Tuesday, February 10, 2009 – Thoughts on Our Educational System and the Increase in Eating Disorders

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a long time, but where to start? I have so many thoughts and ideas about what is wrong with our current approach to education — what could be changed to help most students — here in the USA, but also in many other parts of the developed world, that I’ve become passionate about getting more people to understand what is wrong and why we need to make changes. Just this morning I watched a segment on teenage American girls on the Today Show. It talked about how in these days-when there are so many more opportunities for our brightest young women-so many of our girls are stressed, depressed, and harming themselves with cutting and eating disorders. This particular story comes from a new book called The Triple Bind by Steven Hinshaw, but I have been hearing for years that eating disorders, anorexia, for example, and “cutting” are on the rise in teenage girls. Well, I have a theory.

The loss of the old junior high school concept and the ability grouping practice of “tracking” students by tested intellectual ability play a large role in the increasing numbers of stress and lowered self-esteem in so many of our most able and promising American girls. How can this be and why did we make these changes?

In the “olden days,” the days before women’s liberation and Johnson’s Great Society, before the 1970’s, American schools typically had three reading and three math groups throughout the elementary school years, and – more importantly, they had junior high schools instead of today’s middle schools. In fact, the biggest change when middle schools were introduced was that “tracking” was largely eliminated in an attempt to “level the playing field” and give all students-girls and boys, children from different races and socio-economic backgrounds-the same education. The focus of such changes was to reduce the chances that prejudice or poverty would relegate some students to lower “tracks,” a situation many believed was behind lower achievement levels for some groups of students. More recently, as pointed out so aptly in Susan Rakow‘s book, Educating Gifted Students in Middle School, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has added to this effect and left gifted students in inappropriate classroom assignments possibly more than any other group of students.

The effect on students of all ability levels is that the whole range of students is now grouped together for the first eight to ten years of their education instead of only six to eight. Almost all classes, all lessons, and all activities are with people your own age but from an immense range of intellectual abilities. This was always hard on the brightest students who found it difficult to find classmates who really understood them or got their jokes, which is discussed in great detail in my doctoral dissertation, but the old junior high set-up gave relief early enough to save many of them. By junior high, students were grouped with others with whom they could truly compete, and while some no longer needed to wait for others to catch up – others, the slower learners, no longer felt like the ones holding up the rest of the class – and the chances to feel like you belonged finally occurred for both of these groups. Junior highs provided a two to three year period of more teacher support than high school while giving students “practice” in being more independent and moving from class to class for their different subjects.

For bright girls, elementary school is so easy that they have plenty of time to be “good students,” impress their parents and teachers with their good work and cooperation, and time left over to help the teacher, work on extra (impressive) projects, and basically run the school. They start to believe that they are what they do; people admire them because of how well they do everything. Their interpretation of their own value is that their ability to juggle so many different things at once and still get good grades is why they matter, why they are important, and why they are loved.

When junior highs were transformed into middles schools, the scaffolding affect of gradually moving to ability-grouped, tracked classes – much like a typical high school – was lost. School work is still too easy for bright girls as they move fluidly through middle school. They get no practice-no experience-with anything that is challenging or too difficult. Also lost with the middle years academic school configuration change, and less well-recognized, was student’s ability to finally be with true peers rather than just “age-mates.” Thus, the bright pubescent girl is still one of the smartest in her classes because the others who are like her are at the top of other classes in the same building but not grouped with each other for fear of having “elitist” tracking or ability grouping. Her sense that being perfect, quick, capable, and on top of an ever-growing schedule of activities, practices, and obligations is what makes her who she is … sets her up for a fall when she enters ability grouped advanced classes in 9th or 10th grade. Many such girls simply do not know what hit them!

She gradually feels herself losing ground and burning the candle at both ends just to keep up! She used to have her whole world under her control and now she seems to have lost her grip, lost that which made her so special and admired. She feels a tremendous loss of self and searches for ways to regain control, to have some say over her life, her body, and her image. The result, I believe, frequently shows itself in the mental illness of an eating disorder or other form of self-harm.

She doesn’t know how to get it all under control because she’s had no experience with intellectual struggle or competition. She didn’t need either study or organizational skills for class-work that was well below her own ability level for the past nine years. In fact, most people have no idea how different the ability levels are within a typical classroom. We call a typical classroom a “same-aged mixed-ability” configuration. A little background may help here:

David Lohman of the University of Iowa, and part of the Iowa Testing Programs, says that by 1st grade the typical same-aged mixed-ability classroom already has 12 grade equivalencies of achievement in it. Brighter children absorb more from their environments than lower ability children, so regardless of their preschool environment, brighter kids will know a great deal more than low ability children by the time they reach 1st grade. Environment is an extremely important factor in someone’s development, but it does not change whether or not someone is very bright or very slow. On the typical standardized IQ scale of 50 to 150, a child whose IQ is 120 could finish the typical elementary curriculum in about 4½ years, not six. A child whose IQ is 130 could finish it in less than three years. Above 140 needs only one year, but in most cases they are required to stay all six and go at the pace of everyone else their age. You can see how this would impact a bright girl’s sense of who she is. She spends very little of her school time with others who are like her or able to think, reason, and perform at her level. It warps her viewpoint of who she is and where she actually fits.

