Race to the Top is the name given to President Obama’s education-reform program that is supposed to change the education system in America. But what it should be called is Race to Nowhere, which happens to be the name of a powerful new documentary by Vicki Abeles that explores, as the film’s subtitle states, the dark side of America’s achievement culture.
I saw Race to Nowhere recently with my wife and was blown away by its message. As the father of two young girls, it scared the heck out of me what lies ahead for them. And as the author of two parenting books with similar messages as the film, it was a real reminder of the very human and societal costs of our current education system. Through interviews with students, parents, teachers, and other educators, and bookended by a story about a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after failing a math test, we see the price that so many young people are paying for trying to hang onto the runaway train of academic overachievement.
The pressure young people are under to achieve that elusive notion of success has become, for many, a crippling weight on their shoulders and the price tag is high. Race to Nowhere presents some compelling arguments against the emphasis on test scores that increased exponentially with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (it should be called the Almost Every Child Left Behind Act, given its abysmal record in raising test scores or graduation rates, much less actually educating children). Students now focus on memorizing facts (and then forget them shortly after), find learning to be aversive rather than inspiring, and see no problem with cheating to get ahead (in the 1940s, 20% of students admitted to cheating in high school; today, well over 75% make the same admission).
The physical and psychological toll is heavy as well. Students rate academic stress as their greatest source of stress, exceeding family problems and bullying. Rates of stress-related illness, depression, anxiety, and burnout are on the rise. Academic-performance-enhancing drugs, such as the ADHD drug Adderall to enhance energy and focus and beta blockers to reduce anxiety, are SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) on high-school and college campuses. And teenage suicide rates, particularly among teenage girls, have increased dramatically in recent years.
What is this culture of faux achievement like? Let’s look at more statistics from the film. More than 70% of young people don’t get the recommended amount of sleep for their stage of development (and sleep is essential for healthy brain development). Children have lost 12 hours of free time each week while homework time has increased by 50%. Homework is now given as early as first grade and reaches its apogee in high school where students now spend up to seven hours a night on homework, despite evidence demonstrating that it has no value up to 5th grade and loses its value if greater than one hour for middle-school students and two hours for high-school students. And talk about being unprepared; 40% of students require remedial classes when they get to college.
The numbers are truly frightening, but the interviews of students, parents, and teachers in Race to Nowhere really hit home. The frustration among teachers, the sadness among students, and the fear and pain felt by parents bring the cold, hard data to life. No parent can leave the film without a profound feeling of disgust at our education system, a mama or papa bear’s instinct to protect their cubs, a determination to catalyze a transformation, and, sadly, a feeling of futility about changing such an inertial system.
How did this pressure-cooker of an achievement culture (and, by the way, it can be found in sports and the arts as well as in school) develop? There are many culprits, some legitimate and others manufactured and dishonest. The economic instability and uncertainty that has increased in recent years has created genuine fear among parents for their children’s future. This fear drives parents to push their children relentlessly to ensure that they get ahead in school. Popular culture, and the aspirational dreams it has spawned, has redefined the meaning of success upward in terms of wealth, status, and materialism, so that being merely competent at one’s job and comfortable in one’s lifestyle is akin to failure; everything must be bigger and better and more, more, more. The availability and demand for a college education, particularly in the “best” schools (read Ivy League or its equivalent), have far outpaced supply, so competition is greater than ever (I attended Middlebury College back in the day, but I probably couldn’t get accepted now with my GPA and SAT scores). The child-development, tutoring, and testing industries are an almost $10 billion scam that feeds on the fears of parents that their children will be left behind.
The ramifications for the students themselves extend beyond the current physical and psychological toll; there may very well be a price they pay in their futures. For example, such a mind- and body-numbing educational experience will suck any joy of learning they may have right out of them. The current emphasis on rote memorization will sap their internal motivation to learn. As highlighted in Race to Nowhere, today’s students may lack the critical thinking, creativity, and focus necessary to survive, much less thrive, as they enter higher education and the working world.
The toll on our country may be equally dramatic. Are we leaving this generation’s young people ill prepared to assume the mantle of leadership? Will they have the knowledge and tools necessary to continue America’s arc as the frontrunner in innovation and progress? The low rankings currently held by our students compared to other countries on international achievement tests don’t bode well for their or our future.
Is there hope? I’m not optimistic that effective federal or even state education reform will ever happen given the political hot potato that it is. But there appears to be a smidgen of hope at other points in the educational food chain. Colleges and universities, one of the big culprits of this academic arms race, have the power to ratchet down the pressure and some appear to be getting the message. A growing number of prominent schools are not accepting AP courses or are making SAT scores optional. Some high schools are following this lead by abolishing AP classes from their curricula (with, by the way, no damage to college acceptances).
So what can you do to provoke educational reform in your schools? Be active in your school’s parent association. Show the school administration the latest research findings. Join your local school board. Be a squeaky wheel in your children’s schools. Be willing to buck the system. Make the need for change urgent and immediate; you don’t want your kids to miss out!