Stitching up schooling

The more stitches, the less riches,” declares Aldous Huxley in his novel, “Brave New World.” Instead of fixing old items, citizens of the World State are encouraged to buy new ones instead. This aptly describes the ongoing dilemma with public education and one solution that has begun popping up. As school funding decreases, leading to overcrowded classrooms and sparse resources, teachers cannot devote time to kids with disruptive, inattentive behavior. These kids fall behind. In at least one case, documented by the New York Times, low-income families that cannot afford tutoring and behavioral counseling have reached for a seemingly convenient cure: medication. With these decisions, medications such as Adderall are on the rise. Adderall is primarily used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder, but certain parents are also using it to give their children a “boost” in academic performance. Such is the case with the Rocaforts, who, as mentioned in the New York Times article, decided to give Adderall to their 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. Neither child has ADHD, but the medication is merely to help with their grades. This trend has already been seen among already high-achieving students. For a public education system with declining funds, this is the unfortunate new trend. Though medication may help kids succeed through the academic year, its long-term medical and social consequences need to be considered before accepting it as a solution for academic failure.

When children are young, their brains are still developing, and drug effects on the developing brain remain largely unclear. Even now, there is fear that children, whether they have ADHD or not, are being exposed to unnecessary physical and psychological risks. Noted side effects include growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes. Though there are risks associated with any prescribed medication, extended use definitely produces consequences. We have all heard stories about high-school and college students taking stimulants to get an edge for late-night study sessions and exams. Now that kids are starting medication at younger ages, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the effect of these drugs when the kids reach adulthood without feeling alarmed by such usage. The higher dosages they take, the more dependent they are on the medication. When the pills are removed, the kids will simply relapse into their old behavior. In a sense, the medication acts like a perpetual crutch.

At least when we were young, the classroom was supposed to be a fun place for enrichment and learning. The new trend seems to be towards unsympathetic standards: if your grades are not acceptable, we can’t do anything about it, so take medication. When her four children complained about taking the meds, Jacqueline Williams, mentioned in the same New York Times article, told them, “These are your grades when you’re taking it; this is when you don’t.” If kids cannot concentrate in class or if their grades are not high enough, then their parents will simply stuff them into a “chemical straitjacket.” If they show any sign of inadequacy, they will be immediately targeted. Perhaps soon, all children may be forced to take medication to maintain high grades and keep up with the competition. Some may see this is an unrealistic prediction, but it is already happening, and the trend is spreading. Though we may be able to modify kids’ behavior with medication, in the future we may be able to modify their behavior with genes. It is possible that parents, if they could afford it, could replace their kids’ genes to make them better students.

With all of my criticisms about medication, I will admit this: there is no clear-cut solution to our country’s educational problem. Ideally, the solution would be to reform school budgets, but its major obstacle is time. Reform cannot move quickly enough to satisfy students, parents and teachers. It may take years, but by then the kids we want to help now will have graduated, so they will not benefit from the changes. It might be too late to correct any detrimental academic or social problems they develop. What can be done now, though, is calling attention to the problematic condition of public education and evaluating whether what we are doing to them, and ourselves, is truly the best we can do.

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