Race to Nowhere

In the nearly 30 years since I graduated from college I’m wondering how many times I’ve been asked where I got my degree. Surprisingly few. The fact that I went to a well-ranked college and have a masters degree from a well-regarded UC is relatively unimportant in my life as a writer, artist, teacher, parent, friend, citizen and occasional fire starter (metaphorically speaking). And how many times have I been asked about my college GPA? Other than on my application for further education, zero. Ditto for my high school grades.

Yet high school students — even younger students — feel their lives will halt if they do not get the grades they have targeted as essential to gaining access to the higher education of their choice. This worldview is supported, at times unknowingly, by parents, peers, college counselors, teachers — just about everyone in their small world of school, extracurriculars, sports, and mountains of homework. Life-ending melodrama aside, they aren’t wrong. The college admissions process has become so competitive that the average GPA for admitted freshmen at UC Berkeley is above a 4.0 — made possible only with the grade “bump” given for AP or honors-level classes. The more of these advanced classes, the greater the bump.

Perhaps you can already see a problem. As a high school teacher of increasingly stressed-out or mind-numbed kids, I’ve been noticing the problem for quite a few years now. Tonight I saw a film that highlighted it very clearly: “Race to Nowhere” by Vicki Abeles. Today’s students feel so much performance pressure and spend so much time doing homework that they are making themselves sick, or worse: taking their own lives. Teen suicides are on the rise, as are stress-related disorders, sleepless nights doing homework, drug use to produce those sleepless nights, and depression. The aforementioned mountains of homework start as early as kindergarten in many schools, where 5 year olds are pressured to learn to read before many of them are developmentally ready. “We are preparing them for school” is the oft-given excuse for elementary-school homework. Excuse me? Aren’t little kids supposed to play when they come home from school? As one expert said in the film, we are robbing our children of their childhood.

Students quoted in the film don’t want to disappoint the adults in their lives, so they work hard, sometimes too hard to be the cookie-cutter perfect student that top colleges want to admit. And when they can’t be — because not everyone can be — they suffer a greater sense of failure than I ever knew in my young life, even though I didn’t get accepted to my first-choice college. They hold themselves up to impossible standards; we hold them up to impossible standards.

No Child Left Behind standards and testing have robbed teachers of creative curricula, rewarding only what is needed for the test, driving some of the best and brightest out of public schools. Others grit their teeth and fight the good fight for the sake of the students, despite being blamed for the educational woes of our country. Our educational woes start in Washington, D.C., and trickle down to every level of government. Our underperforming students are forced to focus on the wrong things: grades not learning, facts not skills, tests not creative problem-solving, homework not the personal development necessary to function in the workplace and community.

I am fortunate to work in a school independent of the dictums of politicians and statisticians. I spend a considerable portion of my take-home pay sending my daughter to an equally independent school. What about those who can’t? Who is watching out for them?

My school is not exempt from overburdening our students with work and activities. Yet we have started the conversation. The solution is not simple, but the problem will only get worse if we don’t engage in the difficult discussions on how to change the broken system at every level. The educational path we’re on leads to a slew of hopeless, burnt-out, unhealthy twenty-somethings on whom we rely as our future. As much as I love the kids I teach, that future looks pretty murky to me.

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7 thoughts on “Race to Nowhere

  1. This is a very difficult problem, especially since the colleges are requiring so much more for entrance these days. I agree that teaching to the test has robbed teachers of the a more creative side of teaching. Good teachers, and there are a lot of them out there, will find ways to do both but it gets harder. And I don’t overlook the fact that teachers are the first to be “taxed” with pay cuts when there is a financial shortage in the district. Why they should carry the financial burden of educating our children is beyond me.

  2. Things are not much better in higher ed. Decisions are ruled by US News and World Report rankings that are based on scores and basic popularity. On the up side, our school is looking at building forms of balance in the form of meditation and the like.

  3. My heart sings EVERYTIME i read what you post!!!! i have just come to this knowledge myself with my son not giving a crap about school but he is a great kid with a good heart and bright as hell and i finally had to not only accept but embrace the fact that a ‘stellar’ education is not really the answer to happiness and well being in life – as a matter of fact to me it seems to have become a trap for the lower and middle classes both economically and intellectually and for the upper class just intellectually. i am blessed in having two kids and my daughter is the opposite of my son, there is no bar she will not run to jump over nor any obstacle that she will allow to stand in her way an i have come to learn that while she probably can and will negotiate the educational system in the traditional way and excel, i am finding that i am really questioning myself and her about why? my job seems to be with her to say ENJOY the journey, slow down, winning isn’t all there is, love yourself and enjoy ALL of it, not just winning, excelling, etc. Let me just say that if you ever decide to run for office, i am TOTALLY volunteering for your campaign!!!!

    • Gari: you rock! Thanks so much for your support and your enthusiastic comments. Keep posting … and keep parenting those amazing kids of yours. I think in many ways boys have it worse, since our culture does not allow them to be the full, emotional humans that they are, and the lack of good male role models is startling. Machismo and stiff upper lip — not to mention perfectionism — are chains that hurt. Keep loving that boy and he will survive.

  4. Yes. I totally agree. I’ve been struggling with this myself as I search for a school for Hugh that meets his needs and my expectations (the expectation that he will be allowed to be a kid and learn by playing and experiencing). How or how will we afford the school I think we want?

    My nephew is drowning in mountains of homework and he doesn’t love to learn. How can I prevent that situation for Hugh? I already see the pressures starting in preschool…HE IS ONLY 3! UGH!

    In the meantime, I beg people like you and my friend who run Outdoor School to start a great charter school in Portland.

    • P.S. I should clarify – my nephew loves to learn, he just hates to do all the homework and to learn in his strict environment. He get straight As in art, PE, music, technology…you know, the subjects where he actually gets to DO something.

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