I had another blog planned, but I just got back from a presentation of the film “Race to Nowhere,” (see www.racetonowhere.com  and www.endtherace.org ) and I feel I really must put in a plug for parents – especially academic parents - to see it. The film, directed by Vicki Abeles, opened my eyes, especially as my older daughter is just leaving elementary school, and we’re poised on the brink of the middle and high school years. “Race to Nowhere” gives a first hand account of the pressure-cooker environment that the US school system has turned into, and the devastating effects that our country’s obsession with full-time performance and achievement has on this generation of school kids and their parents. The movie is only distributed in private screenings, not in regular theaters – you’ll probably need to make an effort to find a screening near you – or maybe plan one at your own venue (you can even make a screening a fundraiser for your school, as some proceeds from the ticket sales will be donated to organizations that host a screening) – but it’s worth seeing.
This film brings up a huge number of topics for discussion. I found it interesting to contrast these messages with the recent tiger mother talk. Here (briefly) are a few things I came away thinking about:
1. High school has become preparation for college applications. Not for college academic readiness. It is a time to prove that you can take total advantage of all the opportunities available to you. Parents in the film confess the stress of being a prison guard, ensuring that homework, studying, striving for the top rank are achieved, as well as participation in more activities. The stakes are seen as so high: a child’s whole future is on the line at every moment.
2. Homework is a major issue. We are conditioned to expect it, and feel a course is not rigorous without it. Yet “Race to Nowhere” cites studies that show homework in excess of two hours per night is not productive and has no positive effect on learning; in fact student test scores are higher when a course has less homework. Vast amounts of homework reflect sleepless students drowning in endless content to spit back on tests, which they then go on to forget so they can fit in more content. It takes good teachers to be able to focus on (new jargon) “enduring understanding” and at the same time our teachers are not given the freedom to teach kids to think and conceptualize because there is too much mandated ground to cover, which drives the good, excited-to-teach teachers out of the system. One teacher interviewed in the movie left teaching in schools to become a tutor, now a booming industry because students can’t handle the schoolwork on their own.
3. Is there a need for measurements other than grades in math and reading? A student in the film suggested a measurement for art ability, or flexibility of ideas. How about a measurement of passion?
4. In the college application process there is prestige in getting into the one of the acclaimed “best” colleges, but not for best fit for the individual.
5. For many kids, the drug problem in teenage years is not recreational drugs, but stimulants and depressants to increase their productivity and focus. Sadly reflecting the lack of any recreational activity at all. Unscheduled down time? Usually spent on the computer.
“Race to Nowhere” shows the exciting period of adolescent life as depressingly hard for so many. After the showing of the film tonight many high-school students from the audience stood up with tearful attestations of this; also saying that the venue, and learning that they are not alone, is a huge relief because in their lives they feel an urgent need to not show any weakness.
The movie is a call for a movement to change the system. How much of a change do we need? As a parent I find it hard to navigate my child’s education: to understand what are false pressures and what you really need to succumb to in order to secure good opportunities. I’ve recently been pushing my daughter to study for her upcoming math placement test that will determine her math track in middle school. A higher math level will give her an advantage in getting into the science and tech high school magnet program – clearly the best public educational opportunity in a sea of poor high schools in our county. It stresses her out. It stresses me out, and I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. Will it stop for us here? I doubt it – but I hope we can balance achievement-oriented strategy with engaging love of learning for her whole life, enjoy a diversity of upcoming educational opportunities, and keep learning environments places where my daughter wants to be, not sources of despair and fear.