A few months ago, Allison started saying what many teenagers have probably often said: “I hate school. School is stupid. They give us tons of homework and make us memorize a bunch of useless junk that we’re never going to use—what’s the point?” And I reacted the way many parents probably react: “Yes, some of it does seem stupid and useless but you have to play the game. You have to study and do good on tests so you can move on and get to college, where the real learning happens. I didn’t like all of my classes, either, but my goal was to get out and move on.”
But that conversation kept nagging at my brain. Even though she was tired and burnt out when she spoke, her words had a grain of truth in them. Maybe she’s right, I thought (and don’t kids have a way with cutting to the truth?) Maybe there is something inherently wrong with the way we educate our kids … but the overwhelming nature of that thought eventually put it out of my head. I barely have time to do my laundry, let alone change the world.
Then last week, my PTA president invited me to a screening of the new documentary, Race to Nowhere. And I decided I can no longer be complacent when it comes to education.
I challenge every parent of a child enrolled in public school to see this new film and see if you feel it’s like This Is Your Life, or gives you, as I call it, a “Killing Me Softly” moment. I cried. I’m sure the teenager sitting next to me thought I was a total freak. On second thought, that kid was probably crying, too, only on the inside. Because the documentary examines our current state of being when it comes to education, and it’s not a pretty picture. Hours of homework each night for kids starting in early elementary grades; tired, stressed out, overachieving, overscheduled kids; parents who are hyper-obsessed with achievement; administrators who are worried about federal mandates, rankings and scores; burnt-out teachers who are required to “teach to the test”; and the alarmed professionals who are seeing the effects of it all—kids cheating, kids using drugs, kids committing suicide, and kids who aren’t really prepared to be the next generation of great thinkers and problem solvers. And, families who hardly spend any quality time together any more (“Since when did school dictate what happens after the bell rings in the afternoon?” is one memorable quote from the film). While documentaries often come under scrutiny for being skewed one way or the other in order to bring the audience to a certain opinion, this film, made by a concerned mom, is spot on. I see its content every day, every week. Young children who once loved school and now hate it due to the homework. Parents who talk about their kids and stress all the time—just this past weekend at a dance competition, I shared a table with a total stranger from another community who started telling me about how stressed out her 17-year-old daughter was, getting only 3-4 hours of sleep each night and putting herself under tremendous pressure to make all A’s. Friends of mine who are talented teachers have been telling me for years about not being able to teach outside the box, and no longer enjoying their jobs. Allison has long said that kids copy homework and cheat on tests in order to keep up their GPA. Parents all around me, myself included, have become more and more achievement focused and worried that if their kids don’t make all A’s they won’t get into a good college.
But I never put it all together before, all those pieces, and that’s what this documentary does. It’s a sobering wake-up call. In our race to “beat other countries” in academic excellence, we’re actually doing the opposite. We’re raising kids that aren’t taught to be independent, critical thinkers, but rather, kids that are told what to study, what to memorize, and then they promptly put it out of their minds when the course is finished (one teen in the film is jubilant that her last French test is over and she’ll “never have to speak French again”). Some points from the film were particularly eye-opening:
-In Asian countries where they have high achievers, they do not have the amount of homework that American children do. In fact, many teachers don’t give homework at all. They teach what needs to be taught in the classroom, and their countries offer incentives to draw top students to becoming teachers. In one segment of the film, an American AP Biology teacher decided to see what would happen if he gave less homework—and his classroom scores actually went up.
-The top money earners in our country did not attend a “top college” and many didn’t even graduate. In fact, they show that attending a top college does not give students an earnings boost over those that attend an “average” college. Nor does taking all AP courses in high school. Higher earnings were affected more by qualities such as determination and (surprise?) the ability to think outside the box. So if people are under the impression that they’d better go to a top school in order to earn big bucks, they are essentially believing in a myth.
The documentary does not leave the audience feeling hopeless, however. It (and its website, www.racetonowhere.com) offer many suggestions that can be implemented immediately by parents, students, teachers, and others. (The parental suggestions include things like not enrolling your kids in all AP courses and making time several nights a week to eat dinner together.) Its sister website, www.endtherace.org, offers further ways people can get involved to make changes (and also lays out the research behind the statistics in the film).
I hope that everyone gets a chance to see this ground-breaking film—it’s currently on a 6-month public screening tour, and it’s exciting that it’s being shown at schools and theaters across the country. (In the Dallas area, it will be at the Lewisville Studio Movie Grill this Sunday, March 6.) The Race to Nowhere website has a map so you can quickly see if it will be in your area. Eventually, DVDs will be available for purchase.