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In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 04/08/2011

Me vs. creator of ‘Race to Nowhere’

As promised in my Monday column about the popular new documentary “Race to Nowhere,” here is the e-mail dialogue filmmaker Vicki Abeles had with me, a back-and-forth communication over the past month or so.

Mathews: I did a column recently complaining that “Race to Nowhere” never acknowledges that the academic and family pressures it spotlights are only prevalent in about the top 10 percent of school districts, measured by income and parental education.

What do you say?

Abeles: The pressures and compromised educational and health outcomes that “Race to Nowhere” spotlights are prevalent across all economic and cultural groups. Not only does the film feature students and teachers from low income urban communities such as Oakland, but when we have screenings in these communities, the film resonates for them, just as it does when we screen the film in any other community, regardless of social or economic status. In fact, the pressures are even greater in many urban schools with limited resources and little support for the additional pressures these children face outside of school. The quantity driven, one-size-fits-all model of education with its narrow focus on testing isn’t serving young people well in any community. And, if the narrow focus on testing isn’t preparing young people in middle class communities for life beyond high school, how do we expect it to work in communities with less resources and support? Let’s come together to put what works for all children front and center.

Mathews: If, as you say, the pressures “are prevalent across all economic and cultural groups,” then how do you explain the time diaries collected by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research that show 15- to 17-year-olds on average between 2002 and 2003 devoted about 3 1/2 hours a day to TV and other “passive leisure” while their average time spent studying was 42 minutes a day. Or the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute that regularly asks about 400,000 college freshmen how much homework they did in high school (remember, this is a survey of ONLY kids who want to and do go to college) and about two thirds say only an hour a night or less?

Abeles: The University of Michigan study you reference actually shows that the amount of homework assigned to kids age 6 to 9 almost tripled in the 1990s. This is particularly disturbing because research shows that homework has no value for children that age. And even beyond elementary school, the correlation is weak. The Michigan study also pre-dates implementation of NCLB which has contributed to increased homework. Our experience at screenings across the country in urban and suburban communities is that many students are feeling the pressures the film highlights. They consistently report that the “second shift” — homework — contributes to their stress as well as to sleep deprivation, impairment of family interactions, cheating, abuse of medications, and in many cases just giving up. We also hear from colleges that students are arriving burned out. School officials point to pressure from parents to assign homework and parents are pointing to schools requiring it. But the brain research is clear. What is truly needed after a full day of school to boost academic achievement and adequately process information, think critically, and develop as a whole being is downtime and sleep. This is truly “homework” that supports learning.

Mathews: So you are saying the average amount of homework went from less than a hour a day before NCLB to 4 hours a day now, necessitating your film? The UCLA data is much more recent and still shows only an hour a day for most high schoolers going on to college. Unless you have some real data, and not feelings expressed at meetings, how can you argue that homework stress is a problem for more than a small minority of American teenagers?

Abeles: What necessitated my film was the need to highlight the silent epidemic running rampant in our schools. “Race to Nowhere” is grounded in education research and is a close up examination of the pressures — not just homework — faced by youth, teachers, and parents in our pressure-cooker education system and culture. These demands have crushing, unintended consequences. Teachers are feeling unsupported and leaving the profession. Students are disengaged, cheating has become commonplace, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and students arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Just this year, according to the CIRP Freshman Survey, UCLA’s annual survey of the nation’s college freshman, first-year college students’ self-ratings of their emotional health dropped to record low levels. Students reported feeling increasingly overwhelmed before entering college.

With respect to your question of “real data”: real data includes qualitative data. Qualitative data includes people’s stories and experiences. You can’t argue with the fact that communities throughout the country are coming out en masse to see and discuss the film because it speaks to their experiences in education. We need to examine the whole continuum of factors, not just homework, that are negatively impacting our children’s health as well as education outcomes in all communities.

Mathews: Stay in touch, please. We can agree to disagree. As you will see in the column, and my last response to your last response, I think you are right to show the problem of academic stress. In the communities that are full of college angst, it is a big problem. That is why I wrote my book “Harvard Schmarvard.” But I hope you will see eventually that not pointing out that this is largely confined to those communities creates false impressions — particularly about AP — in communities that do NOT have those pressures, and gives educators who think low income kids can’t do AP an excuse not to provide it. All you have to do is add a sentence to your speeches making that point, and I would be satisfied. Just as I acknowledge, despite my strong support for AP, that it can be too much in some cases.

Abeles: The film highlights not only stress but students’ and teachers’ widespread disengagement with our education system as it exists in all types of communities. Academic stress is being seen across economic classes – in some communities driven by APs and in others by the singular focus on preparation for high-stakes tests. The narrow focus on test preparation prioritizes rote memorization over true learning and diminishes opportunities for independent, innovative and creative thinking. In so many districts, time for the arts, history, science, foreign languages and physical education has been reduced to devote time to test prep, which inarguably diminishes students’ interest in school and learning.

