SUMMIT, NJ – In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which was based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education.
Perhaps it can. But 10 years hence, America is dealing with the fallout from the policy — the creation of a highly competitive education system built around a culture that is driven to get the best grades, to get into the top schools to get the best jobs to make the most money— at all costs.
“Race to Nowhere” is a documentary that looks at how children and their families are failing to cope with the pressures inherent in such a competitive system.
The documentary was shown at Summit High School on Monday night. The film has been shown at other districts throughout New Jersey, including Westfield and Princeton, and at other schools across the country.
Families profiled in the film included high school students who were pressured to get As in advanced placement (AP) courses, children who fell into depression when their grades faltered and elementary school children as young as in the third and fourth grade who struggled to cope with a high volume of homework.
“I thought the film was compelling in many ways,” said Miriam Zahn, who has daughter in fourth grade in Brayton School. “I see a little bit of the stress with the homework and not having enough time to play after school.”
One of the more impactful points made in the film was the pressure educators are also under to teach towards test taking rather than teach as a true educator might in the interest of learning.
“Take for example the NJ Ask tests,” said Margie Ticknor of Madison who has a seventh grader and a fifth grader in Madison schools. “You have letters that come home that say, 'this is what we will be teaching in preparation for the NJ Ask.' So they are teaching them to the test rather than to learn.”
In the higher grades, the film showed that cheating was one of the most popular ways of dealing with pressure to get top scores. And most educators think that if they don’t give out a lot of homework, they aren’t doing their jobs.
“Personally, I think the administrators would be happy not to offer all the homework but they do because they are worried that the parents will think the school is not doing a good job if they don’t,” said Christine Preston of Madison. “I think our schools live in fear of parents for everything.”
Race to Nowhere was inspired by attorney and mother Vicki Abeles who speaks of “a series of wake-up calls that made me look closely at the relentless pressure to perform that children face today,” on the Race to Nowhere Web Site. “I saw the strain in my children as they navigated days filled with school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities. But it wasn’t until the crisis of my 12-year-old daughter being diagnosed with a stress-induced illness that I was determined to do something.”
On the Web site the film is described as a "call to action for families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens."
Lauren D’Onofrio of Summit has already done her part. She encouraged the Summit PTO to have the film shown in Summit.
“I have a daughter in second grade,” D’Onofrio said. “When the film was showing the pictures of kids playing, such a feeling came over me. My daughter never gets to do that.”
“Kids do feel pressure to take as many AP classes as they can,” offered Dr. Tom Ruane of Summit. “The film talked about pressure from school but its also overscheduling for sports and other stuff.”