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Are We Overbooking Our Children & Ourselves in a "Race to Nowhere?"

By Guest Blogger Debbie Leibold

I’m tired.  I have two sons (ages 13 and 10), I work part-time, I volunteer at both the elementary and the middle school, and I sit on a non-profit Board.  I drive the Mom taxi every afternoon back and forth between every sports practice known to man, piano and band practice, school ceremonies, volunteer opportunities, and a few play dates (when we have time to play).  I try to help with homework, manage a household, and get dinner on the table (when we aren’t stopping at Subway or some other drive-thru), and I try to have time to be a good Mom, wife, and friend.  Time for me is always on the bottom of the list.

I think many of us would agree that life seems crazy.  We are always in a hurry, always trying to get from one activity to the next, and always trying to do the right thing to help our children become the best students, athletes, musicians, leaders, and citizens.  I mean well, as I know you do, but lately I’ve started to question this roller coaster, fast-paced, non-stop world in which my family lives.

Recently, my questions became much more pronounced when I attended a screening of the highly acclaimed educational documentary, “Race to Nowhere.”  I strongly encourage you see the film if you haven’t.  “Race to Nowhere” is thought provoking and eye opening and left me with many more questions than it answered.  It presents our current educational system as one that must be reformed because it is sending damaging messages to our young people.  Teachers, coaches, parents, and the system itself are creating so much stress in the lives of our children that childhood depression and anxiety levels are skyrocketing.  As the mother of two boys and a former educator, I felt like I should go to the film and see what the hype was all about.  I’m very glad I did…

The film is a series of interviews with students of all ages (elementary school through college), parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, psychologists, and employers. The interviews present many different issues affecting today’s youth.  I will do my best to summarize some of its main points here, but please visit www.racetonowhere.com for more information and to find a film screening near you:

  • Our education system is creating good test takers, but not necessarily good thinkers.  If the test questions are not exactly what the teacher prepared the students for in a review session the day before the exam, students are unprepared and unable to apply what they know to a new situation.
  • Our students are so used to being “coached” by teachers, parents, tutors, and actual coaches that they are unable to do things on their own.  We have inadvertently sent them the message that they need help to perform well.  This constant “help,” though well-intentioned, diminishes their self-confidence and makes them less self-directed.
  • As parents, the first (and sometimes only) thing we ask about after school is homework:  Do you have homework? What do you have to do?  How was your test?  What grade did you get?  Though we mean well, that constant message of what it takes to get good grades puts a high level of pressure on kids.
  • Our schools assign too much homework that doesn’t correlate with academic achievement or personal intellectual growth.  At the elementary level, there is absolutely no correlation between homework and academic gain.  At the middle school level, there is only a correlation between the first hour of homework and academic achievement.  At the high school level, only the first two hours of homework have any effect on academic growth.
  • “Smart” means many different things, but our school system (and our society) sees “smart” as the straight-A student with high test scores who is a hard worker, participates in several sports, holds leadership positions, and is involved in community service.  Not all kids are going to fit that mold, but those who don’t are led to believe that they aren’t “smart.”  To be successful, society needs people with many different learning styles and diverse strengths.  That is not the message that we are sending our kids.  The message is that they have to earn a certain test score and go to the best school they can get into so they can get the best job and earn the most money and, ultimately, live the happiest and most fulfilling life.  It makes kids anxious and depressed when they think about what might happen if they don’t or can’t follow that path that has been set as the ideal they need to reach.
  • In an effort to teach curriculum and cover grade level standards, we are missing out on teaching the more important educational skills.  It is essential that we teach critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership, and socialization skills and not get caught up in the minutiae of the curriculum.  In the big picture, who cares, really, if you know how to use a semi-colon?
  • As teachers and as parents, we have good intentions and we want our kids to be the best that they can be, but in doing so, our kids are spread too thin.  They have little to no personal engagement in or passion for what they are doing.  They are just involved in everything and taking honors classes and working part-time and doing community service because we’ve sent them the message that they need to do all of that to succeed.  That is what it takes to get into the best schools.  So, what if the best school is not the best match for your child?  The match is what is important, not the school’s ranking.
  • Our kids run non-stop through their day and don’t get to their homework until late at night.  Many kids are up until the wee hours of the morning doing 4-6 hours of homework a night, just to get up in the morning and start all over again.  It is this homework that parents and teachers seem to value most, which puts even more pressure on kids, causing kids to cut corners and often cheat.  It’s no wonder that teenagers seem so highly addicted to caffeine, energy drinks, and, in some cases, other stimulants like ADD medications.  They feel like they need those substances to stay awake in class and to push through everything they have to do in a shorter and more efficient time period.
  • We don’t allow our kids any down time just to be kids.  Play is critical to a young person’s development.  Play is how kids find what they love.  Play is being sacrificed in order to get everything else done. As a result, kids are just going through the motions and doing what they can to get by (including cutting corners and cheating).
  • High school only seems to be preparing kids for the college application, not for college itself.  Universities report extremely high remediation rates for college freshmen who graduated high school with 3.8-4.0 grade point averages.  These students are good test takers and can follow the directions and memorize the review sheets for tests, but when they are presented with a more open-ended and self-directed educational environment, they flounder because it doesn’t fit with how they’ve been programmed.
  • College students are seeking help from professors, wanting to know exactly what to study on the test or how many paragraphs they need to write or what format they should use to explain their research.  Worse yet, employers are noting that new employees cannot think for themselves and are showing that they cannot work without guidance and direction from others.  They are not creative and self-confident enough to be able to take a project or an assignment and run with it.  They want someone else to hold their hand and tell them what to do and not to do because they’ve never had to work without “training wheels.”
  • In a nutshell, as a result of these issues and many others documented in the film, we are raising a generation of kids with extremely high stress, depression, and anxiety levels.  Young people are over-programmed, exhausted, and unprepared for life after high school.

