If you think March Madness is all about college basketball, then think again. Abc's, 1-2-3's, ISAT's and SAT's. March Madness is our kids embarking on the Race to Nowhere.
With the dreaded ISAT testing season upon us, and selective enrollment high school letters in the mail, I'm reminded of what I did over the winter break from school. I found myself googling "homework over school breaks?" When sorting through the search results I stumbled upon several text and video links referencing the "Race to Nowhere," a documentary produced by Vicki Abeles. I also watched several You-Tube clips of schools that have taken some form of a "no homework pledge." A wave of calm overtook me, as I realized I was not the only person in the world that thinks it just plain stinks to give a first-grader homework over a school break.
As I delved deeper into the topic, my calm was overshadowed by the dark-side of this underlying phenomenon: Teenagers with depression and eating disorders, elementary-age school children with anxiety and stress related illness, to name a few. Apparently homework over break in first grade is only the beginning of the cycle. Teachers are being told to teach to the test without regard to critical thinking, or the physical toll it can take on the kids. And students are pressured to perform, not to learn.
Even in the pre-ISAT years the children begin testing of all sorts to ensure they are comfortable with the idea of testing long before the real thing rolls around. We have ISAT rallies that rival a pumped-up crowd at the Final Four. We have quiet rules to the point where too much movement or noise could be distracting for those testing, so the whole school gets no recess, and no "extras" like gym, music, and art while testing is in progress. Our schools are teaching our kids from the start that test scores are more important to them than anything else. Period. And what about the parents? Some of us are doing the same thing by prepping and coaching our kids for their Kindergarten entrance exams, and begging that seventh grade teacher for an extra-credit project to avoid that fatal 'B' that could mean no entrance into a selective enrollment high school.
"The dark side of America's achievement culture" is a very appropriate sub-heading to the Race to Nowhere. What are we doing for our children? I think Tim Devine, the Principal of Walter Payton College Prep High School, one of the top selective enrollment high schools in Chicago, says it best in this video "Race to Nowhere Ignites Change."
"There is a balance that's achievable between the curriculum and ensuring that the students are leading healthy lives."
Even the kids at Payton can't get homework over breaks.
Have you ever wondered what the purpose of homework is? I always assumed it was proven to be a necessary reinforcement tool-though I questioned the validity of so much at such young ages. I easily found that Duke University has conducted numerous studies on the topic of homework, and the results show that while homework continues to be controversial among educators, one thing they all agree upon is that too much homework is counterproductive, and that below seventh grade there is no relation between homework and good grades. Still, many educators use the 10-minute rule. A fourth-grader gets 40 minutes; a 12th grader gets two hours. The problem is that even a 10-minute assignment can take elementary aged children 45-60 minutes to complete, and often create a scene much like you see in this hysterical social animal video clip, in which my daughter and I could have starred.
If there is no correlation with homework and good grades for kids below seventh grade, then why are elementary school kids getting homework packets? Pro-homework groups will claim it's creating good study habits for all of that future homework. Some parents think of it as proof their child is in an academically rigorous program. I think the truth is that homework is often required in lower grades because the teachers, to no fault of their own, do not have time to give individual instruction to 35 students. If you read between the lines, this means that we as parents have turned into our child's teacher whether we like it or not. This means that differentiation at school is not possible. This means there is no time for exploration, questioning and interactive learning in the school classroom. Instead, we have become homeschoolers whether we like it or not. Homework is giving our kids the instruction they're not getting at school.
The Chief of Chicago Public Schools has decided to improve our schools' test scores by lengthening the school day and the school year. The problem with this is that one size does not fit all when it comes to education. This is reflective of not just schools, but teachers and students as well. When you have children from preschool through eighth grade on one campus, it becomes even more difficult to run a school effectively. Should a 6-year-old go to school the same amount of time as a 14-year-old? Do first, second and third graders really need 30 minutes of homework per day as recommended by the Chicago Board of Education? Quantity does not equal quality, which is why many parents are fighting the extended day and calling for a compromise of "6.5 to thrive."
In Chicago, we seem to go from one extreme to another. If it goes through, we will go from one of the shortest days in the country, to one of the longest. There is no guarantee that anything will be better, only that it will be longer. This has become the sad state of our schools. As William Glasser said: "There are only two places in the world where time takes precedence over the job to be done. School and prison."
The state of our schools leaves our children fighting for an individual moment with their teacher, it leaves them deprived of daily physical exercise, it leaves them believing that good test scores equal a good life, it leaves them with no curiosity and little desire to learn. With no time for questions in class, it brings on adult size anxiety, stress levels and health problems to them at very young ages, and has them believing they are failures if they don't get high scores. It leaves them running circles in the race to nowhere.
Many kids are being rescued from this never-ending race by something I once thought to be rare and radical: homeschooling and unschooling. There is another education focused documentary called "Class Dismissed" that is currently in production. It focuses on a grass roots movement that has become quite popular among many families across America and worldwide: letting your child be educated naturally by exploring our world.
While the thought of my child not going to a school was a bit hard to swallow at first, once I really researched the idea, I can see how it makes complete sense. Imagine an individualized education plan that you can design. Stress free -with no strict schedules. Open-ended discovery. Daily exploration of the world. Integration of education and real life. Check-out this blog written by a girl that was home/unschooled. These ideas are no longer rare or radical, and their demographic is not full of religious and political conservatives. The new home/un-schoolers are just ordinary people that take the opportunity to mold their child's education to their liking. Yes, I understand it's still not for everyone, but it can work for many families.
If you're not quite ready to take the plunge into the world of homeschooling and unschooling, and want to stay in our education system, what can you do? Go to endtherace.org and sign-up to be an advocate for no homework policies in your child's school. Encourage your school to host a screening of the film. Sign the "6.5 to thrive" petition. Give your child plenty of de-stressing time at home. Fight the new law that will link test scores to teacher's performance reviews. Try to find, and successfully enroll in, a school that shares some of your ideas about education. Teach your child that scores are not equal to success. Let them know that ISATS and SATS are not what they should think about in elementary school. Focus on A-B-C's and 1-2-3's and let them be kids. Provide them with opportunities to ask questions and engage their curiosity no matter where you are, or what you are doing.
And if you are passionate, why not organize the parents at your school to show up one hour late when the extended day starts? This is not just about the teachers being over-worked and under-paid, it is about our kids being stressed and pushed away from learning, and toward performing. Or why not join parents across the country that are opting out of state standardized testing for their kids? Let's put March Madness back where it belongs-in college hoops.
A few years ago, my story would be different. But now, I have a better understanding of our public education system. And when my kids cross that finish line, I don't want to look back and wonder where their childhood has gone. Not in that sentimental parent kind of way, but in the literal way. Did they ever get to just be a kid? Did they learn and become educated through means that made them well-rounded, happy, healthy and relaxed? Are they comfortable in this world that surrounds us because it has been their classroom? That's what I hope to accomplish by avoiding the Race to Nowhere.
See more of Heather's stories here.