Regarding APs, the film does not intend to diminish the achievements and opportunities that many students have by taking AP courses. Today we see many students taking these courses in order to receive the GPA boost and to “look” competitive on the college application. Furthermore, schools are motivated to offer APs and encourage students to take them as the numbers influence the ranking of high schools in the media and in some cases funding for the school. But educators and students alike question whether APs are the best way to provide a challenging curriculum. And let’s not dismiss the fact that every AP test has a fee associated with it. Thus in many ways, the true beneficiaries of the AP system are the testing companies themselves who garner revenues each time a test is taken.

Because APs are perceived to be harder, we buy into them. The rigor they impose is mandated memorization and regurgitation of data at the expense of rigor attained through rich and engaging courses and deep learning. The focus is on getting through large volumes of content to prepare for a test rather than on helping students think, for example, like scientists. Further, they are courses that require strict adherence to a schedule and don’t provide teachers any flexibility in practicing their profession. Some of the very best schools in the country, including, for example, Scarsdale High School in Westchester County, New York (also see www.independentcurriculumgroup.org), have eliminated them and instead now offer courses developed by educators where students’ interests can be engaged and the opportunity for higher level thinking provided.

Also, students not enrolled in APs are left feeling marginalized — they lose interest in learning because they aren’t perceived to be “the smart student” and feel “why bother” if they aren’t measuring up to the narrow way we currently define success for young people. In the urban schools you point to that offer APs, what happens to the students who are not enrolled in the APs? Do those students have equal access to an engaging, challenging and rich curriculum? Do the students enrolled in the APs represent the student body in terms of ethnic and socio-economic class? Rather than a curriculum driven by testing, we need to ensure a balanced and rich curriculum and developmentally appropriate, high expectations for every student.

The stress highlighted in “Race to Nowhere” comes in part because classes are not structured around understanding and inquiry and the students have no say in their experiences. I would argue that stress would be reduced, even if the workload stayed the same, if students had the opportunity to participate in designing the classes and the high school experience. We need to educate in a way that is engaging, meaningful and relevant to all students. And children need the opportunity to develop physically, artistically, socially, and emotionally as well as academically.

Jay, it is interesting to hear that your experience as a reporter on Wall Street inspired you to create the Challenge Index. The attempt to apply market principles to education is misguided. People are multi-dimensional — as such, education should also be multidimensional. Children are individuals with different strengths who naturally develop at different rates. They are not widgets on an assembly line nor commodities on an exchange. In my opinion, it’s not only impossible to develop a ranking system for high schools and students, it’s dehumanizing.

In your op-ed this week, you asked why students “who have been dragooned into heavy study” have not shown significant gains in reading or math the past three decades. This simply demonstrates that the current paradigm, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, broad coverage of content and absurd amounts of homework, isn’t working. Students are disengaged from real learning because of the shallowness of the approach and the stress they endure. If all the pressure for testing and homework has produced “no significant gains in reading or math the last three decades,” what is the point of it? Is it just to make kids hate school? Why not do things that are more engaging and intellectually stimulating?

And beyond the unhealthy amount of pressure being imposed on our children, we should consider the impact on character and integrity. What about the USA Today investigation of cheating on state tests? Isn’t that the result of the Race to Nowhere? We have meaningless results on meaningless tests.

“Race to Nowhere” is a call to everyone to examine our collective priorities and current assumptions around education.

Mathews: I appreciate, as I did when I watched your film (twice), the sincerity of your feelings on these matters. I think you need to study AP more before you reach any conclusions. You particularly need to look at how it works in schools very different from the affluent ones on which you based your film, schools like Wakefield High in Arlington, Va., Marshall Fundamental in Pasadena, Calif., or YES College Prep in Houston.

I have spend much more time at Scarsdale High than you have — one of my sons attended the school — and I think you will find the overstressed atmosphere there completely unaffected by the switch from AP to their homegrown Advanced Topics program. In fact, Scarsdale's experiment might be a good topic for your next film.

The nice thing about the schools that do well on the Challenge Index is that they DO treat students as individuals, and strive to make sure everyone gets as rich and challenging a high school experience as possible. Stop by some of them sometime, particularly the ones full of urban kids, and let me know what you think. They are the kind of schools most likely to reject the idea of letting only a select few do AP. I am glad you and I agree that shutting kids out like that is wrong.

Please stay in touch. You are fun to argue with. I think both of us have lots to learn as we explore these vital issues further.

By  |  05:30 AM ET, 04/08/2011

 
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