Film strikes chord

'Race to Nowhere' documentary has one principal thinking of 'fundamental changes' in the classroom

Click on pictures to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Insights often have the most value after the occasion has passed and one has had time to ponder the deeper meanings, so it is all the more remarkable that Kelly, a ninth-grader in the documentary "Race to Nowhere," needs just two sentences to capture the multi-faceted dilemma facing many middle- and high-school students today.

"You have to be smart, but also you have to be pretty, and also you have to do sports and you have to be involved in the arts, and you have to find something unique about yourself," Kelly says in the film. "And you have to know yourself, because if you don't know yourself before you do all that, you're going to lose yourself."

Vicki Abeles, a mother and former lawyer, co-directed this 2009 documentary that played to a nearly full house on Jan. 18 at the performing arts center at Woodside High School. Principal David Reilly arranged the presentation, introduced it and took questions afterward.

The screening of "Race" on Tuesday, March 29, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park is sold out, a church official said. Go to this link to find other local screenings.

The film is short on data, long on anecdotal testimony from students, parents and educators, and carries a message that should be no surprise: competition for grades and stature has gotten way out of hand, in part thanks to anxious parents attuned to what they believe to be grim realities in a race to have the right education credentials for their children.

School issues dominate home life as kids are being turned into "little professionals," the film says. "There's so much more to a child's life than what's going on at school," one parent remarks.

The pressure to achieve, the film claims, starts in middle school and just builds. The focus becomes high test scores and the right combination of extracurricular activities to impress admission officers at the right colleges. It's called "doing school," and it is subverting fundamental skills such as problem-solving, working in groups and thinking critically, the film says.

An attorney in the film notes that her interns, on being given an open-ended writing task, will not infrequently ask her how many paragraphs she wants. "(They) fall apart on non-formulaic questions," she says.

"At Menlo-Atherton High School, there's a lot of concern about how hard students are working now," said M-A parent Terry Aguiar who attended the Woodside showing with her husband. "There's huge pressure to take advanced placement classes and to get As."

The Aguiars attended the screening to get another point of view. Their bottom line: Parents should exchange views and concerns with other parents, Ms. Aguiar said. "It takes a village," she added.

Engaging the community in education issues is one of the film's recommendations, along with attending to each student's learning style and individual interests, and cutting the homework load.

Less homework

That "Race to Nowhere" was shown at Woodside High is testament to Principal Reilly's concern. "I want my entire staff to see this film," he told the audience afterward. "I think we need to redefine success in this society and it is not (state academic ranking) and preparing for standardized tests."

Research has shown benefits from reducing the homework load, and it would seem to be the low hanging fruit. In the film, an advanced-placement (AP) biology teacher notes that grades went up after he cut his class's homework in half.

But changing the homework regimen at Woodside High would involve "a huge paradigm shift," Mr. Reilly said in an interview. "Teachers would have to reflect on how to maximize their use of instructional time. How do we fulfill and complete assessments within the class period, which then takes away from instructional time?"

"It's a completely different way of delivering content," he added. "You have to make fundamental changes in the classroom."

For example? Having students get lectures via personal computer and save homework for the classroom, where help is available and distractions are fewer, he said. It's a "very, very interesting" concept called "reverse" or "flipping" school, Mr. Reilly said.

Homework battles would no longer involve parents. Students, their option of coasting through lectures now gone, would be demonstrating their understanding or lack of it in real time. An online discussion group could allow students to discuss the lecture before class.

"This would level the playing field a little bit," Mr. Reilly said, referring to advantages enjoyed by kids who have such discussions with knowledgeable parents. "That's an example of a paradigm shift. That's not easy. That takes time."

Woodside High has five in-school programs for students of all abilities to discuss class work and do homework, Mr. Reilly said. New in January is the Honors Consortium program, one evening per week for honors and AP students to work independently or in a group and to review material with a teacher.

What is the right amount of homework, and what does it accomplish?

Homework can be a sorting tool to winnow out students who can't complete it, and who are then "systematically denied opportunities" that other students enjoy, said Diane Tavenner, the co-founder of Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, in an interview.

"We are very aware of the research about homework," she said. Summit students get no more than 30 minutes per day per class. With five subjects, that two and a half hours a night, and it's commonly completed before going home, Ms. Tavenner said.

The school offers two hours of after-school support every day plus a free daily study hour with teacher and technology resources. The challenge for teachers is to make homework meaningful and avoiding "learning out of the classroom," she said.

Typical college prep schools have much higher loads, sometimes as much as seven hours a night, she said.

Students surveyed at Atherton's private co-ed Menlo School for grades 6-12 reported two and a half hours a night, Upper School Director John Schafer told the Almanac.

School administration recommends between 20 and 40 minutes per day per class, with ninth-graders at the lower end of that range, Mr. Schafer said, noting that the time actually needed varies by student ability.

There's a point at which more is not better, he added. If 10 math problems can do the job, why assign 25?


The screening of "Race to Nowhere" on Tuesday, March 29, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park is sold out, a church official said. Go to this link to find other local screenings.

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