Stressed students ‘Race to Nowhere’

Race To Nowhere, a new movie on stressed students, is a hit with affluent parents, reports the New York Times.

The film portrays the pressures when schools pile on hours of homework and coaches turn sports into year-round obligations. Left somewhat unexamined is the role of parents whose high expectations contribute the most pressure of all.

“Everyone expects us to be superheroes,” one high school senior in the film says.

. . . Vicki Abeles, the middle-aged mother and first-time filmmaker who made “Race to Nowhere,” picked up a camera when a doctor said that her then-12-year-old daughter’s stomachaches were being caused by stress from school.

Stress is a problem for the minority of students who want to qualify for highly selective colleges. They’re not racing to nowhere. They’re racing to the Ivy League, Stanford, Berkeley, etc. They’re told they need high grades in honors and Advanced Placement classes and high test scores and extracurriculars and community service to get into their dream college. And, often, that’s true.

But who’s pushing students to aspire to very competitive colleges? Who’s paying for private-school tuition or a mortgage in a suburb with high-scoring schools? Who’d yell bloody murder if their children’s school eased off on homework and tests, canceled  Advanced Placement classes and trimmed extracurriculars and sports teams?  Mom and Dad, look in the mirror.

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  1. Brilliant point, Joanne. I’ve been lamenting the shortcomings of parents on both ends of the spectrum for years. Although I agree with you about the pressures parents often put on kids to get to Ivy League schools, the content in your box quote about stress of homework and year-round sports can’t be overlooked.

    I teach 7th grade. A current 8th grader who still follows my Twitter stream, recently tweeted that he was into his fourth hour of HW and still not finished.

    Why is it that so few well-educated people see that this is wrong and so many simply don’t get it?

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I intend to.

    Thanks for highlighting it on your excellent blog.

  2. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    I tend to think that students are a little overworked in some limited respects, and that they definitely are mistreated in the sense that they are pressured into doing activities that they didn’t WANT to do in the first place. I used to have some days at high school that went from 0520 to 2330, with activities piling on. But I did those because I wanted to, and was pleasantly surprised to find out later that they helped me get into college.

    If a student really doesn’t love early morning ROTC workouts, late-night play rehearsals, doesn’t enjoy their wrestling practice and early-morning vocal ensemble practices, then the student shouldn’t be doing it. The student should find what he or she likes to do, and should be encouraged to do THAT. You never caught me at an Honors Society meeting, because I didn’t like those. You never caught me at Soccer practice, working in a soup kitchen, or at band camp because I don’t like soccer, I was concerned with my own nutritional needs, and I don’t play an instrument. If someone had tried to force me into those activities because I needed them on my resume, I probably wouldn’t have succumbed to stress, but I would have told the entire parental-educational-industrial complex to go @#$& themselves and that would have been the end of my academic career. And that might have caused its own special kind of stress.

    The real crime in so many students’ lives is the disconnect that emerges between the students’ activities (small “a” activities) and the students’ sense of selves in the face of parental and scholastic pressure to pad the resume. And that disconnect is the source of the stress; you cannot do something you hate day in and day out because other people think you should do it and remain perfectly sane.

    Now, that’s not to say that one should never perform an unpleasant task: Parents can work a job they hate day in and day out but they can do that because they want to feed their kids; they have their own, real reasons which are theirs. People can perform all sorts of unpleasant tasks when they have their own real reasons for action. It’s when they have OTHER people’s reasons or FAKE reasons that things start to go astray.

    Now, some of you are thinking that a student can say “I want to go to college so I need to do X”, and on this basis argue that they should torture themselves with activities they hate and classes they despise, but there are two potential problems there. Three, actually, now that I think about it.

    The first potential problem is that some students are lying: they don’t really want to go to college. What they want to do is impress mom or dad, or live up to their big sister or whatnot. They know that they are lying, but they lie anyway.

    The second problem is that a lot of students don’t actually know what college is. This makes it difficult to want. What’s actually going on in these cases is that something like “I want to please my parents” is getting turned into “I want to go to college.” They say they want to go to college, but what they really want is something else. They’re lying, but only in the unconscious, self-deceived sense of the word.

    The third potential problem is that the “so I need to do X” part is often not going to be TRUE. Yes, Virginia. You can go to college without working in a soup kitchen or candy-striping. Hell, you could write one heck of a college essay about how your job as a student and a young adult is to serve your own needs so that you can look after others and exercise charity from a position of strength and adult stability. There are admissions committees who would eat that up.

