'Race to Nowhere': Even good students finish badly educated

They develop serious ailments and angst on the race course, too. The film aims at rousing adults to act in the better interests of kids.

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They develop serious ailments and angst on the race course, too. The film aims at rousing adults to act in the better interests of kids.

Across America kids lead lives of quiet desperation, says Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture. The documentary film surveys stresses on students from elementary school through the first year of college. Filmmaker Vicki Abeles, the mother of three children, witnessed "the dark side" first hand.

Her youngest, burdened by what he despairingly saw as “piles and piles of work to do” in elementary school, developed stomach pains and headaches, and academic stress gave her middle-school daughter a serious anxiety disorder. Concern about her children led Abeles to make the film (her first), which is dedicated to the memory of a smart, pretty, popular 13-year-old high achiever in California who killed herself after failing a math test.

Recently an audience of more than 500 Seattle parents, students, and educators watched the film at Roosevelt High School, and about 100 stayed to discuss it when the lights came up. The evening was sponsored by the Parent-Teacher-Student Associations of Bryant Elementary, Assumption-St. Bridget School (K-8), and Roosevelt.

The film presents students who are overwhelmed by excessive homework, by pressures to excel from adults in their lives, and by daily schedules packed with demanding extracurricular activities undertaken to impress Ivy League colleges. As one high school senior in Race to Nowhere says, “You have to be smart, pretty, do art, and play sports, but also be unique, and you have to know yourself.” Yet as the film suggests, it’s hard to be unique among peers all doing the same things, and who's got a free hour for inner-directed contemplation?

So American children are forced to become shallow, machine-like facsimiles of adults. As a teacher in the film says, “We’re turning kids into little professionals.”

A Roosevelt senior agreed. During the post-film discussion she described being asked at a college admissions interview to tell something about herself that wasn’t already on her résumé: “They asked me, ‘What are your ideas?’ I had nothing to say except what was already on my application.” (The list of practice questions for next year’s seniors to drill with will now probably expand to include “What’s not on your résumé? What are your ideas?”)

School-frazzled students in Race to Nowhere suffer health problems, both physical and emotional. They don’t eat or sleep enough. Anorexia and bulimia are common, and older teens take drugs (uppers for 24-hour homework marathons, downers in order to rest). Anxious, depressed preadolescents spend days in psychiatric wards and “stress clinics.” Teenagers surreptitiously cut themselves; a therapist in the film told of one who pulled up her sleeve to display the word EMPTY carved into the flesh of her arm.

To physical and emotional problems, add moral and intellectual ones. Many students afraid of performing poorly feel driven to cheat. And after studying for hours to remember information before a test, students forget it afterward because drill-and-regurgitate doesn’t teach the larger principles that organize data into memorable concepts useful for thinking at the next level.

No wonder half the freshmen at the highly selective University of California at Berkeley, according to one of the admissions officials quoted in the film, require remedial instruction. They may be the cream of the high-school crop in terms of their GPAs, but they aren’t prepared to do college work.

After the screening a Bryant parent called the film balanced. It’s certainly evenhanded in touching upon almost every imaginable stress on students today, from standardized tests whose nationwide dominance weakens instructional quality, to the three-hour practices required after school for students on sports teams, to mandatory community service.

What's clear from the overview provided by the film is that American education as a whole must change. You can’t just tinker here or there with a system so scattered and overloaded.

Yet the official Race to Nowhere handout of “Tips to Regain Balance for Students, School and Families” is a scattered overload of tinkering notions. The flyer distributed to the audience had almost 70 separate tiny-font suggestions grouped for parents/guardians, students, educators, administrators, coaches, and “everyone,” and crowded on the back was a miscellany of 15 books and web sites (including racetonowhere.com) for viewers to consult.

In short, there’s little to hold this problem-crammed film together except the worry it arouses in a viewer: Lots of kids out there are in trouble!

Though the film has too many different agendas left unexplored, it aims recurrently at two targets. One is homework. High-schoolers in the film report having an hour of homework assigned every day in every subject, a practice that teaches more about cramming and coping than critical thinking. Abeles implies that homework should be wholly cut from elementary grades and seriously skimped later.

But recent research (e.g., what’s summed up by Marzano et al.) says that while heavy homework has been proven not to strengthen student learning, students do need frequent practice in essential skills outside school. A good rule of thumb, says the research, is about 10 minutes of homework per school night for each year of a student’s grade level, averaging out to a total of about 20 minutes for a second-grader and two hours for a high school senior. In any case, it should be smart homework that reinforces smart teaching.

