Vicki Abeles’ film “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” may be the most popular documentary in America without a theater distribution deal. Parents and students are flocking to schools and community centers where there have been more than 1,700 screenings in 47 states and 20 countries.
It is a well-intended project that raises a vital issue, the harmful academic pressure on students in some college-conscious homes. Then the film goes haywire by suggesting too much homework is a national problem when the truth is that high school students on average are doing too little.
Abeles has spunk. She agreed to have an e-mail discussion with me (the whole thing will be on my blog Friday) and did not waver when I challenged her notion that teenagers everywhere, not just the top 10 percent, were drowning in textbooks and term papers.
I cited time diaries collected by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research showing that 15- to 17-year-olds in 2002 and 2003 devoted about 3 ½ hours a day to TV and other leisure while their average time spent studying was 42 minutes. I pointed out that the annual UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of college freshmen shows about two-thirds did an hour or less of homework a night in high school.
Abeles replies: “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.” That’s true, but misleading. Daily homework for 6- to 8-year-olds increased on average from 8 minutes in 1981 to 22 in 2003. Even when tripled, that homework took less time than watching an episode of “Hannah Montana Forever.” (For the record: I’m dubious about the value of homework in elementary grades.)
Abeles and her film focus not on data but feelings, which are important, but some of us yearn for more. She prefers to cite “our experience at screenings” as proof that we suffer from a “silent epidemic” of “pressure-cooker education” nationally, and not just in places like McLean, Winnetka or Brentwood. She doesn’t explain how average American teens, if they are really being dragooned into heavy studying, have shown no significant gains in reading or math the last three decades.
She and her film blame Advanced Placement courses for some of the pressure. She tells interviewers she has heard that some suburban schools are dropping AP, when in fact the program is still growing and even altering courses to give students more of the depth and choice Abeles says they need.
Some students and families overdo AP. Abeles is right to point that out. But AP, like the college pressure that concerns her, is concentrated in only a few places. My annual Challenge Index rankings, moving this year from Newsweek to washingtonpost.com, show that only 7 percent of high schools have AP participation rates higher than what would be achieved with only half of juniors and half of seniors taking just one AP course and test a year. The vast majority of high schools do far less.
Abeles says that low-income students still suffer from academic pressure because of a narrow focus on testing and lessons irrelevant to their lives. The urban high school teachers I know go to great lengths to be relevant and wish more students would worry at least a bit about exams. But like most American teens, those urban students can get by without doing much, and so do just that.
Abeles says she wants more authentic learning and imaginative teaching. That is the approach taken by imaginative urban educators like Deborah Meier, but it still requires significant homework.
Meier’s teachers assigned about 10 hours of studying beyond class time at her Central Park East Secondary School. If too much homework is, as the film says, a national problem, then don’t we have to conclude that it was wrong for Meier to insist her kids do so much more than what seems to be the national average of no more than an hour a night?