    SO yes, a student can say “I want to go to college so I should do all these unpleasant things.” But if none of these three potential problems apply to the student who says this, my suspicion is that there isn’t going to be nearly as much stress because there won’t be any cognitive dissonance going on. A student who knows what he or she wants to do and who does it is going to experience eupraxis, not stress. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s human flourishing. Such students are going to be rare gems, indeed.

    Finally, Mark:
    If your student wasn’t stopping to *TWEET* he probably would be done with his homework. If I had had the internet, my home work would have “taken” four hours, too.

  3. I am a parent who spent over 20 years with four kids who did full-time elite sports, with heavy practice and travel schedules, and were also on the full honors/AP track. My experience is that it is highly unlikely that kids will tolerate being made to do something they don’t like for very long. The kids who dropped off or were cut from the travel teams were the kids who did not practice skills and do condidtioning on their own (creating a skills and fitness gap), missed too many practices (creating a skills and tactics gap) and who were likely to miss games and tournaments (further hurting the team). The kids who stayed with their activities (of whatever type) were the kids who wanted to do them and obtained pleasure from them. For my kids, their sports reduced stress.

  4. The reason that “Race to Nowhere” resonates with so many families is that up until about 10-15 years ago, bright students could get into an Ivy caliber school without the Draconian schedule. Parents don’t like the current situation at all, but they don’t feel like they have much choice. The kind of resume that got my DH and I into Stanford in the mid-90’s would have little chance of being successful today. Are today’s Stanford students really that much smarter than my classmates? Not from what I can gather based on my encounters with them. They just cram their schedules more.

    Nearly all the parents of hyperscheduled kids I know would love to ease up on the pressure if doing so didn’t put their children at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.

  5. What I object to is the inordinate amount of useless seat time students have to endure. This is particularly hard on the smarter students. A shorter time spent working hard is far better than a much longer time spent coasting. Most class time in most classrooms I’ve watched, is spent coasting. What a complete waste of valuable time, much of that time better spent in getting out and running around or playing in an orchestra or singing, etc etc etc. A second observation, complete waste of time for the older grades, studying things they are completely uninterested in. A focused school can cover everything a student really needs to know by age 16, earlier if the student is bright and hard working. After that, let them follow their passions. But this will never happen. Can’t be controlled by the educrats.

  6. Yes, this is a movie that could *only* be popular with the affluent because it showcases a problem that is particular to the affluent.

    Low-income students don’t suffer from over-scheduling of activities. Many of them would probably give an eyetooth to be able to take a fencing class.

  7. Michael, what a ridiculous comment about the Internet adding time to homework. Since you don’t know the student in question, you have no perspective to comment.

    Even if Tweeting cost him two hours, it would mean he still got two hours of useless homework.

  8. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Mark Barnes –

    Ridiculous, is it? Hmmmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s so difficult for me to judge my own writing.

    But if we’re going to play the insider epistemology game, I suppose I could say that because you don’t know me, you don’t have the perspective to say anything whatsoever about me or what I post. But that would be unreasonable of me, wouldn’t it? We can discuss things as we find them, and as they are described to us by others. Indeed, we rely on others for much of our supposed knowledge and many of our judgments about the world.

    Now, I had naively assumed that you would have made plain any obviously relevant circumstances in your anecdote about the poor child, but you didn’t. You merely said that a kid tweeted to you in media res that he was not yet finished with his homework. Surely you recognize how ridiculous that sounds on its face. If there is information that makes it less ridiculous, if there is context in which the kid’s situation isn’t obviously laughable, I should like to hear it. But I made my judgment based on what was presented to me. Perhaps I should have asked you for more information first, but such is the way of the internet.

    Finally, while we’re taking the time to criticize each other (if we can assume that saying my comment is “ridiculous” is actually criticism, which I suppose we can)
    I should also point out that while it’s perfectly legitimate to complain about useless homework, as opposed to the mere volume thereof, that’s not at all what you were discussing in your first posting, so it’s hardly fair to expect me not to realize that the homework you were talking about lacked quality as well as proportion in its quantity.

  9. greeneyeshade says:

    In a crazy way I’m almost glad my 2 kids (one of whom is now a college graduate, the other a college freshman) had learning differences. It certainly kept us out of this trap.