Last week I attended a screening of the documentary Race to Nowhere. An independent film directed by a concerned mother, the documentary highlights a growing epidemic in our educational system and college admissions – overburdened students, burned out teachers, increased teen depression, and students showing up for college unprepared and unskilled for the next phase of their lives.
The film is a series of unscripted interviews with students, teachers, parents, psychologists, school administrations, college recruiters and education system academics. Together they challenge the educational system, especially the No Child Left Behind program, and call viewers to action.
The message is powerful.
Societal pressures on kids to perform and stand out so they can get into college today are pushing them to cheat, over schedule themselves, lose sleep and take stimulants. Kindergarteners are bringing home homework and high schoolers taking AP classes to boost their chances at college are facing five to seven hours of homework a night. That’s on top of the clubs, sports and other extracurricular activities they do to stand out to admissions decision makers.
Standardized testing programs like No Child Left Behind are forcing teachers to forgo important creative projects and activities that stimulate students, building their critical thinking and social skills, in exchange for feeding them facts and figures so they can achieve on the tests that determine future funding for the school.
As I sat in the theater with more than 80 other parents, teachers and administrators for this special screening, my first and most powerful feeling was fear. The movie talks about a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide because she failed a test. The film clearly attempted to scare the crap out of every parent, suggesting if the educational system, parental pressure, and college entrance requirements stay the same, you’re child could die too.
That was my first impression. In fact, we were given note cards to write our thoughts. The first thing I wrote was “fear.”
The kids interviewed for the film talked about being over scheduled, not having time to play, staying up until midnight to do homework, cheating to pass a test, not remembering the information from old tests, being admitted to hospitals for stress and depression, and the increasing pressure to stand out in college applications with AP classes, clubs, sports and community service.
There really is so much pressure out there to get into the best schools. The sad thing is, our own University of Washington is a part of this. It’s very hard for students to get in, and with the way funding is, out of state students have better shots because they’ll pay full price.
As parents, we worry and stress over this, sometimes inadvertently putting pressure on our kids to achieve so they can succeed. It’s only natural to want our kids to have what we didn’t, but the real question is, is it worth the cost?
The cost, as suggested in the film, is the child’s passion and happiness.
Communities are challenged in the film to push the educational system away from standardized testing and focus more on critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and engagement. It is suggested homework is ineffective before fifth grade, should be no more than an hour in middle school, and no more than two hours in high school.
As for parents, the film encourages us to focus not on getting into a specific school, but on helping our children find what they love.
After the film the floor was opened for people to share their thoughts. The lady next to me told the audience she was told her 5-year-old was not accepted into a local private school kindergarten because he didn’t have the prerequisite prereading skills.
An admissions manager and mother reminded everyone in attendance that the very high school we were sitting in for the film provided study halls and work periods for kids to do their homework and her kids, who attend there, have very little at home because they use this time wisely.
A teacher’s voice cracked as she told how she’s had to stop doing fun projects with her fourth graders because they had to learn the new required material that was now to be tested instead. She felt she was cheating her kids.
I walked away with a definite fear that the school system as it stands today will burn out my kids and not offer them the valuable critical thinking, decision making and problem solving skills needed in today’s world. I’m dedicated to teaching that at home, but I won’t have as many hours with them throughout the day as the school system.
My husband reminded me to take in the full picture. UW is not the only good school, even in the state. We won’t be pushing the kids excessively, only supporting them, encouraging them, and leading by example. Of course they'll be encouraged to do their best, but also supported if they feel overwhelmed and need to take a step back from an activity. I think this will be a benefit for our kids, but I worry about what they’re being forced to do at school that burns them out, and what they’re not learning. That’s where we have to step outside our family.
My option is to join with my community and fight for change. The alternative of paying for an unconventional private school is financially unrealistic.
If you want to learn more or find screenings near you, check out Race to Nowhere’s website and their sister site, End the Race, where advice, resources, information and ideas are shared. They’ve developed quite a following of students, teachers, parents, administrators, educational academics and medical professionals. I highly recommend having a look to educate yourself on this educational issue.
What are your thoughts? Have you seen any of this in your children’s’ lives? What is your impression after seeing their information?
More from parenting