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Race To Nowhere: Conclusions

April 23, 2011
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The movie “Race to Nowhere” provides much food for thought. While the homework loads and high stress levels shown in the movie no doubt exist in many school environments, I have not perceived them to the same degree in our community. Having said that, there are certainly some weeks of the year which are more stressful than others.

Further Questions

As I left the movie, I did not feel that it had answered the following questions to my satisfaction:

1. Are students making productive use of all their available time?
I know many students who regularly have blocks of time that they could use to complete school work, but choose not to. If this is also true for the students portrayed in the movie, effective time management is a useful skill that can often be taught or improved upon.

2. Are students studying efficiently/appropriately?
I know many students who have not been taught “how to study” for a particular subject at a particular grade level.  Approaches that may have worked well for them in previous courses may no longer be the best ones to use. Have their teachers worked with them on adapting their study skills to the requirements of the current course?

3. Are students basing their choices for courses and activities on “impressions” of what colleges demand (from peers, their parents, or the media) , or on researched facts?
I made many decisions as a teenager based on my impressions, without taking the time to question my assumptions sufficiently. Are the students in the movie doing the same, or are they correctly interpreting what colleges seek?

4. Are students discussing the thought process behind their course selections with their parents?
None of us can “do it all.”  We must each, unfortunately, learn our limits and act accordingly.  Even if competitive colleges have inhuman expectations, parents are the people in the best position to help their children learn to make reasonable choices under the circumstances.

None of the questions above reduce the seriousness of issues raised. However, their answers would help determine what potential solutions might be most useful.

What Has Changed?

After watching the movie, I began to wonder what has changed over the past 30+ years that would cause homework loads, stress levels, and over-scheduling to rise when compared with what I experienced as a teenager.

While college admissions was a competitive process for me, it was definitely less competitive than it is today.  Not only has the population of the United States grown, but more international students are also applying to “well known” colleges in the United States. Despite the increased demand, I don’t get the impression that formal college admissions standards have risen to insane levels… colleges still seek a diverse student body, from just about every possible perspective. Does a formerly “admissable” student at any particular college now have a proportionately lower probability of being accepted due solely to higher demand, or are colleges now admitting proportionally more “highest achieving” students than they used to?

If the proportion of “highest achieving” students admitted has not risen dramatically, then “achievement” alone will not improve your chances of admission to the college of your choice.

My high school only played other teams on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons: no night games, very few weekend tournaments. Today, the combination of lights, artificial turf, long travel times, and games any day of the week can prevent athletes from getting home until 9 pm or later surprisingly often. If students were also dismissed early that day, they miss class time, family time, and homework time in exchange for some social time with the team and a competitive experience. I don’t recall my high school friends having to make a time commitment to varsity sports that was as large as today’s athletes are expected to.

When I was in high school, physical activity was considered a very important part of every student’s daily activity, but academics were more important. Academic progress was the largest factor in college admissions, with athletic and other extra-curricular achievements playing a lesser role. Today, I have the impression that while many colleges still value academic achievements much more than athletic ones, many families perceive athletic achievements to be more important to a student’s future. How and why has this disconnect arisen?

I also recall a C average as being considered respectable in my 9th grade year, with the expectation that it would rise over time.  I think the average 12th grader had about a B+ average. Today, many high school students seem very focused on their cumulative grade point averages from their very first day of Freshman year.

I had a string of perfect grades going for a while when I was in graduate school. While I took great satisfaction in achieving it, and felt a sense of loss when the “trend” was broken, it was also a HUGE relief to no longer have “no way to go but down”. Students with 4.0 averages would probably all benefit from getting some counseling to explore questions such as: is their GPA important to them? If so, why? How much stress does pursuing a 4.0 induce? How would dropping below a 4.0 affect them?

All of the above leads me to wonder why our society leads so many of today’s students to feel they must both “do it all” and “achieve perfection at every turn”?

Influences

Our federal government has done its best to encourage a college education for as many as possible, presumably as a means to improving their earning potential over the course of their lives. The result has been that many now do aspire to a college degree, and anticipate living a more affluent life than their parents. After all, that is all part of the American dream.

I wonder if in the process, with help from a generally optimistic national culture and many movies, television shows, and advertisements, we have succumbed to the “Lake Wobegon effect“: do we all expect our children to be “above average”, while also expecting to earn “above average” wages ourselves? Are we blissfully ignoring the inconvenient truth that about half of the people in our community must always statistically be “below average” on any one measure?

In the process of, perhaps unintentionally, expecting our children to be “above average” in much of what they do, are we are ensuring that most children will feel they have failed to meet expectations? If so, no wonder stress levels have risen. How many children have declined to participate in an activity or on a team because they do not feel they have a chance of being “among the best” of the participants in an activity? I perceive a big difference between teaching our children to celebrate their successes and deal constructively with their failures in life, versus expecting them to be above average in almost all that they do.

As a culture, we seem to value “success” highly. Yet, doesn’t success arise more often from a combination of “passionate interest” and “time on task” than time on task alone? And doesn’t a passionate interest tend to grow initially out of “having fun” doing something? Shouldn’t the goal of educational programs be to “help students discover, enjoy, and master” the topic/subject/discipline?

Textbooks and teachers often seem to focus almost exclusively on mastery, leaving the students to try to figure out for themselves why all this time and effort is being devoted to this topic.

What’s the goal?

What percent of students would choose to pursue education, instead of other options, if they were given such a choice? I suspect it could be a remarkably small percentage in many places, given how little “selling” of each course’s content is done by teachers, school, and parents. We tell students “you need to take this” instead of enthusiastically describing how how interesting, engaging, and useful its content is.

