Magnet programs: a pressure cooker for Asian American students
The intersection of Asian achievement culture and a toxic academic environment is a destructive combination—and no one is talking about it.
“Scores are out!”
I was familiar with the dread of opening up test results, and this exam was no different. With shaking hands, I checked my score. 42/50. My stomach dropped. To rub more salt in the wound, news of all my peers’ 48s and 49s trickled into my messages, followed by “I could have done so much better” and “I basically failed.” Yet if a 48 was a failure, what could you call my 42?
At my International Baccalaureate magnet program, overwhelming stress and mental turmoil are common. My high school isn’t the only one. Also known as “gifted and talented” or GT programs, magnet schools are a subset of the public education system with specialized and rigorous curriculums that draw students from across various school boundaries. In a world where nearly 50% of workers feel overworked, these magnet schools are creating an academic environment that sends students, especially Asian American ones, into burnout before they even start their professional lives.
In the United States, there is a higher amount of Asian students attending magnet schools than any racial group. In the 2017 school year, 12.6% of Asian public school students attended a magnet program as opposed to 8.1%, 3.6%, and 4.5% for White, Black, and Hispanic students respectively. Despite racial disparities and controversy over selection criteria, the high number of Asian magnet students at least implies the model minority—the idea that every Asian is naturally intelligent, hard-working, and has overcome the discrimination that other minorities haven’t—has some basis in truth. However, the model minority is a myth that dismisses the very real issues Asians face, like a 339% increase in hate crimes between 2020 and 2021, constant microaggressions, and invisibility in school curriculums or funding priorities. Magnet schools are responsible, at least in part, for continuing to perpetuate that model minority myth—and the harms that go along with it.
Even without the intersection of race and culture, gifted and talented schools have problems. Gifted students are more likely to underachieve and face emotional problems stemming from perfectionism—depression, eating disorders, O.C.D, suicide, and many types of burnout.
Admission requirements usually select students with high general intelligence using tests like CogAT, a standardized test that measures verbal, quantitative, and other types of reasoning. However, numbers don’t equate to guaranteed success. It’s important to learn how to learn, and due to their intelligence, many magnet students have not. They have coasted through their education without many of the skills that schools don’t teach, like time management and school-life balance. Easy course loads mean many students have grown accustomed to procrastination until they hit the magnet program, where many students first face an increase in academic difficulty and can only flounder.
Overworking is also a huge problem in magnet programs as a result of the high difficulty of classes. “There is a general workaholic culture,” Matthew, a senior in a Maryland IB program describes, “like the romanticization of staying up. I’ve stayed up until 1 AM working on my Chemistry IA before.” I know no magnet students that sleep the recommended 8-10 hours due to the immense number of assignments.
This also extends to extracurriculars. Activities crowd out any free time, leaving students scrambling from school to instruments to sports to volunteering with little space to take a breath. I would not consider myself the busiest person I know, but daily homework, multiple sports practices a week, clubs, and other various advocacy work can become a nightmare to balance, especially when exam season begins. Other classmates take on similarly daunting tasks, participating heavily in an assortment of activities ranging from debate to Model Congress to drama. It’s a wonder magnet students manage to get what little sleep they do.
Though an environment filled with bright students and challenging courses can be an academically enriching experience, it lends itself to toxic competition. As Joanna, also an IB senior in Maryland, details, “Everyone’s always sharing grades after tests, and then that sort of comparison kind of makes you feel ‘I need to do better next time or I’m not really doing good enough.’”
It’s impossible to not compare yourself to your peers, which leads to drastic measures in trying to do your best. Matthew adds, “It’s something that gets ingrained in you in this type of program—this expectation that you’re supposed to be better or smarter somehow. It can lead to some real toxic expectations.”
The comparisons don’t end with classes and grades. Extracurriculars also become a landscape ripe for competitive over-extension. Feeling like I’d done nothing substantial in my freshman year and doomed my college prospects, I joined multiple clubs I’d observed my peers doing in my sophomore year in an attempt to catch up. This delicate balancing act between school and extracurriculars kept me constantly on edge and anxious, leading me to drop several clubs. Even today, the chronic feeling of inferiority is one that I grapple with. Burnout is especially pertinent among magnet students. As a result of long-term stress and lack of control or rest, a gifted kid’s burnout can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. Though not an experience limited to magnet students, it’s particularly hard to escape in programs like mine. By tethering worth to academic results, students face self-doubt and even wonder whether they deserve to be there. It’s an experience that I and many of my classmates have faced sometime or another as we stare at the piles of homework in despair.
One of my goals at the beginning of the year was to write in a genre I had never tried before, and I decided on journalism. The theme of this piece came from a topic I’m particularly passionate about. Having attended magnet programs for almost half of my K-12 education, I’ve observed my Asian-American classmates facing many issues that I hadn’t seen anyone discuss before—so I decided to write about them, combining journalistic reporting along with my personal experience to write about the intersection of environment and culture. With my mentor Sophia’s guidance, I created an outline, conducted research and interviews, then edited the draft. Throughout the process of this excerpt, I’ve learned the general workflow of writing more factual pieces. I have written an informative work that I hope offers both those familiar and unfamiliar with magnet programs or Asian-American culture something to consider.
Gloria Liang is a high-school student in Rockville, Maryland. She writes young adult fantasy and is working on a novel about a young inventor meeting an animate doll. Outside of writing, she loves digital art and perpetually smells like chlorine from swimming. Gloria is excited to finish her book and to be a part of GWN.