U.S. Schools: Race to Nowhere?

February 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm (School, Uncategorized) (, )

A friend urged me to go see the documentary, Race to Nowhere, which was screened at a local school last week.  From their press materials:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

On the one hand, I want to love this film.  The issues highlighted absolutely need to be addressed. 

I did find a few flaws in it hard to get past.  To get them over with, I’ll start with them.  I wish they hadn’t been quite so anecdotal.  The movie takes a few stories and attempts to apply them across all of the U.S.  There are studies mentioned to back up some of what the interviewees are saying, but I’m not sure most high schoolers are really as stressed about school as the movie portrays.  No mention is made about the problems of kids on the opposite side of the spectrum- kids who blow off school without realizing the effect on their future, kids in inner city schools, kids with drug and alcohol problems, kids whose parents haven’t encouraged them to go to college.  Obviously one couldn’t address all the problems in our nation’s education system with one movie, but they certainly tried to convince the viewer that overworked kids are the biggest thing wrong  in education today.  I feel pretty damn old saying this, but at one point I felt I was listening to a parade of teenagers say with a whine: “I have too much hooooomework.”  [I SWORE as a teenager I’d never lump an age group together, and I’m still committed not to do that.  But I did find myself saying “Damn kids” the other day when a couple were rude to me.  Brought home how easy it is to stereotype.]

The film was not all one-sided rhetoric by any means, though.  The point that we need to change the way we teach should be well-taken by anybody with influence on curriculum and teaching methods in our schools (teachers, administators, parents).  We spend too much time “teaching to the test” and asking children to memorize a string of facts.  This was true even when I was going to school in the 80s/90s, and it’s only gotten worse with the No Child Left Behind era.  As one person interviewed said, we teach a mile wide and an inch deep.

One lawyer reported that college-educated new hires to his firm need increasing direction in their work.  “How many paragraphs should this brief be?  How many sources should I use?”  On and on, they need their work to be exactly prescribed.  As it was in school, we infer.  It was also pointed out that kids spend a lot of time being coached, whether it’s in baseball or gymnastics or at school (teachers).  Kids have less time to be bored and figure the world out for themselves.  We are creating adults that continue to need continuous coaching.

Another telling stat came from a U of Cal administrator who said that even though the average GPA of incoming students is close to a 4.0, half of them need remediation in math or English.  THAT boggles my mind (though what exactly “remediation” entails wasn’t explained).  Can this really be true?  That it’s possible to learn how to get in to college, but not actually how to learn at college?  Why aren’t these one and the same? 

If the U.S. expects to continue its success as a nation, we NEED to have free thinkers, innovators, and generally people who love learning and continue to do so on their own their entire lives.  Sometimes the rigor of school has my kids down on learning, and it alternately makes me mad and sad.  Real quotes:  “I hate learning!”  “I hate school!”  I hate science!”  Say the boys who use their own microscope, daily spend recess looking for crystals in the playground dirt, and come home and spend hours doing “chemexstrie” in the bathroom wearing safety googles.  Clearly they hate science!  They would just rather learn on their terms, and we encourage it whenever possible.  They complain the subjects in school aren’t what they want to learn, but I tell them sometimes the jobs they have to do when they grow up aren’t favorites either.

A number of students cited crazy- 6, 7, 8- hours of homework a night in high school.  What adult would go to a full time job and then do six hours of work at home?  (Probably some, but nobody I know.)  My first graders have what I’d consider an allowable amount.  10-30 minutes of math (depending on how “on task” they stay) per weeknight, ~30 minutes of spelling per week.  In addition they are supposed to read aloud to us 15 minutes per day, 7 days a week.  I’m not necessarily opposed to the work they’re doing (though I’m curious, and have “The Case Against Homework” checked out from the library), and I find the assignments aren’t bad.  They’re worksheets, but they could be worse.  Spelling is boring but I don’t suppose there are tons of interesting way to do what is essentially memorization, and I side firmly with “you need to learn to spell”, as opposed to “why can’t I just use spellcheck?”. 

I do wonder if homework makes sense for kids that aren’t old enough to truly be responsible for it themselves.  With my boys in first grade, I feel ultimately responsible for its completion.  Since I wrote that post, I’ve oscillated between checking every problem and not checking it at all.  For the most part, they’re better at checking it.  And their reading has improved (yay!!), so I don’t have to sit and explain each set of instructions.  I do still resent my part in the homework though.  On weeknights, I feel a giant weight on my shoulders until it’s completed and in the backpacks.  Will it go quickly?  Will there be a fight?  They feel none of this stress.   Once it’s done, and we settle into bed and read aloud, that’s the “work” I enjoy and look forward to.

The movie backs up its case for no homework citing a study that there is close to zero change in test scores whether homework is assigned or not in elementary school.  In middle school, homework increases achievement up to an hour of work and then maxes out; in high school two hours.  I don’t know any high schoolers who have less than two hours of homework.  I have to say, I’m a bit skeptical.  My science background kicks in- what was the study size?  Has it been reviewed?  Because one can make just about any point with some data and Excel.  In an (very) informal FB poll I took last week, high schoolers in AP classes around here have four hours, close to what I remember back in the nineties.  It didn’t scar me for life but I do think I was pretty burnt out on school when I graduated.  I hit college and spent my freshman year blowing off classes and loving the connections I was making with people who finally “got” me.  Thankfully I recovered (and kept the friends!).

This is the point in this discussion in which I feel that I’ll need to write a book to fully explain my thoughts on this movie.  It speaks to how hard it is to cover a topic like the U.S. educational topic in one movie or book, let alone one blog post.  Perhaps I should cut the movie some slack!  I will say it made me think, and that was ultimately its goal.  So, I’ll end with a few questions:  Have you seen this movie?  Are your school-age kids overtaxed by school?  Have you ever advocated for less homework or have you generally felt their homework useful?

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