If a vague “to be ready for college” is a sufficient reason for many to attend high school and apply themselves diligently, then those people will probably look to college admissions offices for an indication of what needs to be accomplished during high school. What they will probably take away from their research is something like “students should challenge themselves by taking the most challenging courses available to them”.

I have not (yet) heard a college qualify the above statement with something like “the most challenging courses available to them in their areas of interest“. So, college-aspiring students are hearing that they should take as many of the most advanced courses as they can if they wish to keep the most competitive colleges as an option. At the same time, students with a competitive nature are probably also watching their grade point average closely, always in search of the perfect grade point average in every class  - even though they are now taking multiple “most challenging” courses.

If a school offers AP courses, these courses will generally be “the most challenging available”. They are intended to help students pass the Advanced Placement test in a subject, which sometimes allows a student to skip the traditional introductory course in that subject in college, so they seek to cover a great deal of material. For some subjects, teachers and AP test writers have concluded that the current AP syllabus is more than can be covered realistically or effectively in one school year (see this recent NY Times article).

Multiply all this by two or three for students seeking to apply to competitive colleges, add a normal dash of recognition-seeking, and the stress level becomes understandably very high.

Path To A Solution

How can we get ourselves out of this situation we have created? Perhaps we could:

1) Ask colleges to be more specific about their minimum skill/content mastery requirements for “core” areas such as literacy and numeracy.  This would help drive the content of “exit exams” for high schools, and provide curriculum developers with a clear list of standards for core skills which students must master to attend various types of colleges. It would also hopefully lead to a reduction in the number of college students who need “remedial” courses their Freshman year.

2) Ask colleges to modify their recommendations to high school students to not give students the message that they must excel “in the most demanding courses available in all subjects”. It should be sufficient for students to be:
- “very strong” in areas of interest or passion
- “strong” or better in core skill areas that the college has spelled out in detail
with college admissions criteria for other areas varying by college. Popular or liberal arts programs would probably seek stronger all-around performance, while admission to other programs might not require strong performance in all subjects. In the end, colleges are always going to benefit from having a diverse student body

It is unreasonable for competitive colleges to imply that excellence in “every challenging course available” is possible when many are taken simultaneously… we all have areas of strength and weakness, and only so much time in a day. By setting an expectation of strong grades and test scores in multiple challenging areas at the same time, colleges are providing a strong incentive to cheat and guaranteeing high stress levels.

3) Realize that, if as a society we wish to promote attending college for everyone, that’s fine. But we also need to understand that this promotion, combined with general population growth and greater affluence in many foreign countries, and also combined with everyone’s preference for a college whose name they recognize, has greatly increased demand for the available spots at “popular” colleges.

This increase in demand is partially responsible for the environment described in “Race to Nowhere.” While higher demand benefits the colleges tremendously, it does not provide many benefits to our high school students beyond potential greater diversity in their college classes.

If we were to increase our word-of-mouth promotion of the virtues of colleges that are not “well known”, while decreasing the number of times we talk about colleges with very low acceptance rates in front of students, perhaps we could help influence student and parent expectations for the future and thereby lead more students and families to set reasonable goals for themselves.

4) Encourage high schools to encourage and assess adequate daily time for sleep, physical activity, and socializing in addition to academics.  All are important for both cognitive development and stress management. Homework by itself is not a bad thing, but a consistently large homework load that forces a diligent student to choose between sleep and homework on many days of every week is not.

I perceive such a load to be everyone’s fault: the student for signing up for too many challenging courses, the colleges for seeking this behavior, and the parents and high school for allowing it to continue. While it may not be easy with teenagers, parents also need to proactively monitor stress levels and sleep quality. Viewing “Race to Nowhere” with your teenager could be one way to start a constructive dialog on these topics.

5) Encourage high schools to implement curricula along the lines of:

- Level 1: a “regular” version of a course, suitable for any enrolled student.

- Level 2: a “greater depth” version of a course, that is offered in addition to the Level 1 version. This version would cover some combination of more material and/or material in greater depth, with a greater weekly student workload. If a student were to enroll in all Level 2 courses, the total workload should still allow a talented and efficient student to participate in all other “normal” school and family activities without sacrificing sleep or being under constant stress. Having said that, an “average” student would probably be wise to take less than a full load of Level 2 courses.

- Level 3: an even more demanding version of a course that is only offered if Level 1 and 2 versions of the class are already offered. Students should not be allowed to enroll in more than one (or perhaps two) Level 3 course simultaneously by school policy.

Under the above approach, an Advanced Placement exam course could fall under either Level 2 or Level 3, depending on the demands of that particular exam and its corresponding syllabus. Having a number of high schools use an approach such as the one above would give the authors of AP exams incentive to keep the course demands at Level 2, or risk having fewer students pay the fee to take the exam.

6) Acknowledge that all high schools, public or private, care about their reputations. Reputation is based on word of mouth, media reports, college admissions statistics, test score averages, and published rankings of schools. When a reputation or rank position depends heavily on test scores, teachers will teach to the test. When the reputation depends on the numbers students enrolled in AP courses, more students will be encouraged to enroll in more AP courses.

As a society, we need to make sure that our institutions’ efforts to have the best reputation possible also serve the best interests of our children. “Race to Nowhere” shows us that this is not always the case.

Summary

We cannot all be “better than average”, let alone in everything we do. Let us compete academically or athletically as a source of entertainment or motivation, but not about all things all the time.

Shouldn’t quality of life issues lead us to seek an environment for our children where they can compete in some areas and avoid competing in others? Let us embrace every child’s successes, help them find at least some element of fun in most everything they do, and also help them learn from and deal gracefully with the inevitable failures we all encounter in our lives.

If you are interested in other musings prompted by this movie, you may wish to check out:

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