I want to start off by saying that I love it when ordinary citizens take action around a topic they care deeply about. I felt that immediately when I saw Vicki Abeles’ film, Race to Nowhere, as part of a school screening/conversation in 2011. Abeles’ wants us to challenge – and change -- the “achievement culture” that pushes children to aggressively build resumes on their path to a narrowly defined version of success.
Abeles has followed up that initial film with a second one – Beyond Measure – which I haven’t yet seen. I did, however, read the companion book with the same name. Abeles, who lives in the Bay area, describes the constant scheduling of young children, the endless hours of homework, and the pressure for kids build a deep and broad, multidimensional resume to get into the very best colleges. This pressure, she writes, takes away from family time, diminishes the capacity for exploration, and leads to a whole host of stress-related problems. And she points to a hysterical competitive culture as the culprit – a treadmill of fear-driven expectations that stems in equal measure from institutions and parents and peers.
As much as I love Abeles’ activism, one thing about her work consistently bugs me: She collapses the experiences of low income kids and the experiences of middle/upper class kids into one “epidemic.” But the bulk of what Abeles is interested in concerns the choices that affluent families make – signing kids up for multiple elite sports teams and activities so that they can get into good colleges (regardless of how far into the future college lies); sending them to schools that foster that achievement culture and that assign multiple hours of homework nightly; hiring tutors to follow up after school activities with SAT preparation, and anxiously worrying so much about their kids’ performance that the family’s entire life revolves around it. And for that behavior, Abeles has some clear advice: STOP IT. And really, if you live in this type of community and in a family that has the means to live in this type of community, STOPPING IT is well within your power. Tell your kid she can only play one sport after school. Tell him to go to the park and hang out. Tell her to go to bed even if there’s more homework to do, because he’s ten years old, and who cares whether he gets a B in homework? Move to a different town that values different things. Find a different school. Change it if you want to, because you can. (Oh yeah, and those standardized tests? Opt out. ).
The school related pressures that face low income kids can be different, however, and Abeles isn’t interested in exploring this nuance. In many schools in struggling neighborhoods, the pressure to demonstrate growth on state standardized tests is extreme. Remember that the ultimate “sanction” we level against schools that don’t demonstrate adequate yearly progress on standardized measures after five years is closure. As a result, many such schools relentlessly test prep all year long, which can lead to soulless, uncreative, thin educational experiences. There are fewer resources and time for art, music, drama, and recess as everyone is geared toward a standardized outcome.
On top of that, many parents in these communities don’t have the resources available to them to move, to take their kids out of school, and to navigate bureaucracy. And the stresses that many of these communities face are more profound than helping Johnny manage all of his activities so he can get into Harvard. Kids and schools have to navigate violence, health care, housing, lack of food. These problems are the social issues we should all rally around. These are the ones that really need a film and a cry of urgency.
So, on the one hand, I’m on board with the idea of creating a larger conversation about achievement culture, health, and sanity. But we also have to get real about what constitutes an epidemic and what kinds of problems demand our outcry.