by Abby Margolis Newman
Has your teenager ever cheated on a test or copied someone else's homework? Chances are much higher than you might think, according to a new documentary, "Race to Nowhere ," which explores the academic pressures today's high-schoolers face.
I watched the film with my two older boys, Jonah (16) and Aaron (15), a sophomore and a freshman in high school. Jonah is at a private school in San Francisco, while Aaron attends public school here in Marin County, CA; I wanted to get their perspective on the movie, to see if this reflected their own experiences.
In the film, Denise Pope from the Stanford School of Education says, "In our study, less than 3% of the 5,000 students surveyed said they have never cheated." High school students interviewed in the film shrug their shoulders when the topic is raised - many of them readily admit to cheating, and they don't even seem ashamed of it.
"Race to Nowhere" is the brainchild of Vicki Abeles, a mother of three from Lafayette, CA who saw the pressures her own kids were feeling at school (even as young as fourth grade), understood something was terribly wrong with the American educational system, and wanted to figure out exactly what. So she traveled from California to Indiana to New York, interviewing high school students, teachers, parents, school administrators, psychologists and other experts - and the message she received was loud, clear, and sad: our educational system is hurting our kids.
Abeles found many students in American high schools feeling intense pressure to be perfect academically; to take multiple honors and AP classes as college application resume-builders; to get admitted to the most selective colleges in the country. And this competitive environment was creating kids who were stressed out, buried in homework - and cheating just to tread water and not fall behind their peers.
When the part about cheating came up, my jaw dropped. "97% of kids cheat?" I said, aghast. "97%?" My boys, to my horror, looked just as blase as the kids in the film. "Mom, it happens," said Jonah. "I've had kids ask to copy my history homework." Neither boy would admit ever cheating on a test - and I believe them - but they said it's common practice for kids to take shortcuts on homework by getting "help" from friends, especially when it comes to homework that feels like busywork. "At some point," said Jonah, "it makes more sense to get some sleep, or to work on something where we're really learning." Aaron observed, "Teachers feel like they need to give more homework to make their class seem more important."
If there was one thing all the experts - and many parents - in the film agreed on, it was this: our kids get too much homework. We see Abeles's own fourth-grade son break down in tears of frustration over his work. "If we forget to do this, Mom, then we're going to get in trouble," he says. "Then we lose five minutes of recess." Abeles says that her son began developing headaches and stomachaches. "He came home with math homework this year that I couldn't even help him with, " she says. In fourth grade? Isn't he supposed to be out playing baseball, or a video game, or simply chilling out and decompressing after school?
Clearly, there is something wrong here. Jay Chugh, an AP Biology teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, CA, says, "At what point did it become OK for schools to dictate how students live their lives once the bell rings? Because that's family time." Chugh tried an experiment in his AP class: he cut the homework load in half, to see what would happen to the kids' AP scores. Incredibly, the scores went up. "When you cut homework in half and the AP scores improve, what's the value of the homework?" he asks.
Sara Bennett, author of "The Case Against Homework ," says in the film, "Parents need to educate themselves about the fact that homework is not going to make their kids any smarter," she says. "The schools have our kids for seven hours a day; that should be plenty of time for them to impart the kind of knowledge they want." Denise Pope points out that the countries that consistently out-perform the U.S. in education on international tests actually give less homework than we do here.
Jonah said that between homework, classwork and tests, kids learn to prioritize - they simply cannot absorb it all. "When my teacher in Western Civilization is talking, my mind pounces: is it going to be on the test? If the answer's no, then my mind relaxes," he said.
Changing our cultural approach to homework - and not incidentally, to standardized testing, which teaches our kids to memorize furiously before a test and then to forget everything they learned - is critical if we are to save the next generation of kids from being stressed-out, overwhelmed and prone to cheating. Bringing about this kind of change may be like rolling a boulder uphill, but Abeles's film is a start.
Also on Mommy Tracked:
The Pressure for School Success .
Extra Credit or Extra Stress?