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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Race to Nowhere: What are We Doing to Our Kids?

I recently saw a screening of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, which I believe should be seen by everyone: parents with young children, parents with older children, parents with grand children. It is that good. Not because it makes you feel good all over. It doesn't. Instead, it challenges the assumptions of a culture that is so focused on "success" (however that may be defined) that we are running our kids into the ground with endless homework and after school activities. Put simply, we aren't allowing them to be kids.  (My mom, who was a elementary school teacher, refused to send me to summer school. Her reason? She thought it important for kids to have the time to be kids.)

The Internet Movie Database provides a nice summary of the film:
Race to Nowhere is a close-up look at the pressures on today's students, offering an intimate view of lives packed with activities, leaving little room for down-time or family time. Parents today are expected to raise high-achieving children, who are good at everything: academics, sports, the arts, community-service. The film tackles the tragic side of our often achievement-obsessed culture, with interviews that explore the hidden world of over-burdened schedules, student suicide, academic cheating, young people who have checked out. Race to Nowhere asks the question: Are the young people of today prepared to step fully and productively into their future? We hear from students who feel they are being pushed to the brink, educators who worry students aren't learning anything substantive, and college professors and business leaders, concerned their incoming employees lack the skills needed to succeed in the business world: passion, creativity, and internal motivation.
Take the issue of homework, for example. It turns out, it doesn't offer a whole lot of benefits. There are what economists refer to as diminishing marginal returns: To wit (for citations see this link):
  • The amount of homework assigned to kids from 6 to 9 almost tripled between 1981 and 1997. Assigned homework increased from about 44 minutes a week to more than 2 hours a week. Homework for kids aged 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3 and a-half hours per week.
  • A 2006 synthesis of research on the effects of homework found no correlation between amount of time spent on homework and achievement for elementary school students, a moderate correlation in middle school.
  • An international comparison by two Penn State professors concluded that junior high students who scored highest in math tests tended to come from countries where teachers assign relatively little homework - including Denmark, the Czech Republic and Japan. Conversely, the lowest-scoring students came from countries where teachers assign large amounts of homework, such as Iran, Thailand and Greece.
  • A 2006 national Scholastic/Yankelovich study found that reading for pleasure declines sharply after age eight. The number one reason: too much homework.
  • Most teacher education programs do not cover research about homework. Consequently most teachers are unaware of the research-based critique of the way homework is used in the majority of schools in the US.
  • The more important that homework becomes in school, the more a child can fall behind. Etta Kralovec, the director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, worked on a state-financed study there in the early 90's, interviewing dropouts about why they quit school. Every person in her survey mentioned the inability to keep up with homework as a major factor.
Screenings are held all the time, all over the United States. You can find a listing of the screenings here (Race to Nowhere: Screenings). I'm almost certain you will find one in your own area. I'm just as certain that if you go, you'll be glad that you did.

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