The high-stakes race of raising children has several starter's pistols.
That's the message of the film The Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture. The PTSA sponsored a screening of the movie on Tuesday.
The film, produced by California lawyer and parent of three Vicki Abeles, stresses that the competitive culture in which we live in in 2011 didn't happen overnight.
It's an arms race that actually began in the Sputnik era, when the American education system realized it had better ramp up to keep up. But things went full throttle in 2002, when the Federal No Child Left Behind law went into effect.
"My philosophy was about learning," says one English teacher in an inner-city Oakland school, holding back tears. "But that's not what the District cares about. It sucking the life out of me. I am resigning."
NCLB brought an increased emphasis on standardized tests and teaching to the test. That means disenchanted teachers, more work that has to overflow into homework. Add that to more students applying to college, a gabillion dollar tutoring industry and peer pressure, and you have a very real race.
The kids in that race are not happy. The movie points out eating disorders and depression are up, cheating is way up, and that many top students enter college unprepared because they are learning to take tests but not really learning.
We meet a student athlete who leaves for an alternative school and drops wrestling when it gets to be too much; an anorexic who ends up opting for her GED; an Indiana student who stopped going to school much at all after she struggled with a math class; low-income students who fear what their future holds if they do not get straight As; and, heartbreakingly, the family of 13-year-old Devon, who committed suicide.
Children get the message of high stakes very early. The culture today is about travel soccer for eight year olds, Teach Your Baby to Read computer programs and, in Fairfax County, GT tests in third grade that set the course.
"One of the problems is we are teaching all the kids like they are in the top two percent," says college consultant Stacy Kadesh. "We've got six month olds doing flashcards. Six month olds are supposed to be sucking on their toes."
Part of that madness starts with the parents, though. That's my one criticism of the film. We see Abeles darting in traffic from practice to practice to practice to private school. Eventually, she realizes her middle school daughter is depressed and her third grade son wonders where his childhood went.
In my opinion, you don't need an epiphany to tell you to back off. Perhaps that school is not right for that kid, even though the sticker on your windshield gives you cache. Maybe your kids don't need piano lessons and travel soccer and swim team and scouts all at once. You can't control the amount of homework or the SOLs, but you can control how much you participate in the rest of the nonsense.
That's not an easy task around here, psychologist Wendy Rudolph said at a panel discussion following the movie.
"This area of Fairfax is very stressful," she said. "The peer pressure of 'where are you going to college?' is very high. One issue I have is that is starts so young. You have GT and sports enhancement for first graders so they can be better on the baseball field. What we teach our children about what is OK and not starts very young."
Rudolph says she sees many high schoolers who have not learned to prioritize.
"They have not learned to pace themselves," she said. "If I hear they are doing six hours of homework, they are either working above a level where they should be, waiting until Thursday do to a whole packet that is due Friday, or instead of handing it in, saying 'I don't care anymore.' "
Maureen Becker, parent of a freshman and a junior at South Lakes, says she has seen the movie twice, and has tried to institute a new approach, especially with her 11th-grade her son.
"It has been hard to pull back," she said. "I decided to let go [of getting stressed out about school]. It had to come from him. I didn't want every conversation to be about grades."