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'No Child Left Behind' Means a Race to Nowhere

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Starting school is an exciting time, but can be stressful for both parents and children. The carefree days of summer are over, and it's time to get back to work. Trouble is, the level of "work" at modern American schools has become rote, overwhelming, stressful and often ineffective in developing the critical thinking skills necessary to compete. For many kids, school feels more like a destination than a discovery, and a race instead of a journey. For many experts and parents, it has become a race -- to nowhere.

Vicki Abeles is the director of the new documentary called, The Race to Nowhere an in-depth exploration of modern family life: including the mounting pressures on kids to perform, unending amounts of homework, little free time - and the drastic toll it is taking on the health and well being of our youth today. The film has enjoyed rave early reviews, and is currently being screened across the country in schools and communities, complete with discussion guides for conversation afterwards. Abeles is starting a movement -- and it is about time.

Abeles saw the stresses and pressures of modern academic life take its toll on her own children, and offers a vulnerable and painful account of her own middle school daughter spiraling downward into suicidal thoughts, and her elementary school aged son agonizing over homework at night when he should be out riding a skateboard. She took action and began to interview parents, teachers and administrators. She was shocked to discover her dilemma is widespread and rampant.

It has been eight years since the "No Child Left Behind Act" was mandated by the Bush administration. For the first time in history, all children were expected to produce equally, a mold we had never put them in before. While some children are academically oriented, others are creative, or more "hands on." What is the end result? Teachers are teaching to the test so they don't lose their bonus, administrators rely on state exam results to receive funding, and kids are the losers. Students learn to spit out information, and forget it 10 minutes later.

Teaching to the test, and overwhelming kids with content, while eliminating recess, field trips or project based learning has created kids who are stressed out, sleep deprived, cheating to get by, not having time to learn how to think. Some call American education "a mile wide and an inch deep."

I have four children in the school system and have seen the changes myself. Teachers seem resigned at the content they have to "cram in" and hate losing the ability to creatively teach a subject they love, or adapt to the varied needs of their students. They are frustrated, fed up, and many are leaving in droves. It takes a special person to teach our youth, and until we value their role as being one of the most coveted in society, we will get what we deserve. In Singapore, the government selects the top 20 percent of graduating seniors, and offers them a full ride, and a stipend to be trained as a teacher, as they consider it the highest valued profession.

One of the primary concerns Abeles addresses in her film is the issue of homework. Sara Bennett wrote the book, The Case Against Homework and said the amount of homework given to kids has skyrocketed in the past several years. Even kindergarteners are given packets of sheet work to complete each week. Kids are asked to sit in school for seven hours at a young age, and then come home and sit for more. As one teacher described, "it is no longer about learning."

Dr. Denise Pope, founder of the Challenge Success program at Stanford University, said that most of the countries that outperforms us academically give significantly less homework. Studies have shown that homework is ineffective and has no correleation to academic performance in the elementary school years. In middle school, one hour is the maximum amount to be effective, and at high school, no more than two hours.

When parents are honest about it, most weeknights are spent fighting over when to get the homework done, and it becomes the dominant family conversation night after night. In fact, in order to keep the peace, many parents often end up editing, correcting or even doing the homework for them -- which is effectively teaching them to cheat. What sort of message does this send? Family time, private time and leisure time have tumbled to the bottom of the priority list.

The Challenge Success website states, "Educators, mental health professionals, and business leaders agree that the pursuit of a narrow vision of success often leaves young people lacking the skills most needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world--adaptability, interpersonal and collaborative skills, and the ingenuity and creativity to solve complex problems."

Dr. Denise Stipek is Dean of Education at Stanford. She has found a dramatic difference in college students in recent years. "Kids today are taught everything in a formulaic manner. If they see a question that was not on their test, they fall apart."

In a review of colleges students entering into the prestigious University of California schools, such as UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, fully 50 percent of incoming freshman with top SAT scores and honor roll grades, have to take remedial courses in math and English in order to simply be prepared for freshman level academics. Kids agree they often have to cheat, cram and put all their effort into their college entrance resume as the holy grail of high school.

Dr. Pope conducted a massive study to determine how many kids cheat these days. They devised a test the checked eight different ways a student can cheat and found that less than 3 percent of the 5,000 students surveyed had never cheated at school. As one student complained, "the point of school is to learn, not to always memorize. We have to learn to live without sleeping, eating or having any time off."

What do we do about a problem so large, complex and yet so dire at the same time?

Allow a child to find their passion. Not every kid is destined for Ivy Leagues.
Be an advocate for children and their unique needs. Negotiate for less homework, carve out more unstructured time for play and private time, and try to create downtime in the evenings to relax.
Define Success on Your Terms. Consider the qualities you want your children to have as adults, and allow them to make mistakes. "If we take the play out of childhood, we take away the tools to learn how to be an adult," said Pope.

On a larger societal level, Dr. Stipek stresses, "The United States needs to rethink how we do schooling, and how much we invest in the next generation. If we don't invest up front, we pay for it at the back end in prisons, welfare, health care and all the ways individuals and society suffers."

For all you parents and grandparents are out there feeling anxious about another year of meltdowns, break downs and overwhelm, check out the website for Race to Nowhere and try to catch a screening in your area. New York will be running the film starting Septermber 10th for a week at the IFC Center, and Los Angeles will do the same at the Laemmel's Sunset 5. Let's join Abeles in her movement to restore balance to our children's lives, and start out own discussion here with any comments and suggestions on how improve the balance of education for our children.

*Want to hear more? Listen to Kari and Vicki Abeles discuss the issues on the Lifestyle Mom Radio Cafe from LA Talk Radio.
www.karihenley.com