Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Race to Nowhere

Tonight I went to a showing of the documentary "The Race to Nowhere" directed by Vicki Abeles, a parent who has started a grassroots effort to bring awareness to the relentless pressures that our children are under. Each of her three children began to show signs of stress from school pressure, such as constant headaches and stomach aches, but it wasn't until her 12-year old daughter was diagnosed with a stress induced illness, that she became determined to bring change to our educational system.

The film was comprised of interviews with experts, parents, teachers, and many kids, primarily of high school age. The kids talked about the tremendous pressures they face. Pressure to not only get good grades, but to excel in every class. Pressure to be involved in extra-curricular activities, including sports and commnity service projects, while excelling in every class. Pressure to get all their homework done every night, even if you have to stay up until 1 am each night to do that. Pressure to do well on every quiz and test, otherwise risking disappointing their teachers, their parents, and themselves. Pressure to get into the best colleges, get scholarships, and ultimately get high paying jobs. There was an educator who said that high school has become the way to we prepare for college applications...not college itself.

The teachers are facing increased pressures by federal and state regulations to fit in an incredible amount of content in the cirriculmm. Success is measured by test scores, not happy, healthy children. Success is rewarded to schools and teachers with funding and bonuses. The schools that underperform are given less funding and less assistance to improve their schools while those that have the best scores, receive more funding. My guess is that the schools with the highest test scores also have children with the highest stress levels.

The teachers also felt that the reasons they first went into teaching were being compromised. They weren't able to teach they way they wanted to, to use innovative techniques, to give children the time to learn. Instead, they have to push incredible amounts of information in finite amounts of time. Hence the reason homework has increased across America. The teachers can not possible cover all of that material during the school day so they have to assign hours of homework in order to get those test scores up.

The film went on to spotlight the rise in cheating among children in schools. The kids just can not absorb and retain all of this information, despite their best efforts. They have resorted to cheating because "I can't possibly know all of this". There has also been an increase in depression, stress related illnesses, and sadly suicide. The film was dedicated to a 13-year old girl that had killed herself over a math test score.

Kids no longer have time to be kids. There was a woman in the beginning of the film that said " I worry that someday our kids will sue us for taking their childhood from them." We all chuckled but the reality is with so much homework, school activities, sports, and all of the other things that our kids are involved in, there aren't many opportunities to go out and play, to be creative, or to have fun. The result is that kids don't build the skills to be creative and innovative and don't have to build their passions and interests. As a result, we are raising generations of children who don't know how to creatively solve problems. They don't know what to do with free time because they have never had any. They are uninspired and don't have any passions that build the fire within them...and passions build dreams.

And as parents, we all want the best for our children. But we also contribute to the problem. You can't help but want your child to get into the best college, get great test scores, and ultimately do well in life. But when we question each other on what schools they have applied to, what private schools they are going to, what their test scores are, we are just perpetuating that competition. I know I have found myself in many situations where the conversation has turned to what level of travel team my son is on, or how many sports my daughter is in, or how they did on a certain test. We want our kids to excel because we want the best for them, but we also put pressure on each other to compete with our children.

At some point, someone has to stop this merry go round. I admire Vicki Abeles for trying to be the first one to stop the madness. I highly recommend you see this film if you get a chance and you can go to www.racetonowhere for more information. I'll leave you with a few key points that I took away from this film:

- Your kids don't need to get into the best college. They need to find the best fit for them.
- Stop focusing your conversations on homework and test scores. Dinner conversation shouldn't center around "Did you do your homework?", "How much homework do you have?", or "What did you get on that test today?" Instead ask your kids how school was, what was the most interesting thing they learned, how their day was.
- Find time to just let your kids be kids. They need to have time to play, be curious, and have fun.
- Encourage your kids to do what they love. We excel and succeed when we love what we are doing.
- Don't define success by test scores in your house. Define it by your level of happiness and personal fulfillment.

There are many moments in life when we are presented with opportunities to be better and do better. I felt like tonight I was handed an opportunity to be a better parent in the future with the education I received tonight. And I am not striving for a straight A in my life long parenting class....I'm striving to raise happy and healthy children.

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