Basically, when we treat all children the same during their school years, we cannot possibly serve all of them well. Many unintended and unforeseen consequences occur, and I believe that our growing number of emotionally struggling teenage girls is just one sign of how our educational system has gotten off track.

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17 Responses to “Tuesday, February 10, 2009 – Thoughts on Our Educational System and the Increase in Eating Disorders”

  1. The Princess Mom Says:

    Great article, Deborah! I’ve seen this reaction in my sons as well.

  2. concerned mother Says:

    I am currently struggling with the question of where to send my girls to school. My 8yo is in 3rd grade and getting nothing out of it – she tested in the 99th percentile last year, but she wanted to stay in this private Catholic school with her “friends” and we had changed schools a lot trying to find a good fit so I let her stay, mostly because I couldn’t afford anything better. My 5yo, who is untested but also gifted, will be entering K in the fall and I do not want to repeat the same mistakes. I cannot afford to send them to the only gifted school in our area. I have thought about homeschooling them (which I feel unqualified to do but on the other hand could it be any worse?) or moving to a town where the overall education of the population is much higher and using the public schools, though they neither track nor have gifted programs. A private school that tracks is available, about half as expensive but only goes to grade 6 and is 30 minutes away (with no traffic). Is it worth moving my shy girl (was she always this way, I’m wondering, or did being in school with no peers make her “weird” ) to that kind of school for 3 years? Any advice is welcome.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      Concerned Mother asks the questions that so many of my clients ask and, unfortunately, there are no easy or quick answers. Be sure to read through my website, especially the articles under Resources. Only you, of course, can make these decisions for your daughters, but if you know more about how to select the best option, you can do so with more confidence and comfort. I also ahve a number of books linked on my site, books that can give you more perspective and a good start. I highly recommend the list serve from Mensa called Brightkids as a great place to ask your questions and get some guidance at no cost. Google that to see how to sign up. If you are still wanting more help, please contact me through my website to see what we might set up for you – no matter where you live. To get you started, please take a look at this article: . Hope this helps.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      Dear Concerned Mother:
      Thanks for sharing your concerns about your bright daughters. I have an entire process I go through with parents before I make any recommendations, but you can start that process at no cost by reading through articles I’ve written and posted on my website. I especially recommend an article called “What Each Level Needs” or something close to that title:-) My book really goes into great detail, too. If you want to work with me — locally or from afar — the process for that is also outlined on the site and you can contact us through email to learn more. You wonder if it is worth moving your daughter for three years and I’d have to say that it depends on many factors. Please visit the school first to see how it “feels” to you. It depends on your daughter’s level and profile of giftedness whether or not this will be a better place, although I suspect it would be. Hope that helps!

      • Concerned Mother Says:

        Thanks Dr Ruf. We did decide to homeschool our older daughter while exploring a different school for K for our younger daughter. Everyone is very excited!

  3. Cecille Says:

    Dr. Ruf – I was so glad to see you’ve begun a blog. (It was “announced” on the BrightKids list.) You are one of my heroes. I think your first topic is most timely. When people hear “eating disorders”, they tend to think of anorexia and bulimia, the disorders that cause LOST weight; however, overeating, especially using food as a substitute for something missing in one’s life, is also a disorder. It made me wonder if some of the problems with obesity in our kids could also be traced to the changes you discuss. Oh, I know poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles are the main culprits, but many girls and women eat for emotional reasons, too, and your blog pointed to some powerful ones.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      Dear Cecille: I had a number of unplanned events in my life that got in the way of my tending to my new blog. I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you for the compliments and encouragement! Yes, I am afraid that many girls are simply lost after six to eight years of being perfect in school. Over-eating is a way to comfort themselves and it can add to their new sense of being unworthy if they gain weight, too. Lots of confusing messages out there and I hope to address many in this space.

  4. Dani Says:

    In 1987, I moved from a state where I attended a “junior high” (though it was called middle school – but only because they moved 9th grade to the high school) setting to a state where I attended a “middle school”. My entire 8th grade education was a repeat of what I had already been taught in 7th grade, other than my advanced math class.

    Socially I was awkward, going from a big fish in a small pond, to a small fish in a gigantic sea, a gigantic foreign sea, where the culture was extremely different than what I already knew. The junior high I attended the year before fed into one high school. The middle school I attended fed into three different high schools, so socially, it was impossible to find where I fit in. Academically, the challenge was far worse.

