I watched Race to Nowhere over the weekend. It’s a documentary about the current state of the American education system. It’s eye-opening, provocative, and sad. It had me in tears more than once and left me thinking, “What the hell are we doing to our kids?” It talks about our achievement-driven culture, and our standardized test-driven education system, and how both are sorely failing our children. It talks about the rising rate of stress-related illnesses in children and in teen suicide. It really makes you stop and think. Is it all worth it? What is it we’re aiming for? Do we value achievement over happiness and good health? Are we raising mini-adults, workaholics in training, or do we want well-rounded kids who grow up knowing how to strike a healthy balance?
I will tell you that it made me stop and think about my own kids. My oldest son, Kevin, is a sophomore in high school. He tested into GATE in elementary school and was accepted into the Honors program as a freshman in high school. He’s always been a good, strong student, and a good kid. On his first semester report card a couple weeks ago, he received an F in AP Chemistry. He’s never received an F before. He’s always been a strong A/B student. The F actually appeared on his quarterly progress report, and I freaked a little, and laid down the law. “No more hanging out with friends after school,” I told him. “No more extra stuff – no more sleepovers, no more fun weekend trips – nothing, until you bring that grade up. And it’s your responsibility to get extra help if you’re having trouble with the content.” So for the next several weeks, he went to tutoring offered by his Chemistry teacher twice a week. Other than that, he came straight home every day after school and pretty much gave up his social life in favor of homework. He still got an F in Chemistry on his semester report card.
Here’s the thing: he tried. He’s a bright kid, but clearly AP Chemistry is too much of a struggle for him. He’s not going to succeed in that class unless he takes a remedial class. His counselor and I agreed that it would be best to move him to a regular Chemistry class. Kevin was very down about this – he felt like a failure. He felt like he wasn’t smart enough.
What I realized – especially after watching Race to Nowhere – is that we tend to put way too much focus on grades. Yes, grades matter. In high school they matter most as they relate to eligibility for college. But you know what? Kevin isn’t going to go to some prestigious university anyway – we can’t afford it, and he’s not a 4.0 all-star student, involved in all kinds of clubs and activities that are going to look good on a college application. What is much more likely is that he’ll start at a community college and transfer at some point, probably to one of our local state universities. And you know what? There’s no shame in that. There is more than one path to success. There is certainly more than one definition of success, as well.
Another thing I realized after watching this documentary is that I can see the argument in favor of homeschooling now. Not that I think I’m cut out for it, but I can see becoming so frustrated by the system, feeling so powerless to change things when the people in positions of power shoot down every concern you have and every argument you make – when it’s your children you are talking about! – I can see feeling like it’s all so futile that some families just decide to take things into their own hands. It’s not for everyone, but you know what? More power to them.
I really recommend this documentary. It’s the education system’s An Inconvenient Truth. Parents and educators alike should see this. For more info, go to Race to Nowhere.