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At What Price Do We Pay For The Race?

How closely does the film 'Race to Nowhere' portray Cupertino schools?

There have been so many opportunities to screen the film, Race to Nowhere in Cupertino that it can spark a conversation faster than the weather among parents. The movie tells heartbreaking stories of childhood being stolen because of the pressure, stress and over-scheduling price paid by students to get into the top name-brand colleges whose admittance letters are coveted as golden tickets to success.

I thought the film gave an accurate portrayal of the reputed culture of over-achievement in our area. Let me be clear, I am all for high achievement, which I define as students trying their best to reach their full potential.  Yes, I’ll admit this includes a healthy dose of me prodding/nagging my kids if I don't think they are putting forth their best effort. However, it’s the amount of overachievement that alarms me, where I define overachievement as obtaining superior results through excessive effort.

• It's the “get an A at ANY cost” attitude.

• It’s padding the school resume with too many AP (advance placement) classes, clubs and volunteer hours for which zero passion is felt.

• It’s the stories of students taking summer classes to prepare for taking the very same subject during the school year.

• It’s the stories of “Tiger Mom” behavior (for example, punishing a child for bringing home any grade that is less than an 'A')

There is a counterculture that suggests that we need to stop the excessive efforts and "redefine success for our child." To me, this sometimes delivers a slight elitist undertone that says, "It’s OK—your child does not have to be at the top of the achievement bell curve, because maybe he just don’t belong there," or a defeatist message that says, "Because your child is not at the top of the achievement bell curve, do what you can to save his self-esteem."

The following statistics and interpretations I heard at a recent middle/high school parent seminar were very eye-opening and an indication that something is really wrong:

  • In a survey of high school students, the percentage of those who admitted to cheating on tests was directly proportional to their grade-point averages (GPA)—that is, the higher the GPA, the more likely the students reported to have cheated. The interpretation is that cheating has become a coping mechanism for the "As at ANY cost" mentality.
  • Fifty percent of the students admitted to University of California and state colleges test into remedial math or English! The interpretation is that students have what I would characterize as a bulimic attitude toward many courses they take in high school—cram it in, take the test and then purge the brain in preparation for the next course. Nourishment of the brain (learning) is not occurring for many students. I’m reminded of the scene in Race to Nowhere where, after passing the AP French test, the student cheers, "YES! I will never have to speak another word of French again!"

Name-brand colleges receive financial help from alumni who demand the reputation and ranking be raised or maintained. I know there are companies that have a minimum-GPA requirement for college-graduate applicants, a list of key schools they recruit from and salary differentials based on the colleges the new hires graduated from. Until the college admissions and job-application screening processes change, it is hard for students and families not to feel forced to play the game.

If you take a stand against playing the game, it may make it hard to compete against those who go along.

I don’t think we will see any revolution in our schools soon, but I think it’s time to start the discussions about what we can do to reduce unhealthy student stress. (I recognize that there is healthy stress too.) There are steps schools can take to make smaller changes that will improve student quality of life without sacrificing their prospects for achievement.

Take homework: How about no homework assigned on weekends or vacations or the nights when important school functions are scheduled? We get upset at our spouses when they take away from “family time” working late and on the weekends, or bringing work home, yet we think nothing of our child staying up to finish homework after a full day of school.

Where do you stand on this issue? If you think our school system should change, what advice would you give to schools for what they should, or could change?  How about advice for parents? Students?

It would be great to hear teachers’ points of view, too—what are your observations?

joe March 06, 2011 at 05:15 AM
Alysa, great article.The amount of homework seems to a vary a lot from teacher to teacher. I strongly agree that limits must be placed on both the time spent on and quantity of homework to prevent too much homework (when some teachers assign too much homework). I must point out that most teachers seem pretty balanced in their approach.
concernedmom March 21, 2011 at 03:57 PM
I am concerned with the physical toll that school pressure places on our kids. I have a child in 5th grade who already gives himself stomachaches worrying about school work. I am on the extreme end with the opinion that kids should have no homework at the elementary school age. There is plenty of time in school for them to learn what they need to learn, and the rest of their time they should be free to do their most important work as children- learning through play (and I don't mean video games). I am also extremely concerned with the social environment in our schools. My children spent the first half of their elementary school years in private school, in a Montessori environment specifically, and I have found myself fairly aghast at the lack of compassion and empathy which I see the public school kids having for one another. This is a blanket statement which of course cannot apply to every individual student, but on the whole the feedback I get from my kids is that the children they go to school with now are more 'mean'. It is also the case that the teachers in some cases work to create this environment of competition and lack of cooperation within their classes; for example, by allowing students who are assigned extra homework for poor performance on a quiz to decide if those students who did well on the quiz should also have to do the extra homework. Sadly, every time, the kids choose punishment for those who were prepared, unable to think ahead and pay it forward...
Anne Ernst (Editor) March 21, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Dear Concerned Mom, You mentioned that the children at the school where your children now attend "are more mean," and I'm wondering if you think that age has anything to do with it, too? Do kids get meaner at certain ages? I'm also curious to know if you think that homework is another age-appropriate activity? Is there an acceptable age to be assigned homework? And how much is acceptable?

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