and will always be present wherever worthy challenges are being met.  And in petitioning for a reduced workload, what a parent is effectively asking, whether he or she realizes it or not, is that their child be allowed to coast on the school’s reputation, a reputation that was earned by previous generations of students who had to work harder. Had those previous students not been held to those higher standards, these same parents would likely never have wanted to send their students to Harvard-Westlake in the first place.

Some who do not have the good fortune to be a part of this community will inevitably take potshots at Harvard-Westlake, accusing us of being a “pressure-cooker,” and try to imply that our students are less happy, healthy and well-adjusted than students at other schools where students don’t have to work as hard.  But does anyone really believe that this is true?  Is there another high school out there where achievement-oriented 15 through 18 year olds don’t feel pressure, don’t have to make compromises, don’t struggle with their emotions at times?  If there were, would anyone even want to send their children to such a school?

High standards and academic rigor are the foundation upon which Harvard-Westlake is built and the engine that makes Harvard-Westlake go.   It is something for which we should never apologize, and something that we who are lucky enough to work here should do everything in our power to cherish and to protect.

If we are committed to being the best high school around, there is no choice but to ask the most of our students.  This is, in fact, the greatest gift that we can give them.

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