Saturday, February 19, 2011

A "Race to Nowhere" student perspective

The latest edition of The Rio Mirada included a "man on the street" photo/quote piece based on the recent school showings of Race to Nowhere.

Those outside of K-12 education may not have heard of Race to Nowhere. My sense is that its release more or less coincided with Waiting for Superman. And in the marketplace of mainstream cinema, there's only room for one provocative K-12-based documentary at a time. Waiting for Superman is a big-budget, slickly-produced indictment of America's public school system. Race to Nowhere is much more modest in scope and production values. (While Superman enjoyed wide release and a John Legend soundtrack, Nowhere had a one-week theatrical run on two screens and a Weepies* soundtrack.)

Nowhere's real play has come from viewing "parties" organized in school communities. Its real market is America's "Kindergarten-to-Harvard" school communities. The film documents the pressures that mount on high-expectation students.

It turns out that some students who hope to gain admission to America's most exclusive ("elite") colleges and universities find themselves in over their heads with curricular and extra-curricular activities.

The consequences are shown: some students cheat, some drop out, some abuse prescription drugs, many are unhappy and unfulfilled. The film calls for a general "dialing it down a notch."

There are specific recommendations for students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Although the Mirada piece polled students, it did not ask them if they were taking any of Nowhere's advice for students. Are they speaking to adults about how they feel? Are the getting plenty of sleep? Unplugging and slowing down? Limiting their extra-currilular activities? Seeking colleges that use a comprehensive [rather than objective] approach to looking at applicants? The Mirada asked none of these questions.

The one thing The Mirada did want to know was whether or not the students noticed an immediate reduction in homework assigned by teachers. I'll let readers speculate on what the resounding consensus was.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to be any kind of Thaddeus Bristol here. And if I were a student who had seen Nowhere, that's what I would hope for, too: less homework and more play time.

A few years ago, The Mirada ran an article questioning the whole concept of Advanced Placement. The author wondered why anyone would subject themselves to an academically rigorous class—senior year—that culminated in paying money to take a test! The concept appeared flawed on at least three levels.

Rio's demographics have changed. And the school district has expressed an interest in removing barriers (such as preparedness tests or prerequisites) to Advanced Placement courses.

Taken together, we're hoping that more students (who don't want to take AP courses) will take AP courses, regardless of their preparation or aptitude. Once enrolled, students should not be assigned much homework and should be assessed without so many tests.

Am I a hopeless curmudgeon for not seeing how this plays out successfully? Check the comments for my perspective.


Dean Baird said...

*I have seen the Weepies in concert twice. And I don't even have John Legend on my iPod.

Dean Baird said...

Everyone is going to see Race to Nowhere through their own filter. The New York Times noted, "The film portrays the pressures when schools pile on hours of homework and coaches turn sports into year-round obligations. Left somewhat unexamined is the role of parents whose high expectations contribute the most pressure of all."

What I saw was, at best, a call for tracking. Some students want, need, and deserve challenging coursework. Most do not. However--and herein lies the problem--most are saddled with expectations to gain acceptance to naionally-ranked, top-tier colleges.

That's part of the math that doesn't add up.

There are also state-mandated demands for high standardized test performance. Until there's a pill for content mastery, students will need to do homework and study for tests.

To paint with a broad brush, parents want their children to be accepted to top colleges. States expect high test scores as a matter of accountability. In order to meet these demanding demands, teachers load students up with coursework and assess them objectively.

But not all students can handle the load.

The solution is not to abandon rigor, but to apply it only where appropriate. You don't abolish high school football because most students couldn't make the team.

Teachers can easily dial down the rigor. But students and parents will need to accept that the dialed-back rigor courses will lead to "lesser" colleges (more public than private, more CSU than UC). State and national legislatures will have to understand that all students will not rate as advanced or proficient.

I'd be happy to teach multiple rigors of physics. Perhaps Physics HS for those planning simply to graduate high school, Physics CSU, Physics UC, Physics IV ("Ivy").

Of course, that would lead to charges of tracking students and locking them into academic castes. And such a practice is frowned upon.

Dean Baird said...

What concerns teachers is a growing sense of entitlement among some parents and students.

A sense that they need high grades in "college prep" courses, but that those college prep courses be fairly simple, straightforward, light on homework, tests, and other assignments.

Many of my students do homework as intended. But many do not. Some copy from each other. Some copy from students who completed the course previously.

Students who copy rationalize that they need to to get a good grade in their college prep classes so they can get into an elite college. I presume that they see themselves spontaneously growing some integrity once they matriculate. I'll speculate that once matriculated, they find rationale for cutting corners there, too.

When I was in high school, I couldn't block, run, pass, kick, or throw. So I didn't try out for football. Should I have tried out and then complained about the skill set needed, the long hours and physically depleting nature of practice and competition?

I don't think so.

We can differentiate instruction as long as there are differentiated expectations, and differentiated outcomes are acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Less homework would mean students need to actually spend their time learning while attending school during their six hours at school.
Less homework would mean students in low-socioeconomic situations actually come to school prepared to learn at their grade level and have parents to go home to who will actually spend quality time with them.
Quality time spent learning in school can be done more successfully with smaller class sizes otherwise it is a game of classroom management trying to limit distractions.
Smaller class sizes would involve more money being spent on education and less on building prisons and funding the middle east war games.