A Critical Look at The Race to Nowhere - Are Schools Really to Blame?

A Critical Look at The Race to Nowhere - Are Schools Really to Blame?
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As a kid, I had pressure coming at me from all sides. My parents wanted me to do well in school; my school wanted me to complete all my homework. I wanted to be cool and fit in. My dance instructors wanted me to practice; the music teacher wanted me to practice; I needed to be a good older sister and a sociable friend. The play director wanted me to memorize my lines; the therapist and doctor wanted me to be well adjusted and healthy; the baseball coach wanted me to be an athlete; the basketball coach wanted me to make the rebounds - and through all of that, I still needed to be a kid.

Don’t even get me started on swim practice or Spanish or art lessons. You might say I was overbooked, but my parents were just doing what everyone else’s parents were doing in a suburban city 45 minutes outside of San Francisco. They were giving me all of the opportunities they thought I should have and they weren’t really considering what the best thing for me was.

Contrast this to my son’s experience. He’s homeschooled, and yes, I expect him to get his work done each day - at least so far as he makes progress in his subjects. He pressures himself, a lot. He’s active in our church, and he has just a couple of activities (acting, volunteering, and doing odd jobs for a neighbor) on the side - allowing him time to be a kid. Whereas I wasn’t home between the hours of seven-thirty a.m. and often nine or ten p.m., he’s home most of the day on most days. Don’t get me wrong - I loved all of the activities I got to do as a kid. At the same time, I often wouldn’t get into bed until two in the morning - because I also needed to get my school work done.

The Race…

And that’s where The Race to Nowhere comes in. My homework would often last for four or five hours - at least. I went through the same school system as the creators of this documentary. That was in the 1980s and 1990s. The creators of this movie seem to imply that this is a new phenomenon. I’m here to say that it’s not. There’s always been pressure, especially in school districts like Lafayette and Acalanes School Districts that have historically had high test scores, for students to succeed.

In the trailer for the movie, a girl says:

  • “I would spend six hours a night on my homework. In high school, I dropped all the extra-curricular activities except babysitting, and when I turned 16, I got a part-time job. I’d get home from school at about 3:30 or 4 pm. I’d have a snack of some sort. I’d work on my homework - after being in school since 7:45 am - until often midnight or later. That’s more than eight hours of homework a night. By that point, no one needed to pressure me to do well. I wanted to do well for me. I had my heart set on going to U.C. Berkeley.”

…to Nowhere?

I think this is where I have a problem with the premise of saying students have too much homework. When you’re young, your mind is a sponge. You can soak all kinds of things up. Was I stressed out? Of course I was. But I also went on to college, from college to graduate school, and from graduate school to running a sole proprietorship. Many of the students graduating from my high school have gone on to do incredible things. I know people who earned their Ph.D.s, who became professional athletes, and who are phenomenal doctors. When I compare the skills I received in my high school, I was very well-prepared to start college. In fact, though I graduated a year and two-thirds early from high school, I found college less challenging than high school - and I was taking 22 units my first semester.

Yes, I’m a chronic over-achiever. You could say I have an A-Type personality, and it’s hard for me to sit and do nothing. I want to achieve and push myself to accomplish greater goals. And I’ve had success with that. I have a book published, run my own successful business, an MA degree, have published over 1,000 articles, presented at professional political science, philosophy, and sustainability conferences, and I’m only 33 years old. On top of it all, I’ve been teaching my son at home full-time for almost five years. If that’s “nowhere,” then I’m not quite sure what the creators of the film are pointing at.

But…I Can See a Point

I don’t think the problem is the pressure or the high-standards we hold students to. What I do think is a problem is over-booking students and filling their time with a constant barrage of activity. When I was never home, I became burned out - and that is a problem. I didn’t want to do anything, and I suffered from depression. I’d become disconnected from all the activities I participated in because I was constantly moving.

Instead of looking at the pressure, let’s look at the structure behind the pressure. Kids are in school from around 7:30 am until around 3:30 pm. That’s 8 hours. They come home and do homework - another, let’s say six hours. That’s fourteen hours of work - mostly because teachers have class sizes so large that the classroom is now a place where people need to be managed, lessons can barely get taught, and students feel disconnected from their instructors.

When I was a TA, I had 100 students. That’s a lot of students for one class. That was half the size of the class. The other TA had the other 100 students. It’s difficult to give each student the time he or she deserves with that sort of ratio. It’s no wonder students take home so much homework. I remember my own classroom in high school. There were 20 students. Half of the class time felt like it was a battle between the teacher and the class clowns (now called “high-risk students”).

The problem is the lack of time in the classroom. Classes in high school are 50 minutes. By the time students sit down, settle down, and the teacher is able to get command of his or her class, there are maybe fifteen or twenty good minutes to get a lesson out. Then the bell rings, and the students are on to the next subject. The only option for teaching in this environment is to get out as much as you can and hope the students go home and get their homework done. And that’s if you’re in a good school district - with money for books for each student.

Not the Expectations, But a Failing Education System

Public schools were great when our economy was agrarian and factory based. Now, our economy is based on technology and a high-level of literacy, but our schools haven’t quite caught up. Sure, there are lots of innovative charter schools that try to cater to the expectations, but the problem is that they are still trying to work within a broken system. Meanwhile homeschooling’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness - parents are responsible for the education of their children. Private schools are expensive and come with their own pros and cons.

There have always been high expectations for children to do well - and expectations are a good thing! History has shown that children who find themselves in communities with low-expectations for performance often do not perform well. While pushing a child to the point where he or she is suicidal is definitely not a good thing, I don’t think that lightening up on expectations is the answer. Instead, let’s look at reforming our system - more collaborative learning opportunities, more self-directed learning activities, and smaller classrooms will help to achieve that.

Do you think children are under too much pressure to succeed or that it’s fine to have high expectations of our children?


The Race to Nowhere

Are Children Under too Much Pressure to Succeed?” Open Thread in The Guardian.com

Image courtesy of Free Images by hvaldez1