Racing to Where?
This past week was filled with stacks of Scantron forms, No. 2 pencils, and a classroom of very tired and stressed students. It was exam week on our campus for the California Standards Test (CST). For four days I watched my twenty-eight sixth grade Advisory students fidget nervously in their chairs as they answered Math and English Language Arts questions. On the third day of testing, one of my students raised her hand before I passed out the exams and asked with complete sincerity and sixth grade honesty, “Does this test determine my future? Will I flunk out of school if I don’t do well?” I reassured her and her classmates that they were safely part of our school family. “Just do your best,” I said as I read yet again the pre-test script and passed out another round of multiple-choice questions.
After days of exam proctoring, it was fitting that my Friday night included an opportunity to attend a screening of the new documentary Race to Nowhere at UCSD, followed by a lively question and answer session with the director Vicki H. Abeles. Organized by Alex Kajitani, a 2009 California Teacher of the Year, Patty Bloom and Bill Kvitli, 2009 San Diego County Teachers of the Year, and Dr. Amanda Datnow, professor and Director of Education Studies at UCSD, the sold-out auditorium was filled with parents, students, educators, and community members.
As its trailer highlights, this documentary takes a close look at the intense pressure inherent in our current education system and its impact on our students’ mental and physical health. It follows Abeles’ own children, along with other students from various geographic and socio-economic backgrounds, as they navigate with their teachers our results-oriented and “achievement obsessed” society. Their collective struggles are staggering.
The general thesis is that public education and society place an inordinate emphasis on high-stakes testing, memorization of facts, competition, scores, and rankings rather than the development of analytical and thinking skills. Meaningful teaching and learning experiences have been replaced with a stress-laden regimen that develops unhealthy and uninspired students who are unprepared for the real world after graduation. As Abeles comments at one point in the film:
We are graduating a generation of young people who have been trained as robo-students, unable to think and work independently, creatively and collaboratively…By forcing developing minds into a one-size-fits-all mold of learning, we are shortchanging the vast diversity and vibrancy of our country.
The statistics presented, along with the personal stories, are compelling. They sound all too familiar to educators like me who teach at a college preparatory school. Consider the following:
- 3.22 million children between the ages of 7 and 17 were treated for depression in the last five years.
- When asked to describe school in one word, students in a national survey most often said “bored,” followed by “tired.” Teens reported being bored 27% of the time and disengaged 75% of the time.
- The time students spend doing homework has increased 51% since 1981.
- Two-thirds of high school students indicated that they have cheated on a test at least once during the school year.
- In a 2007 study, 14.5% of high school students said they seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.
The conversations that took place during the Q&A after the showing of the documentary were also striking. A junior at a San Diego public high school stood up to tell her story. It echoed themes from the screen; the same themes many of us see in our own classrooms. She currently takes four Advanced Placement classes, plays a sport, actively participates in several extra-curricular clubs and programs, and is enrolled in a SAT prep class. She is trying to maintain a high GPA to stay competitive for the elite colleges on her list and gets about five hours of sleep a night. At one point, she commented, “I hope the stress is worth it. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with it all.”
As a teacher of AP courses, at a school that is focused on getting all our low-income students into four-year universities, Race to Nowhere left me with many more questions than answers. It is clear that the stress we place on students today in the form of testing, homework, and class rankings (just to name a few), can take its toll. However, what are the options for college-bound students, especially those who are not traditionally provided equitable access to a challenging and rigorous curriculum? How does a student remain competitive among the mountains of resumes, transcripts, and essays that fill an admissions office? Do the omnipresent college and even high school rankings in the tier-obsessed national magazines and websites really matter that much?
Add in our state’s mandate that a student must also correctly answer myriad multiple-choice CST questions on a Scantron form and you have a school experience that is less than serene and contemplative. Creating a classroom that fosters authentic learning experiences while still meeting state and college expectations is extraordinarily difficult. Race to Nowhere provides the beginning of an important and necessary discussion about how to accomplish a healthy balance.
One young woman in the film summed-up perfectly the dilemma our education system faces:
We live in a society today where you have to be smart, but you also have to be pretty, and you have to do sports, and you have to be involved in the arts and amongst all that, you have to find something unique about yourself, and you have to know yourself, because if you don’t know yourself before you do all that, you’re going to lose yourself.
Our challenge as educators, parents, and a society is to not lose our students. We must find a way to create rigorous but healthy learning opportunities. We must develop well-balanced global citizens, not robots. Confidence, innovation, and basic happiness must not be sacrificed for a narrow scope of achievement. Race to Nowhere, and the ensuing conversations we are sure to have, are important steps in the process of determining the true cost-benefit of our current system.