I am a proponent of the public school system.  I am a former educator and a parent of public school children.  Like most parents, I want my kids to live up to their potential, to be the best they can possibly be, to be highly educated, and to have successful careers and happy, meaningful lives.  I readily admit my focus falls heavily on school.  School is what is most important in our household.  That being said, “Race to Nowhere” made me think about the message I’m sending to my sons every time I badger them about homework or ask them if I need to check their homework or want to go over the questions they missed on a test.  Though I mean well, I’m constantly pointing out their mistakes and indirectly (or directly) suggesting that they need help.  Couple that with all of the sports they’re involved with and their music lessons and everything else, and you get very tired kids and an exhausted mom.  So, how do I reconcile all of this?  I’ve been trying to figure that out since I watched the film.

Have we revolted against homework?  No.  Have we dropped all organized sports?  No.  Have we said that college isn’t important?  No.  But, I have really listened to what I say to my kids. I’ve tried to hear what they’re interested in instead of telling them what I think they should do. I’ve backed down on the homework pressure.  They are still expected to do their homework, but I’m trying to let them be more responsible for it.  I let them play whenever possible and, perhaps more than anything else, I try to remember that they need to enjoy being kids.

“Race to Nowhere” has been a great conversation starter with my husband, my sons, my friends, and with the staff at our boys’ schools.  It is a controversial subject and one that evokes strong opinions but, for that reason, I highly recommend the film.  “Race to Nowhere” provides a great opportunity for critical thinking and personal reflection.  It does not provide easy answers or suggest that there is a quick-fix.  It does, however, encourage us to slow down, jump off the fast-track, and get back to what is truly important.

Debbie Leibold is a former teacher and the mother of two sons, ages 13 and 10.  Debbie is passionate about education and youth development.  She works as a writer and copy editor for Steve Spangler Science.

3 replies
  1. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    This story and documentary (which I haven’t seen yet, but will) are a large reason that I homeschool my children. We are enrolled in a private school program that allows us to work at our own pace, that is custom-designed for my children’s level of education, and that follows our worldview. We choose only one extracurricular activity per child (i.e. sports, or music) and they may be involved in one community group (Scouts, AWANA, etc..). We are still very busy people, as I also am a tutor and work part-time, but my children have ample play time, and we strive for learning things independently. Yes, my children have wonderful social skills because they play with other children, and not just those the same age – as what often happens in the public school setting. They can make up games and play well with children of any age, from infancy to adulthood. They make “best friends!” EVERYWHERE we go, even if they don’t know their names 🙂 My children are well-educated, well-rounded and know how to play without a screen infront of them, or an adult to “guide” them. For those who are ‘called,’ homeschooling is an excellent way to “break free” from the mold of society.

  2. cathy
    cathy says:

    you have summarized what is happening to the current schooling system.(am in kenya) i have thought and thought what should we do.. and for reason i am opening a school that is “unteaching” what the tradition school is teaching.. kindergarten kids taking exams is ridiculous!yet basic things like tying shoe lace or proper bottoming is been omitted!


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