The most horrific part of the film "Race to Nowhere
" is the heartbreaking thought that one young California girl's story could be the story of any kid.
In "Race to Nowhere," director Vicki Abeles chronicles the "Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture" through the perspective of high school, middle school and even elementary school kids who feel pressured to succeed -- which translates as getting straight A's -- so they can to get into the best college around. The film shows a guidance counselor who is dismayed at the sight of parents using flashcards with their infants "when they're supposed to be sucking on their toes and thumbs.'' The film's title is a take on President Obama's signature $5.4 billion education initiative Race to the Top,
which rewards states that commit to education reform by doing such things as improving test scores.
Unfortunately, the pressure for perfection can lead some kids to feel that anything less than an "A" is a sign of failure and to wrongly conclude that they have failed.
Most kids who receive B's vow to study harder and work to improve their grades. Lots of other kids also are satisfied with a B.
Some kids, however, can't handle that B.
That California girl who was profiled in the film is one of those kids. For that girl, the "B" in math marked her as a failure. And, at age 13, she killed herself.
Was her death preventable? Do schools, parents, admissions directors, teachers and employers place so much stress on our kids to succeed that many of them feel that death is the only way out?
I hope not.
But the feeling that stress could be a factor in the high rate of suicides among young people still nags at the back of my mind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third most common cause of death
for youths ages 10-24.
The vast majority of kids who are stressed or depressed do not commit suicide, but such articles as "Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshman" and even books like "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" leave me less than convinced that we are doing what is best for our kids' mental health. Recent research reinforces this point.
According to The New York Times,
campus counselors say that kids who have just started college -- those who are at a point when the world is open to them to explore -- are more depressed, under stress, and medicated
than at any time since the space shuttle Challenger exploded
Others say that our kids will push themselves to perform and to reach seemingly impossible goals -- like walking on the moon or performing in Carnegie Hall -- only when they are pushed by their parents, teachers or counselors. This notion recently rose to the forefront of the "mommy wars" with the provocative piece "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" published in The Wall Street Journal.
Opposition to the "Race to Nowhere" theme -- that Americans put too much stress on their kids to succeed -- is reflected in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother." In the book, Chua confesses that nothing less than an A
was acceptable in her Chinese-Jewish household. To Chua, American parents are not strict enough, and the only way for children to succeed is for parents to push them until they drop, as is the case with Chua's reluctant piano playing virtuoso, who reached that stage only after pulling all-nighters at the keyboard. (Politics Daily's Joanne Bamberger believes that this behavior borders on child abuse
The problem with emphasizing test scores as a way to evaluate our kids' academic achievement is not confined to a few households or families. It is a national problem. Despite its laudable goal to improve our country's educational system, the Race to the Top initiative perpetuates an emphasis on scores over learning. As one commenter on the "Race to Nowhere" Facebook page noted, "My husband and I just saw the film tonight at our local grade school.... Amazing thought provoking film..... Then we come home and watch the tape of the State of the Union speech and laught when we here "Race To The Top".... !!!! Two steps forward, Three steps back. Really? Come on!!! Perhaps someone should send this film up to the White House."
There's a mixed message in all this. While we obsess over the stress on our kids and vow to reduce the amount of homework, we simultaneously obsess over the fact that American school kids score significantly worse than their Chinese counterparts on math and science tests
. We wonder how to find the balance
between too much stress and too much leisure.
Teaching that balance to our kids may be difficult as our own lives mirror the lives of our children. Linda Dowley, a stay-at-home mother of three whose youngest child left for college this fall, admits that she has gotten caught up in the race. As she told me: "I felt I needed to do something to justify my existence. So, while no one openly criticized me for being 'just a mom,' I did volunteer an inordinate amount of time at my kids' schools."
Dowley then listed her jobs --- working to improve communication in California's second largest school district, moderating a discussion of "Race to Nowhere," updating the high school website, chairing a committee that is researching reasons behind abysmal scores on math standardized tests at her high school, and co-authoring an information guide for college application and admissions.
Perhaps it's time to connect the dots. As parents at the screening of
"Race to Nowhere" that I attended emphasized, we need to realize that a 10-year-old girl should not be worrying about where she is going to college. And parents need to listen to their children and be willing to pull back from the misplaced focus on grades and standardized tests that give us a false sense of achievement. As a Stanford professor notes in the film, "We need a metric to measure our happiness." That makes sense because all of us know really unhappy people who have scored perfect 800s on their SATs.