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Student Stress, Competition & the Educational "Race to Nowhere"

By Tom Ashbrook

Test-heavy, tough love education is “in” – it’s urgent and necessary for America to stay competitive, we’re told.

Now, a new documentary with a different narrative is gaining momentum.

The film “Race to Nowhere” says America’s schools have become test-obsessed, high-stakes pressure cookers. They’re churning out ill-prepared adults short on creativity and ethics, and stripping humanity from kids.

Vicki Abeles, the filmmaker, is a mother of three whose own 12-year-old daughter had problems with school-related stress. