Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Race to Nowhere

This movie is disturbing. And compelling.

I expected it to be. After all, it's a documentary on the pressures our students and teachers face in the achievement obsessed public and private school system.

The film features high school students across the country and shows how they become burned out, stressed out, depressed and unprepared for college and life beyond that. And if you think it's limited to affluent communities, think again. The children of single parent, inner city environments are just as pressured: it's their way out of the ghetto and without those scholarships and grades, they're looking at the same life mom has.

One student tells us, "Everyone has ADD now so Adderoll is easy to get." These kids use stimulants to plow through the long homework hours required with an AP course load and to be able to compete with the other kids. After all, it takes a 4.35 weighted GPA to get into Cal these days. And there's more.

A child goes to school until 3pm each day. Then they go to their extracurricular sport practice. They arrive home at 7pm, scarf down a quick dinner, shower and sit down for six hours' worth of homework, one hour for every class period.

Several months ago a friend, whose daughter is in high school, remarked jokingly that all their disposable income now goes to tutors. I thought about this long and hard when she said it.

Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, teaching has been all about "teaching to the test." Children rising through our school system learn how to memorize information and spit it out for a test yet not be critical thinkers. Yet critical thinking is a life skill.

If students don't perform well then that reflects on the teacher. The school loses money and the teacher may ultimately lose his or her job. The impact of this pressure? Teachers looking the other way when students cheat. Did you know that there are more than eight documented ways for a student to cheat?

One student tells us that the worst question you can ask your child is "And?" You're in four AP classes. And? You're on Pom. And? You play violin in the school orchestra. And? You collected 2500 Books for the Barios this summer. And? It's never enough.

Do we expect our kids to be Superheroes?

Vicki Abeles, a local parent and attorney, put together this acclaimed film when a high-achieving, high-functioning 13-year-old in her community committed suicide after failing a math test. Her own middle schooler was showing signs of burnout and opens the movie by saying, "I can't remember when the last time I had a chance to just go out in the backyard and run around."

How do we define success in our schools? Is it by GPA? Is it by being class president? Is it by captaining the varsity lacrosse team? Where's the happiness metric?

Fortunately Abeles offers solutions. I strongly encourage you to see this film, and to form your own opinion,

I, for one, will be giving this a lot more thought. And carving out more playtime, more downtime for our children.

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