Red Apple Mom

March 11, 2011

“Race To Nowhere” Documentary Spurring Debate & Solution Possibilities

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary “Race to Nowhere”, please do so as soon as possible.  This critically acclaimed documentary about America’s stressed out teens has a strong and growing grassroots following.  It’s a subject  many students and parents here in uber-performing Fairfax County can relate to and it demonstrates the extreme level of pressure on students of all ages to perform at the top of their game.

When I saw the film last month, I was left with this thought, “When did high school become college?”

My eldest child heads to high school next year.  My parenting approach is way more “Dolphin Mom” than “Tiger Mom”, so I’m not so concerned that I’ll be placing undue pressure on my child to be the best and brightest in school.  Like most parents, I only want my children to be their best and brightest.  But as the film pointed out, stress isn’t always parent-induced.  Kids today are placing huge amounts of stress upon themselves and the kids are primarily blaming school as the source of their stress.

As one of the leaders of FAIRGRADE, I am in contact with thousands of parents and kids.  So often, when I ask students how they like high school, their reply is, “I’m surviving.” I rarely hear, “Oh I really like it,” or “You know, it’s really challenging but I like it.” I never hear, “It’s fun.” Most often, the reply is, “I’m surviving,” followed by a heavy sigh.

I find that really disheartening.  The teen years are such a special time in life and high school should be fun – challenging and rigorous, but fun too.  High school is part of the great American experience.  My european and asian friends envy our American high school system that offers sports, prom, community engagement, great curriculums AND school spirit.

According to this documentary, it appears today’s educational demands are crushing some spirits rather than raising them.

I have yet to meet anyone in Fairfax County who thinks they had it tougher in high school than today’s kids attending FCPS high schools.  It was easier to get into a good college back then.  School budgets were more plentiful so sports and other after-school activities were more readily available.  Economic pressures to pay for college weren’t as intense.  Whacked out zero-tolerance policies didn’t exist.  There wasn’t a constant stream of standardized testing.  Today, however, the high school landscape is drastically different.  So it’s a good thing that the “Race to Nowhere” film is spurring debate about the new dynamic facing today’s school-aged children.

Here in Fairfax County, several advocacy groups and teachers are looking to provide solutions and lessen the stress on school-aged kids – particularly teens.

1. SLEEP has long been advocating for changes to the bell schedule so that teens in Fairfax County can have healthier school start times.  Because Fairfax County is so large, some of our high school students are catching buses well before 6:00am.  Compounding the problem are long bus rides to and from school which results in less free time, less time for completing homework and loss of critical REM sleep for growing teens.  Sleep-deprived teens are far more prone to stress than rested teens.

2. FAIRGRADE has joined another group of parents and teachers in asking FCPS to provide “evidence based research” that justifies the removal of HONORS ALTERNATIVE courses to AP CORE classes (English, Math, Science, Social Studies).  As it stands, most FCPS high schools only offer a two-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed or AP – even though other equally competitive school districts in the nation offer their students a three-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed, Honors Alternative to AP and AP.  Students may want the option of taking an Honors alternative AP course or mixing in some Honors courses with just a couple of AP courses rather than a full course load of demanding college-level courses.

3. Lessen Teacher Workload: Teachers in Fairfax County that I work closely with on advocacy issues report that teacher workload expectations ultimately trickle down to a greater workload on students.  The amount of standardized testing and practice testing is extreme.  It has become such a pressure cooker that cluster superintendents repeatedly check to see how much each teacher uses e-cart (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) – FCPS’ web-based learning assessment tool.  If a teacher isn’t using e-cart enough, they reportedly get a call from their cluster superintendent to increase student usage.

This whole thing reminds me of The Lucy Show where Lucy and Ethel get completely overwhelmed boxing chocolates on an ever faster moving assembly line.  The demands of standardized testing may be turning schools into standardized testing factories at the expense of critical learning!  Sure life “ain’t a box of chocolates” but the misery index in Fairfax County seems to be creeping up higher and higher.  Students and teachers clearly need relief.

We parents know it. Students know it.  Teachers know it.  Does our School Board and Superintendent know it?

Several school board members and FCPS administrators have attended screenings of this documentary at area FCPS high schools, so perhaps a real dialogue on these possible solutions is coming.  In the end, we all want successful students and teachers – not stressed out students and teachers.  In the end, we all want a creative and better work and learning environment in our schools.  Change can take a while in big bureaucracies like FCPS.  Students and teachers can’t afford a long wait.

© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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