Thursday, January 20, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Race to Nowhere

At a screening last night of the documentary film “Race to Nowhere,” another mother and I were marvelling at the fact that we were seeing the film at the same time that “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is getting so much publicity.   They represent such very different perspectives on parenting.  Why, we wondered, is this happening now?   If popular philosphies on parenting swing from permissive to strict and back to permissive again, where are we, as a culture, right now?  And what does this mean for our kids?   While “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” describes a punitive and restrictive Chinese parenting style that is designed to prepare children to compete in the global economy, “Race to Nowhere,” shows the toll that insisting on high achievement is taking on kids around the country, from every economic background.   

I was familiar with some of the issues addressed by Race to Nowhere from having read a couple of Alfie Kohn’s books, such as "The Homework Myth." He’s been talking about these issues for over 10 years now, warning that practices like assigning hours of homework, awarding teachers merit pay, closing down struggling schools, advocating charter schools and promoting high stakes testing are all counterproductive.

Here are some of the most impressive findings from Challenge Success.

In a national survey, students were asked to use 3 words to describe how they felt in school. The word most often used by students was “bored” followed by “tired.”

Time kids spend doing homework has increased 51% since 1981.

Harris Cooper reviewed research on homework, which showed almost no correlation between homework and achievement for elementary school students. There was a 0.7 correlation for middle school students for the first 60 minutes; if middle school students did more than that, he found little or no correlation.

According to a study of children at more than 60 schools, by the end of 4th grade, those kids who had attended academically oriented preschools earned significantly lower grades than did those who had attended more progressive, “child-initiated” preschool classes, where the emphasis was on play.

In Finland, kids begin formal school at age 7. While initially behind, by age 15, Finnish students outperform students from every nation in reading skills. Finnish students are also among the highest scorers in math and science literacy.

According to a large study done by the University of Michigan, family meals are the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems for children ages 3-12.

Kids today have 12 hours less free time each week than they did in 1981.

Studies have shown, that sleep deprivation is associated with memory deficits, impaired performance and alertness, and delayed responses, yet school starting times get earlier and earlier. 

Some of my friends are very concerned about the number of AP classes on their kids’ transcripts.  They’re wondering what it means for their kids’ college applications.  They’re worried about whether they will get into the top NYC public schools,  whether they’ll get recruited for a “travel” team, place in their gymnastics meet, or get the lead in the school play.   I have my own anxieties and worries and hopes for my kids.  What I really hope, though, is that all parents, teachers, administrators, and medical professionals will see “Race to Nowhere."   It’s made me feel a little better about things.  Maybe if we don’t push our kids, if we give them more free time and less pressure -- even if these things don’t happen, it will be okay.  We might even all be happier.  It will be okay.  It really will.  


Veggie PAK said...

My kids are grown, but I have grandkids, so I will be sure to watch The Race to Nowhere. I think far too much pressure is being put on kids to grow up fast. When we take their childhood fun years away from them to cram book learnin' in their heads, we rob them of their curiosity and creativity. There's no time for it. What's the rush anyway? Go to college and get a diploma and then try to find a job in your field of study? Look around everyone. It doesn't work! Kids need to explore life and all its wonders for themselves. Teach them to grow vegetables. Let them see where food comes from. Let them try it and get the soil into their very being so they experience life. If you follow the educational trend, the goal was to have a Bachelors Degree a few years ago. Then it became Masters Degrees. What's next? Doctorates? All this is being done for what? Money? Money sure can't buy happiness. I would rather have happy sons and daughters than rich ones.
Sorry for the rant.

Joanne said...

Speaking as the parent of two college students who attended our state university and lived at home the entire time, I can assure you it was okay. One daughter has her Masters in Education, the other is about to graduate with a BA in English. The BA student has no student loans, none, and because of several small scholarships she pursued, her tuition this semester, out-of-pocket was $218. Yes, you are seeing that figure correctly, and that's approximately what she's been paying for 4 years. My other daughter had to take a small student loan for her Masters program only, but did get her BA debt free. Very okay, in my book.

TALON said...

Seems the pendulum always swings from one extreme to the other in most things...and somewhere in the middle (the whole delicate balancing act) is where I always strived to be with my 3 children - all grown now. One thing that makes me sad for children these days is the lack of time for just being a kid and having time to daydream or goof many children seem to have every minute of their lives scheduled. Children are individuals and that has always been overlooked in the education system.

Pam J. said...

Very interesting post, revealing a lot of wisdom in the questions you pose. Any parent who asks these questions, who thinks deeply and creatively about her parenting, is almost certainly giving her kids exactly the right parenting messages. I'm a firm believer in the notion that parents are a child's most important teachers. Kids may learn how to speak Spanish at school but they learn how to think, and ask questions, and make judgments from their parents. Assuming they are lucky enough to have at least one parent who loves them unconditionally. And two parents, becoming more rare I fear, is even better.

JGH said...

Veggie Pak, Joanne, Talon & Pam, Thanks for your thoughtful and reassuring comments. Another point that was brought up, is that when we give our children free time, they choose to spend it either gaming or online chatrooms, facebook, etc.(at least mine do) I saw a mom on CNN yesterday who took all "screens" away from her kids for 6 months. They had to do things like play board games, cook and practice saxophone!We are seriously considering doing this.

LazyMom said...

Well...thank goodness for our little German Pre-school where the head mistress refused to be pushed into teaching the kids to read and write in Pre-K by the more competitive parents.
And I guess the research is right ALL the girls are on the honor roll! three cheers for a lazy childhood.