Vicki Abeles’s film “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” may be the most popular documentary in the United States without a theater distribution deal. Parents and students have flocked to more than 1,700 screenings in 47 states and 20 countries.
It is a well-intended project that raises a vital issue: harmful academic pressure on students in some college-conscious homes. Then the film goes haywire by suggesting that 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 an e-mail discussion (which will be on my blog Friday) and did not waver when I challenged her notion that all teenagers, not just the most affluent 10 percent, are 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 31 / 2 hours a day to TV and leisure. Their average time spent studying was 42 minutes. I pointed out that the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of college freshmen shows that about two-thirds did an hour or less of homework a night in high school.
Abeles replied: “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,” and not just in places such as McLean and Beverly Hills. But she doesn’t explain why average American teens — if they are really being dragooned into heavy studying — have shown no significant gains in reading or math over the past three decades.
She and her film blame Advanced Placement courses for some of the pressure. She tells interviewers that she has heard that some suburban schools are dropping AP, when, in fact, the program is 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 half of juniors and half of seniors taking just one AP course and test a year. Most high schools do far less.
Abeles says low-income students suffer from pressure because of a narrow focus on testing and lessons that are irrelevant to their lives. The urban high school teachers I know go to great lengths to be relevant and wish more students would worry about exams. But, like most American teens, they can get by without doing much, and so they do just that.
Abeles says she wants more authentic learning and imaginative teaching. That approach is taken by urban educators such as New York’s Deborah Meier, but it still requires significant homework. Meier’s teachers assigned about 10 hours per week of studying beyond class at her Central Park East High School. If too much homework is a problem, then wasn’t it wrong for Meier to insist the kids do so much more than what seems to be the national average of no more than an hour a night?