Tahoe/Truckee debate: Is America’s education system turning into a race to nowhere?
November 11, 2010
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. -An insightful and eye-opening documentary regarding the current state of education in the United States had a packed house of Lake Tahoe Basin parents, teachers, students and residents agog with conversation, reflection and vows to change behaviors toward school-aged children.”Race to Nowhere” is a documentary film, directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, that focuses a critical eye on education in America, making the case that children across the nation are overworked, overloaded with homework and pressured to engage in time consuming extra-curricular activities. It was shown last Thursday at Sierra Nevada College.The film argues those pressures create stress-related illnesses and depression while fostering a culture of rampant cheating and learning just enough to pass tests, rather than actual knowledge acquisition or obtaining necessary learning and critical thinking skills critical for adulthood. “The film was very reflective of our society and our culture; it really makes you stop and think,” said Incline parent Tia Rancourt after the credits rolled.”Race to Nowhere” is dedicated to a 13-year-old student named Devon, a talented and proficient student who abruptly committed suicide two years ago after receiving a failing grade on an algebra test.In the film, Zak Abeles, a third-grade student whose day is packed with activities – including seven hours of school, three hours of sports and about three hours of nightly homework – said his peers are already talking about what they need to do to get into a top college.”I think our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods,” said Dr. Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author, during the film.Author Sara Bennett – interviewed in the film – said studies demonstrate there is no correlation between homework and student performance at the elementary school level, and at the middle school level, workloads that exceed an hour can be counter-productive.Many of the students interviewed for the film admitted to cheating, more out of a time-saving method than any moral bankruptcy.The film is critical of No Child Left Behind, a national policy enacted in 2001 by an act of the U.S. Congress after an initial proposal crafted by the George W. Bush administration. The policy advocates for standardized testing as a method of assessing individual student progress.In the film, Emma Batten-Bowman, a former teacher with the Oakland Unified School District (Calif.), said she resigned from her position, despite being passionate about the job and her students, because the administration forced her to teach lessons geared toward passing standardized tests, rather than showing concern for a child’s well-being and instilling a love and appreciation for any given subject.Furthermore, Jay Chugh, a AP biology teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, Calif., said in the film that when he cut his class’ homework load in half, test scores soared accordingly.
All this and more generated a buzz of conversation in the room when the film ended and the lights came on.”I am shocked by this film,” said Holly Verbeck, a Truckee parent. “My seventh grader hasn’t been eating his lunch lately, and I am going to change the way I attend to this issue.”Kristen Sura, a teacher in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, said if she attempted to reduce the homework load for her classes, she would be reprimanded.”If I give less homework, I’ll get in trouble,” she said.Margie Seehuetter, a teacher at Truckee High School, vowed to make Wednesdays a homework-free day for her Spanish class, eliciting applause from the audience.Keenan Dean Faulkner Cawley, a 19-year-old Sierra Nevada College student, told the audience about a professor who does not grade his homework, but instead critiques it, offering ways to improve.”It creates more of a dialogue,” Cawley said. “It makes me want to do homework because instead of working for a grade I am working for knowledge.”Steve McKibben, headmaster of Lake Tahoe School, said his teachers only give homework if the students understand the rationale behind the assignments.”The students don’t have to like it, but if they don’t understand the reasoning behind it, they shouldn’t have to do it,” he said. McKibben said assessment tests are important, but they are a means for teachers to analyze student progress, not an end in themselves.”Tests are not bad,” he said. “A driver’s test is a good way to assess whether someone is capable of operating a car, but the question becomes to what extent they are used as a means to an end.”Many parents vowed to question how their kids are being educated and how schools are defining and measuring success, whether success is tied to performance and grades or health and happiness.”The most important thing … is that we must not equate quantity with rigor,” said Teresa Eppolito, a TTUSD teacher and parent of four kids in Incline schools. “Our education system must focus on quality, not quantity. The amount of parents getting tutors for students because they aren’t performing at the A level is crazy.”Let kids be kids. Grades should not be the sole indicator of success.”