Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Drawing the wrong conclusions from Race to Nowhere

I finally had a chance to see Race to Nowhere, the movie everyone's been talking about (including yours truly) but few have had seen (seeing as it isn't playing in movie theaters).

Today's kids are stressed out--yes. Perhaps as never before. They seem to be spending less and less time playing than ever before. They may be getting more homework, and less sleep, than ever before. More and more of them are more stressed out than ever about getting into college and landing a decent job. The AP exams appear to be giving record numbers of students record levels of stress. All these things are true.

But many of the conclusions that the movies draws from all this are simply wrong, and serve merely to further entrench certain of our most problematic current practices. For example:

It's not the curriculum; it's the teacher. Sorry, it's both. The best teacher in the world can't teach decent math if all she has is TERC Investigations, especially if she's threatened with punishment for insubordination if she deviates from the curriculum.

Pressure to raise test scores prevents teachers from using methods that we know do work, like group activities and project-based learning.  Sorry, but we don't know that these methods work better than their alternatives; in fact there's plenty of evidence that they don't. What the pressure to raise those No Child Left Behind test scores has instead done is cause schools to dumb down the curriculum and ignore the most capable students.

AP tests should be abolished. These do seem to be a growing source of stress, with record levels of failure, but as I noted earlier:

All those watered-down math and science classes and content-impoverished social studies classes disadvantage even our top students, such that by the time they reach high school it's hard--and extremely stressful--for them to make up for lost time, whether in math, biology, chemistry, or history.
The fact that record numbers of college students are having to take remedial classes shows that we are going about teaching them the wrong way. Yes, indeed. But the answer isn't to replace AP classes with even more group-centered, project-based learning. AP classes, in fact, are one of the few remaining ways in which we can hold high schools accountable for preparing students for non-remedial, college-level work.

The movie also overlooks or downplays some key issues. Much of the decline in free play, and much of the increase in childhood stress, has nothing to do with schools, but stems from excessive screen time at home, overly structured day care, restricted outdoor activities (our paranoia about pedophilia and playground accidents exceeding our paranoia about childhood obesity), and over-scheduling (all those sports; all that music, dance, and theater; later on, all those college resume-builders).

Much of the excess of today's homework takes the form of those time-consuming, high-ratio-of-effort-to-learning, and often organizationally-nightmarish and developmentally inappropriate busywork assignments favored by the Project Based Learning model that the movie, at least in places, implicitly endorses. Cut all that out, along with the summer projects, and pressure would decrease substantially, and open-ended play time could start making a comeback--the more so if schools would start reviving recess and parents would stop overscheduling.

Much of the stress of the college rat race comes from parents resorting to outside tutoring to make up for the deficiencies they perceive in their children's schooling, and from increasing competition from better-prepared overseas applicants whose schools haven't yet abandoned rigorous academics. The terrible employment situation only makes people crazier.

Finally, Race to Nowhere leaves out the possibility that intense academic challenges can be sources of joy, of flow. Set up properly. Yes, in that sense, it is the teacher (not just the curriculum). With a rigorous curriculum and a teacher who both understands it and knows how to teach it, kids can not only Run Somewhere, but perhaps even Run a Marathon.


Melinda Salmon said...

Completely agree, Katie! Glad we got to see the movie together and discuss it afterwards. Hope to see you again soon!

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, I think people say they're in favor of "project-based" or whatever because they want to be progressive, but they don't necessarily know what the alternatives look like.

I think the winning argument is that you can teach kids more with fewer hours, less homework, and less stress using Singapore Math than fuzzy math. That's the argument that wins with me.

Anonymous said...

I agree! My 14 year old homeschooled son has one hour traditional algebra instruction per week from a math teacher with a very solid math/engineering background. The teacher says Mars learns more in that one hour than the students he tutors who have 5 hours of classroom instruction by other methods. Mars completes all his math--the lesson plus reinforcing homework in about 3 hours per week. He adores algebra, tackles homework with gusto and tests in the 97 percentile for his age--despite considerable learning disabilities which "should" impair progress.


Early Knowledge for Kids said...

You bring up a good point about "content-impoverished" coursework. According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, only about 5-10% of the school day at the elementary level is devoted to knowledge building.

Kids don't learn enough in elementary school, so they experience information overload at the middle and high school level. They have to learn too much in too little time. The countries that are successful academically put a lot of emphasis on knowledge building, sometimes as early as preschool.