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'Race to Nowhere' Stops At South Lakes

Reston community gets a look at how high-stakes parenting affects teens.

The high-stakes race of raising children has several starter's pistols.

That's the message of the film The Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture. The PTSA sponsored a screening of the movie on Tuesday.

The film, produced by California lawyer and parent of three Vicki Abeles, stresses that the competitive culture in which we live in in 2011 didn't happen overnight.

It's an arms race that actually began in the Sputnik era, when the American education system realized it had better ramp up to keep up. But things went full throttle in 2002, when the Federal No Child Left Behind law went into effect.

"My philosophy was about learning," says one English teacher in an inner-city Oakland school, holding back tears. "But that's not what the District cares about. It sucking the life out of me. I am resigning."

NCLB brought an increased emphasis on standardized tests and teaching to the test. That means disenchanted teachers, more work that has to overflow into homework. Add that to more students applying to college, a gabillion dollar tutoring industry and peer pressure, and you have a very real race.

The kids in that race are not happy. The movie points out eating disorders and depression are up, cheating is way up, and that many top students enter college unprepared because they are learning to take tests but not really learning.

We meet a student athlete who leaves for an alternative school and drops wrestling when it gets to be too much; an anorexic who ends up opting for her GED; an Indiana student who stopped going to school much at all after she struggled with a math class; low-income students who fear what their future holds if they do not get straight As; and, heartbreakingly, the family of 13-year-old Devon, who committed suicide.

Children get the message of high stakes very early. The culture today is about travel soccer for eight year olds, Teach Your Baby to Read computer programs and, in Fairfax County, GT tests in third grade that set the course.

"One of the problems is we are teaching all the kids like they are in the top two percent," says college consultant Stacy Kadesh. "We've got six month olds doing flashcards. Six month olds are supposed to be sucking on their toes."

Part of that madness starts with the parents, though. That's my one criticism of the film. We see Abeles darting in traffic from practice to practice to practice to private school. Eventually, she realizes her middle school daughter is depressed and her third grade son wonders where his childhood went.

In my opinion, you don't need an epiphany to tell you to back off. Perhaps that school is not right for that kid, even though the sticker on your windshield gives you cache. Maybe your kids don't need piano lessons and travel soccer and swim team and scouts all at once. You can't control the amount of homework or the SOLs, but you can control how much you participate in the rest of the nonsense.

That's not an easy task around here, psychologist Wendy Rudolph said at a panel discussion following the movie.

"This area of Fairfax is very stressful," she said. "The peer pressure of 'where are you going to college?' is very high. One issue I have is that is starts so young. You have GT and sports enhancement for first graders so they can be better on the baseball field. What we teach our children about what is OK and not starts very young."

Rudolph says she sees many high schoolers who have not learned to prioritize.

"They have not learned to pace themselves," she said. "If I hear they are doing six hours of homework, they are either working above a level where they should be, waiting until Thursday do to a whole packet that is due Friday, or instead of handing it in, saying 'I don't care anymore.' "

 Maureen Becker, parent of a freshman and a junior at South Lakes, says she has seen the movie twice, and has tried to institute a new approach, especially with her 11th-grade her son.

"It has been hard to pull back," she said. "I decided to let go [of getting stressed out about school]. It had to come from him. I didn't want every conversation to be about grades."

Frank Sogandares March 30, 2011 at 10:33 PM
I can't hear you... I'm way down here in the goo, and you're up there so high inside your bordered post. Just pile on...
Karen Goff March 30, 2011 at 10:53 PM
I am anti border but pro Frank. And Anti homework.
Stu Gibson March 31, 2011 at 02:06 PM
For a good overview on what research teaches us about homework, read Alfie Kohn's book "The Homework Myth; Why our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing." (available through alfiekohn.com) He cites study after study showing that there is NO evidence that there is even a correlation (let alone causation) between homework in elementary school -- one of the points of stress in the film -- and student achievement. When asked by a teacher what to do if a school requires homework in elementary school, Kohn replied, "Ask your students to read," adding that the teacher should not tell students what to read or how long to read (as the latter encourages clockwatching, not reading).
The Convict May 13, 2011 at 03:26 PM
The key question here is, why is it wrong to "lag behind" in math and science? Is it so bad that a kid isn't ready for Algebra in 7th grade and Calculus in 10th grade? Let's reframe the argument, if Calculus and Physics are such an important part of our national educational identity, why aren't we teaching these subjects to two year olds? To 8 year olds? To 12 year olds? Because developmentally they're not ready to learn these rigorous subjects at those tender years. Every kid develops at a different pace, so there's no shame in waiting until you're ready to actually tackle the subject. And if we wait until they're actually ready to learn these subjects instead of push-push-pushing them, they might actually enjoy them. With that said, I have a degree in Mathematics and in Physics. I have passed the NTEs. Before I decided to go back to private industry, I was only a couple of graduate level courses and some student teaching time short for the requirements for applying for my teaching license. These questions are near and dear to my heart. I'm really disgusted how we adults have taken all of the fun out of learning. BTW, I graduated near the BOTTOM of my class in high school. Still, I managed to get three 2 year degrees, a couple of four year degrees, take some graduate level courses and get a job earning six figures. Your kid's life won't be over just because they don't graduate at the top of their class and go to the right colleges.
Laurie Dodd August 13, 2011 at 10:02 PM
I found "Road to Nowhere" to be a valuable portrayal of the pressures many of our students encounter. I believe we will serve our children better in Fairfax County if we provide them the option of taking Honors courses, rather than restricting them to a choice between Standard and Advanced Placement courses, so that students who want more depth than a standard course are not forced into taking AP courses, which can demand more work than a student may be able to invest. While my children are ready for college level work in some areas, they deserve the choice to pursue an honors level of instruction when that fits them better. FCPS should allow students to choose the level of challenge they need. (And homework demands should be reduced.) Just my two cents.

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