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Exploring the ‘Race to Nowhere’ in American Education

Just as new data indicate that college freshmen are at their lowest point in emotional health in 25 years, a new film on the stresses of high-stakes testing is unveiling what lies beneath the numbers at screenings nationwide.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” released last week by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, only 52 percent of first-year students in four-year colleges said they have above-average emotional health. That’s down from 64 percent in 1985. About 200,000 freshmen were involved in the process.

The new documentary “Race to Nowhere” highlights issues affecting the country’s youth, including anorexia, anxiety, depression and drug abuse, that stem from high-stakes testing and the pressure to succeed. It is being screened for six months through a community viewing campaign.

“The film is the starting point for change,” says filmmaker Vicki Abeles, “It is raising widespread awareness that our pressure-cooker culture and education system isn’t serving many of our children.”

Abeles, a concerned parent who lives in California, features physicians, academics, policymakers, administrators, students and parents in the documentary.

“I didn’t think when I had kids that the only time I’d see them was for 20 minutes at dinner,” she says in the film.

The documentary spotlights overworked kids who spend sleepless nights just to fit in several hours of homework, sports, community service and other responsibilities. Pushed to build a sparkling résumé to be admitted to college, many kids burn out.

Abeles was moved to address the issue when a straight-A student in her town committed suicide at 13 years old after receiving a failing math grade. Her own kids were also experiencing stress headaches and anxiety. One of the main messages in the documentary is that too much homework is ineffective.

“Everyone who sees the film finds a place for personal connection,” says Abeles. “Their views on childhood and education are forever changed.”

Administrators have received this message well, she says, adding, “Both administrators and teachers everywhere are also feeling the pressure coming from our culture and education system with its focus on test scores, competition and a one-size-fits all approach.”

One particular teacher, Emma, in the film talks about her experience working in a majority-minority, underprivileged neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., and how she feels forced into teaching for the test. She also notes that standardized tests are not made for students of diverse backgrounds. The “No Child Left Behind” Act put even more stress on struggling schools, says Emma.

Dr. Deborah Stipek, dean of the education school at Stanford University, participated in the documentary and says things have started to move in another direction under the Obama administration. Tests are being developed that are not multiple choice, but gauge reasoning and critical thinking.      

“That’s a good thing because that will promote the kind of instruction that students will both find more interesting and more fun but also that will help them, serve them not just in college but in life,” she says.

Still, the most important variable in students’ performance is quality teaching, says Stipek. In the film she suggests investing in teacher preparation and making it a more high-paying profession as a possible solution to the United States’ underperforming K-12 educational system.

“In Singapore, Finland and some other countries teaching is a very high-status profession,” she says.

Abeles notes that she’s been getting requests to screen the film in Hong Kong, Australia and Europe.

“This isn’t global warming – it doesn’t require new technology to solve – these are children and we all instinctively know we need to make big changes,” says Abeles. “The film is creating the political will to change”

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