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Documentary inspires debate over ‘Race to Nowhere’

By Alex Schneider

Section: Arts, Top Stories

February 11, 2011

school speak: A student offers his own views in a discussion following a screening of the education documentary “Race to Nowhere” in the Shapiro Campus Center on Feb. 8.
PHOTO BY NAFIZ “FIZZ” R. AHMED/The Hoot

Solving challenges in primary and secondary education is a complex problem, and today, everyone’s an expert.

After all, most American parents went to school, and they are convinced they know what’s best for their kids. Which also means that when things don’t go as planned, parents—who want their children to be as successful as they were—think they know how to put their children back on track in order to get into the most competitive colleges like Harvard, Yale and, of course, Brandeis.

The trouble is—and this will come as a shock to some people—not everyone belongs at Harvard, Yale or Brandeis. Some students belong elsewhere, yet they are caught up in a whirlwind of societal priorities and pressures that dictate the normative for students: take six APs, get straight A’s, belong to five clubs and two sports teams, and spend hours on homework.

Yet for all that pressure and all those choices made without options, some students inevitably don’t get what they want. And that rejection letter is also a reminder: In the “race to nowhere,” everyone runs, even if they don’t know where they are going. The destination may even be in the opposite direction.

Vicki’s view

Vicki Abeles wants the U.S. education system to change course.

As a parent, she no longer insists that her children complete their homework, just that they are happy-go-lucky kids. And, as a professional filmmaker, Abeles produced “Race to Nowhere,” a film about the absurdities of the education system that screened in the Shapiro Campus Center on Tuesday night.

With few answers but a whole lot of questions, Abeles describes the pressures faced by modern students, suggesting that these pressures are extreme, unnecessary and contrived.

Through interviews with a range of students from different backgrounds, she identifies norms for students that she views as wrong: overscheduled days, unnecessary pressure, the sleep lost in favor of homework, young children with headaches and stomachaches developed from school-related stresses, and a spike in child suicides and depression.

The documentary’s interviews make a compelling case. One student describes the “and” game (You play sports? And, anything else? Oh, you take four APs? And?). Another explains how, even though she told her mother she was going to bed, she woke up in the middle of the night to work on homework—in seventh grade.

A parent recalled how she felt like a prison guard when she watched over her children working on homework. Another parent was surprised when her daughter, having completed AP French, said, “I never have to take French again!” A teacher of AP Biology said the course was overwhelming to the point of being pointless. He cut his students’ homework in half and watched their scores go up.

At the same time, Abeles leaves too many questions unanswered. She criticizes the No Child Left Behind Act but provides no alternative. She attributes cheating and teen suicide to the overwhelming amount of work students have to complete but never admits to the benefits of any work, especially for those who deserve to be challenged and could be candidates for Harvard, Yale and Brandeis. She points a finger at homework but forgets the alternatives: Facebook, game consoles and television.

To say that everyone is engaged in a “race to nowhere” is to ignore the diversity of the United States. Some students would be bored without homework. Some students learn something from school. And some students will use the skills they learn in a way that is beneficial to society.

We can’t jeopardize those students.

Also, some students come from backgrounds where they are disadvantaged. They want to succeed, but their backgrounds do not provide sufficient tools to help them do so. They may return home at night to an empty house or apartment. Abeles’ vision of happy-go-lucky children without homework to weigh down their creativity may not strictly apply to such individuals.

We can’t fail these students.

Then there are students who are overwhelmed by work and are average students. We don’t need to expect straight A’s from these students. Getting just one A, a few B’s and the occasional C in Math should be acceptable. Teachers should recognize other types of achievements in these students and not expect from them work that will not, in the end, benefit these students. Such students will go far in life, even if they don’t understand high school chemistry.

We shouldn’t lie to these students.

The view from college

How many APs did you take to get into Brandeis?

And how many extracurriculars? What about sports teams, honors courses, tests and test prep? How many hours of homework did you do per night? And how many hours of sleep did you get?

Was it worth it?

The Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Education Program and the Office of Academic Services all sponsored the screening on Tuesday night. The Department of Admissions was conspicuously absent.

Brandeis University may be just one of many competitive schools, so, naturally, it can easily deny any responsibility for the pressure students feel in high school, middle school and elementary school.

But should it?

That’s the bottom line, the take away, the elephant in the room: for all the talk of reducing pressure and for all the grass-roots campaigning, this issue is about one thing—competition induced by a college admissions process that is not transparent.

Colleges like to state that they want applicants to show they took advantage of a range of opportunities at their high schools. They want to see sports, extracurriculars, four years of a language and, on top of all that, as many acronyms as possible: SATs, SAT IIs, ACTs, APs and 4.0 GPAs.

Each component makes sense, each helps a school weed out applicants who are not worthy of their program. And yet, it also gives students one choice: accept the game or drop-out.

Disappointingly—and perhaps on account of the fact that her own children are still young—the filmmaker blames everyone from parents to districts to the federal government for perpetuating stress in K-12 education, but she overlooks the role of colleges.

The Race

If education is about improving the knowledge of the workforce of the next generation, it should be better tailored to individual needs. As Abeles suggests, rethinking homework may be beneficial: some studies suggest that students do not gain from more than two hours of homework per night.

The education system of tomorrow would require all of us—students, parents, teachers and administrators—to accept that not everyone needs to enter the “race to nowhere.” Some can get to where they need to go by simply embracing their own strengths. That’s the real meaning of achievement.

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