This week I finally had the opportunity to see the documentary Race to Nowhere. I first wrote about it back in January, when was it a mere twinkle in the eye of a few education bloggers. Fast forward ten months, and it’s been making the rounds of county high schools in PTA screenings, eliciting tears in some audiences. (“I laughed. I cried. It was better than…” Oh, never mind.)
I didn’t detect any tears last night, although there were several points of knowing laughter: Watching families argue about homework late into the evening; the dash to the car mid-chew for yet another activity; the student wondering aloud about the relevance of studying The Scarlet Letter; the stress expert who confessed that even he falls victim to worrying if his kids will get into a “good” college. After the movie was over we were asked to take a minute to share our impressions with our neighbors. (Bless my friends with the right attitude for these kinds of exercises: “If I had to wear that school uniform,” the dad whispered, “I would hate to go to school too.”)
There followed a panel of students and teachers, to whom we were encouraged to submit questions. May it go on the record, I was NOT the person who submitted the first question, the one that essentially made the case for homeschooling and asked whether the panel thought this might be a viable option for some. The response to that question was a kind of stunned silence. The remaining questions hewed more closely to the themes of the movie. Were the students shown representative of the students in this local school? (yes) Did students at this school feel similarly stressed? (yes) Would teachers consider cutting homework? (yes…and no). The one comment that had me nodding came from an administrator who noted that some schools in the county were considering the total elimination of honors-level English, leaving only on-level and AP. Some choice. She stated emphatically that she would never support such a move at this school. Good for her.
But back to the movie. Much of it rang true in terms of the sleep deprivation, the cram-it-in-and-forget-about-it approach to “learning,” the “and?…” feeling that teens have of never being “enough.” (For a window into that world, check IBFMyLife.com or the High School Life board on College Confidential. At the moment one of the threads is “Most Sleep You’ve Gotten in One Night This School Year.”)
It had me thanking my lucky stars that C. has crafted her own escape. At her new school she takes five classes, the standard load, instead of seven. Her class sizes are ridiculously small so that there is discussion and meaningful work; it’s not an assembly line sausage factory. And her school year is shorter. She started school in early- to mid-September, had a full week off at Thanksgiving, will have three full weeks at Christmas, two and a half weeks for Spring break and wraps the whole thing up by June 2nd. Does she still work incredibly hard, with late nights and too little sleep? Absolutely. Does she push herself relentlessly in pursuit of attending what in her opinion are “top schools?” Totally. But there still seems to be time for her to enjoy meals, engage in multiple activities including the mandatory sport — in her case, yoga — and watch bad movies on Netflix streaming video (busted!). Her pressure cooker MCPS magnets had her work like a machine, and now she’s reaping the rewards of a relatively more balanced — for her — life.
For me, a noteworthy moment in the film was when Dr. Denise Pope, Co-Founder, Challenge Success at Stanford University, stated that we have taken an education meant for the top 2-3% of students (AP classes, intensely academic) and mandated it for all. Amen sister. Many kids crave and thrive on this level of challenge — and they should get it. But why isn’t it PC to say it’s not for everyone?
It was also fun to “see” a blogger I’ve read and corresponded with, Sara Bennett, make the case against homework, especially at the elementary level. (What? Six-plus hours a day isn’t enough of my kid’s life?)
I was also struck by the plight of the few low-income kids featured in the film. They felt tremendous academic pressure because without merit aid they might not be able to attend college. It also struck me that many have been sold a complete bill of goods. Many were struggling. To the girl with the tears in her eyes who mentioned that she was “thinking Harvard”—but hadn’t passed the state assessment, I wanted to pat her on the hand and say, “Honey….”
When the lights came up part of me felt frustration. Evidently this school’s Health and Safety Committee is going to try to continue the dialogue sparked by the film. Great! Let the dialogue about student stress continue. But I also wanted to say, People, you needed to be focusing your energy on the curriculum committee years ago. That’s when the crazy ass math curriculum was rolled out that — whoopsie! — the county now acknowledges was deeply flawed in how it over-accelerated students, setting kids up for failure and/or tutoring and remediation down the road. You needed to be paying attention two years ago, when MCPS started rolling out its Seven Keys to College Readiness propaganda, successfully scaring the bejeezus out of elementary school parents while quietly admitting that its grade level classes will insufficiently prepare a child for college. You need to be in the trenches right now, fighting for programs like the Visual Arts Program and threatened vocational education opportunities. You need to be fighting the advocates of one-size-fits- all education who want to pressure kids into classes for which they are not prepared, the result often being failure or dumbing down of classes.
Asking the teachers if they would go to a no homework policy seems unfair, as they are mere pawns. They just happen to be at ground zero of the NCLB testing diktat, the creeping state graduation mandates (don’t get me started on that Technology class….), MCPS achievement boosterism. Polite chat about drug and alcohol abuse and stupid start times ultimately will change nothing. Parents need to engage with the educational power structure at the county, state and national levels, the folks who actually have the ability to set policies. (By the way, here’s the MCPS Homework Policy: “In Grades K-8 homework should be assigned three to five times a week and should be considered the rule rather than the exception to daily activity.”)
Two more points. A certain area school that shall not be named has been touting itself as an antidote for much of what Race to Nowhere depicts. Um, no. And in a case of fortuitous timing, it was interesting to read a story in the New York Times this week about burned out PTA mothers who are simply saying no more to volunteer obligations around school. Yes, something has to change, but saner homework expectations is just the tip of the iceberg.