“Race to Nowhere,” a documentary by filmmaker Vicki Abeles, continues to be one of the most popular movies ever marketed through community halls and school auditoriums. It has been seen in 49 states and 22 countries and applauded by many Washington area students and parents.
It argues that the pressure to get into a good college is ruining learning for many children. The weight of homework and the angst of exams make kids depressed and rob them of their childhoods, the film says.
Abeles is a polemicist. In that American tradition, like Tom Paine and Michael Moore, she gives no credence to contrary views. But she has welcomed interviews, even with people such as me, who think her message is exaggerated and harmful to our efforts to get high schools out of a long slump. Much of what she has said since the film came out suggests that she doesn’t know what she is talking about, in my opinion.
Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, told me he was astonished by Abeles’s view of Advanced Placement. That high school program is one of the main villains in “Race to Nowhere.” Her AP comments in an e-mail conversation we had in February were noticed by many families in this area, which has the highest concentration of AP students in the country.
“Because APs are perceived to be harder, we buy into them,” Abeles told me. “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.”
AP was built in the 1950s by professors with expertise similar to Bauerlein’s. They thought some high school students could handle college-level courses. They designed them to mimic the introductory courses being taught on their campuses. If high-schoolers did well on final AP exams written by professors, then they were entitled to college credit and a chance to jump to the next-level course when they reached college.
Reacting to Abeles’s view of AP as much content and little thought, Bauerlein said: “I recently served as co-chair of the College Board’s English Commission, whose charge was to review and revise the curriculum for AP English Language and Composition. In our new curriculum, ‘mandated memorization and regurgitation of data’ have nothing to do with it. We drafted no set reading list, no facts of English philology and literary history that must be known, and no required topics or issues.
“We also took our cue from a survey of college English and composition departments and professors who answered a battery of questions about what skills and knowledge they believe are important to a freshman English course. Furthermore, throughout the revision, which took more than two years and multiple meetings, we remained mindful of the very ‘teacher flexibility’ that Abeles denies, some of the commission members insisting on allowing teachers room to adjust the curriculum to different regions and student populations.”
Bauerlein was as amazed as I at Abeles’s insistence that schoolwork is ruling children’s lives “across all economic and cultural groups.” He noted that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 15- to 19-year-olds have an average of 5.69 leisure hours a day. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 8- to 18-year-olds spend 7.5 hours a day with entertainment media. A Nielsen survey counted 3,339 text messages a month sent or received by the average 13- to 17-year-old with a cellphone.
Abeles said people who have watched her film say they feel the same way she does. That is further proof that sentiment is a poor basis for education policy, Bauerlein said.