Abeles makes a better case against AP classes as currently taught, and in the process helps demonstrate why assigning less homework while otherwise keeping the system in its present form wouldn't make schools more effective.

The original purpose of AP classes was to let high-school kids take college-credit courses if they were ready for them, according to the dean of Stanford’s college of education. “Unfortunately,” she explains in the film, “it’s turned into a kind of a gatekeeper” for admission to top colleges and universities. So, “it’s not about going deeper, really challenging yourself. It’s about how many AP classes can I rack up so I have more AP classes than the people I’m competing with?”

To illustrate, she says her daughter told her after taking her AP French test, “Now I never have to speak French again!” The prof concludes by saying that the purpose of high school has changed. It’s to prepare “for the college application, not even for college.”

(Here’s a YouTube excerpt from the film on the breakneck pace of AP courses, the fragmented skills they teach, and why college freshmen with dazzling high-school GPAs end up needing to take remedial college courses.)

Parents with a healthy perspective on kids and learning, whose children are in the hands of teachers who know their subject and are allowed to teach it as a subject instead of as test-prep content, are what students in the film probably need most. But in this film, a documentary about schools that never mentions the newsworthy topic of bullying, the kids are pushed around by adults. This pushing is "for their own good," of course — to help them excel.

Parents whose sense of success depends on their children's excelling may cloak their competitiveness in attitudes of helpful concern. In the film a sincere mom whose children attend the private Wheatley School says, “We want them to have a choice. The better you do, the more choices you’ll have.” The irony is, of course, that competing to “do better,” as played out in Race to Nowhere, turns students into automatons incapable of really choosing.

In a superheated cultural environment, even a Stanford University psychologist who is convinced that intense competition is unhealthy for kids can momentarily waver. He confesses to the camera that he's sometimes startled by the same thoughts that drive the adults and the system he criticizes: “'My daughters are happy, but will they get into a good college?'” A similarly self-aware mom in the film names the motive force within parents like herself who sign a child up for private tutors and enrichment activities by the dozen: “We’re all afraid.”

Indeed, a recent article in Slate suggests that what fuels currently soaring American anxieties, whether parental or youthful, is the absence of strong personal and communal bonds among individuals who are overwhelmed by floods of information yet who have to bury their negative feelings and keep smiling.

During the post-film discussion a student said, “I was doing all my homework, but nothing had any meaning for me. I don’t get fulfillment from school, so I tell myself I’ll be happy in college. But I’ll only be 17 once. And what if college feels the same?” Another said, “I had a full schedule this fall. Nothing was making me happy. Parents should literally force kids not to do so much homework.” Still another: “Growing up as this generation you think you have no choice. Back in Bryant Elementary and in middle school I didn’t take care of myself, didn’t eat. You parents need to ask how your kids are feeling and not what you want them to look like!”

On the other hand, some students in the auditorium seemed to have less driven, less fearful parents who have developed solid relationships with their kids over years of closeness and mutual trust. A middle-schooler told the audience, “My mom and I noticed I learn more when I’m doing something I’m interested in. (She) said most Americans care about the answer, but the really interesting thing is how you get there.” A senior who had been applying to colleges whose names would look impressive beside his own name in the school paper said, “My dad helped me. He asked me, ‘Do you really want to go there, or are you applying just so you can say you got into Yale?’ I reduced my stress and didn’t always do my homework, and now I know what I want and like.”

Unremarked in the film is the fact that this generation of youngsters is growing up wired to TV, video games, and electronic social media. News articles tell us that on average, kids now text over 100 times per day. In one Race to Nowhere scene, students walk up and down a school staircase utterly oblivious to each other because all are texting, or listening to music with their earbuds in. There are no visible social interactions.

When the thing that keeps people at any age steady and hopeful is the flesh-and-blood companionship of friends and family members, grounded in memories of parental figures whose love we felt even when we didn't succeed or smile, raising healthy children requires something closer to home than school. Yet schools that are race courses do at least as much harm as schools where low expectations of students and teachers stall kids' progress.

A smart, comprehensive overhaul of the American education system is long overdue. Abeles hopes that some documentary-inspired dismay will awaken the necessary public will.


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