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Are America’s Students ‘Racing to Nowhere’ or ‘Waiting For Superman?’

This year’s ACT college readiness test results revealed that many graduating high school students are unprepared for college. In fact, as pressure on schools increases to improve their graduation rates, more and more are passing students who don’t even meet graduation requirements. The documentary Waiting for Superman investigates how schools are failing to intellectually stimulate, challenge, and adequately prepare students for the real world. Meanwhile, the documentary Race to Nowhere tells a different story in which students grapple with curricula so vigorous, schedules so tightly packed, and pressure from parents so intense that their creativity, physical and mental health, and, in some cases, their very lives, are at stake. Should parents and faculty be pushing students harder or easing up?

In response to Race to Nowhere, the New York Times features a dialog of articles between experts on how to relax academic pressure on students. In her contribution, Clara Hemphill, New School’s Center for New York City Affairs senior editor, highlights the “growing gap between haves and have-nots,” reflective of the different takes both movies have on education. Instructors teaching mostly middle class and upper-middle class students may assign too much homework, whereas teachers instructing students from low-income families struggle to get students to complete the bare-minimum amount. While contributors to the Times’ debate stress the need to relax demands on students, schools such as Brockton High School in Massachusetts, which was one of the worst in the country until it turned itself around by reforming its curricula to be more vigorous, indicate the opposite is the case. Additionally, the results of 2009’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) indicate that America’s students are falling further behind other countries in English, Science, and Math, while nations such as Japan, which requires their students attend school over a third more days a year than the US, are leading.

But in an increasingly competitive economic climate, American parents of means are pulling all the stops to get their children into the most prestigious colleges. Starting as early as preschool, parents strive to give their children an edge by gaining them admission to private schools or piling on extra work or activities. In her article in the Times discussion, Nancy Kalish, co-author of the book The Case Against Homework, states the pressure is so overwhelming for some grade school students that they have been known to “vomit on their text booklets.” Likewise, Vicki Abeles, the mother turned filmmaker behind Race to Nowhere, got the idea for the film when she discovered academic anxiety was making her daughter physically ill. Abeles’ daughter is not unique: more than ever, high school students are heaping their schedules with AP classes, sports, community service, and college courses to get ahead. The intensity of demands and resulting anxiety has even lead some students to commit suicide. And although many point to the recent PISA results to support intensifying high school curricula to emulate countries such as China that performed better, Yong Zao, director of Michigan State’s US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence, asserts these statistics are misleading. “Many of China’s college graduates cannot find [jobs],” Zao states. “…test scores [are] the wrong indicator[s] to look at for the quality of education.” Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, explains that while the rigor of Chinese education may push students to excel on tests, it doesn’t foster the creativity and independent thinking employers are looking for. In her film, Abeles highlights how our fixation on text results and college admissions is stunting creativity in our students.

To decrease academic pressure for students, the experts in the New York Times discussion suggest restricting the amount of homework teachers assign and capping the number of AP Classes a student can take—or even abolishing the AP system altogether. For many schools, however, these changes could cause more harm than good. For example, in a previous entry, I asserted AP courses at my school allowed me to pursue my intellectual interests because, as the ACT results show, the basic high school curriculum does not offer the academic rigor some students seek or need. But I spoke from the perspective of someone who attended an underfunded public school in a rural town. And even at my high school, there were students from wealthier families, “overachievers,” who did upwards of a hundred community service hours, participated obsessively in sports, and took every AP class available. While a genuine passion to learn drove me to take these courses, many of my peers showed no intellectual interest and were just going through the motions to get into the elite institution of Mom or Dad’s choice.

So how do we regulate schools to ensure they’re preparing students adequately for college, without forcing teachers to teach to the test? How do we push students to excel without inundating them with stress? How can competitive colleges encourage students to be active in their schools and communities without reducing them to cookie-cutter college applicants who have long abandoned any self-motivated activities? As students from wealthier families are impelled down a road to nowhere and students from poorer ones are left behind, the questions prove difficult to answer. However, the problems low income students face and those of middle class students may not be mutually exclusive. Many students from both camps are become increasingly disconnected from their work: while many students from low income families either cannot or will not complete the requirements or have no options to go above and beyond them, many students from wealthier families are too busy jumping through hoops to pursue intellectual interests of their own.

Thus, instead of teaching students to memorize random names, facts, and dates by rote, or assigning mind-numbing “busywork,” teachers need to think of ways to make curricula relevant to students’ lives, that will actually be useful to them in the future. Instead of making education a competitive game in which memorizing sequences of dry facts or surviving barrages of tests is proof of intellectual mastery, institutions should engage students with projects and grant them more independence to pursue topics of interest within required subjects. I’ll never forget my US History class in which we didn’t take tests or memorize random trivia, but instead, took walks in the shoes of people from different periods of history, writing from the point of view of a Puritan woman, for example, or managing finances as the bread-winner for a family in the 1930s. History was made real and relevant to us, as we learned that the everyday thoughts, statements and choices regular people make, not just wars and politicians, constitute history.

Certainly, students from well-to-do families have a leg-up on students who don’t in terms of gaining admission to an Ivy League college and getting a well-paying job. But in terms of having a fulfilling education that will empower them intellectually to become free-thinking individuals who can lead our country to a brighter future, our school systems are failing not only the students in poorer neighborhoods waiting for a miracle but those hurled down the fast track to nowhere. Perhaps the question isn’t which movie, Waiting for Superman or Race to Nowhere, depicts the condition of our educational system “correctly,” but how we can draw from both these movies to work toward solving differing problems for differing classes, as well as an issue that is increasingly plaguing all students: the gap between what they learn in school and what they need to know to live and thrive in the real world.

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  1. December 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Probably related is what happens at schools like mine–where the special ed and AP classes get the most money, leaving the vast group in the middle with fewer funds and larger classes–not to mention students with a wider range of skill and intelligence levels all in the same class….

    • December 31, 2010 at 6:24 am

      This is certainly a problem many schools face. I attended a Montessori Charter School for a few years, and that school has the philosophy that a student could be studying fifth grade math and reading at a college level (this certainly applied to me, I struggled to multiply fractions but wrote novel-length stories). Each student works with the teacher to plan personal learning goals for each subject. In public school, a lot of students are just lumped around, special ed, accelerated tracks, etc. With the growing size of classes, the difficulty of addressing each student’s individual needs is only compounded.

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