I watched the documentary Race to Nowhere Sunday morning at the Dedham Community Theatre with a crowd of parents and educators concerned about the direction of K-12 education. Through the stories of students and parents, the movie makes a compelling case that we are headed in the wrong direction.
Race to Nowhere profiles students, teachers, and parents across the United States who are increasingly stressed out by the demands of middle and elementary school. The title is a quote from a young man describing his frustration at the growing sense of pointlessness he felt as he was driven to do so much homework and participate in so many sports and activities…for what? We usher our children towards a high-stakes, low probability endgame of competing to get into expensive colleges. We assign impossible amounts of homework–beginning in elementary school. We expect performance from our teachers and measure it by how well they coach our kids to take minimum standards tests.
I started out watching this moving feeling ambivalent because it’s not news to me. What the kids describe is similar to what I went through over 25 years ago. I knew exactly what grade I needed on every test to maintain a 94.5 or above average in every class and ensure I maintained a 4.0. I was on a race to get accepted into MIT from a rural community in southern Virginia. When I got to MIT, I experienced the proverbial “firehose” education, but it taught me about prioritizing and choosing to do the things that really mattered. It was an impossible workload, but we learned to “punt” less important things and focus on getting what we needed to get by.
Today, the race is on for EVERYONE it seems. Kids are freaking out about everything as if one mistake dooms them to a life of failure. Parents are overwhelmed with keeping up with each other. And schools are pressured to “get better” or lose money or be closed as failing schools. But I don’t think kids are being allowed to learn the lessons I did. And why should they have to?
I chose an extreme path. I have no regrets, but I don’t think it’s the right path for everyone. As my kids start school, I want to help them find what is right for them.
After the movie, there was a great audience discussion in the packed theatre. But the most interesting comment came at the end, in the form of a question from a very involved parent. He simply asked “what’s the alternative?” What are parents supposed to do? If the race is wrong…if we are freaking out over whether our kids will be able to get into one out of a dozen schools that aren’t even on the top 25 U.S. News and World Report list…what is the alternative? We don’t want to limit their choices; we want to give them better than we had, so what are we supposed to do?