    In 9th grade, I was thrown into another new school, though it was high school, with students from my middle school and two others. And while I was now in the “advanced” track of classes, it was too late. Later that year I found myself in counseling due to my “suicide attempts”, as they were labelled. My skin was scarred from razors, scissors and even hot lighters. In reality, I was a “cutter” not suicidal, but there was no cutter label just yet – a gifted girl, lost in the educational system. The physical act cutting did subside, but only when replaced by a new disorder, a physical interest in boys.

    As an adult, married with two children, who is just now recognizing and dealing with the effects of the “Big Move of 1987”, my reactions to and ways of coping with the sudden changes, the academic boredom with middle school and high school, sudden social stresses of high school and academic stresses college are the same ways I wind up reacting to and coping with real life adult situations now. And even if the physical act of cutting is not acted upon, the thought, the daydreaming, of it is very real.

    My point in this long drawn out reply/comment is that I 100% agree with what you have written, and I feel as though you wrote this about me, my life. You can take it even further than just the effects on girls during their teenage years. It goes beyond those years, into adulthood. Thankfully for my gifted son and my possibly gifted daughter, maybe even moreso for her, I am able to recognize what went wrong in my own education and make sure that it does not happen to either of them.

    Thank you SO much for all the work that you do!

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      Dear Dani: Thank you for your candor and taking the time to share your story. I apologize for not answering you sooner but there were no comments for quite a while and then I got busy and forgot to check back. I didn’t realize comments would automatically show up! Yours is so personal that I want your permission to post it or not. I think it would be helpful to others, but I don’t want to embarrass you if you intended it to be just between the two of us.

  5. { jamie } Says:

    I was one of those “bright girls” myself. Fortunately, I did not end up with an eating disorder or doing anything to physically harm myself, but I changed a lot when I hit high school, and so did my views of myself, and my actions. I never heard it explained this way, but from my experience, I’d say you’re right on. One of the many reasons I homeschool my own “bright girl.”

  6. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    I can tell that this is not the first time you mention the topic. Why have you chosen it again?

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      I’m not sure if this is a legitimate question or spam, but I’ll take it seriously and answer. I became aware that although boys’ journeys through school are often more obviously difficult, there are emotional and achievement costs to bright girls. The research on girls’ self-esteem issues has interested me, too, and I drew the conclusion that lack of challenge throughout elementary school sets bright girls up for fears of failure and not being good enough later on. And, no, I didn’t ever have an eating disorder myself, but I believe that my personality — and my mother’s admonitions not to worry about grades — made it possible for me to enjoy the fun of finally being with true peers (as the school work became more challenging) and I was having such a good time that grades and looking smart were the last things on my mind.

  7. Maureen Friel Says:

    Dr. Ruf, thank you for calling attention to the increase in eating disorders in gifted girls. I am a twenty-year-old young woman, and my experience in middle school and afterwards was eerily similar to what you describe. It will not surprise you that I developed anorexia when I was fourteen. Your insight into the real cause of many girls’ self-harm is extremely validating for me. Thank you.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      It is so good to hear your thoughts on this, Maureen. Thank you for sharing. It is my hope that I can share more insights more often and taht they will be helpful to many. Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. grinity Says:

    Love these companion piece blogs. So many girls turn their behavior inward and so many boys turn their behavior outward but the stress of being held captive in classrooms that are a poor educational fit fuel so much of this sad behavior. If I were a Mom of a conforming girl I’d be so worried that I was wrongly letting a quiet but bad situation continue. Luckily I’m parenting a ‘take no prisioner’ style boy. Still I try to keep my eyes open for tips for the parents of my possible future daughter in laws. Here is my test to help gauge if a quiet well behaved child is in danger: Is the child willing to try new and difficult activities? Are the perfectionistic behaviors increasing or decreasing in frequency or intensity? Love and More Love Grinity

  9. Kathryn Says:

    Dear Dr. Ruf,

    Thank you for this story. It is, substantially, also my story. I have touched near disorder borders, observing the potential outcome and direction they might take, but pulled away before they “took hold.” I have felt like an imposter much of my life – my family “saved” ourselves with Scouting, Campfire, 4-H, Ballet, Orchestra, Gymnastics and more. Only now at 48 have I found that my learning “style” is visual-spatial, which may help me understand that learning step-by-step is very difficult, and whole-istic learning is closer to how my brain functions. As a girl who grew up in the 60s, I was taught to disregard my biology, and diminish female persuits as unworthy, and react to boys as if they were failures, cretins, or even subhuman. It is no wonder we have so many confused people today – no one is sure how to be themselves, nor if it is even permitted!

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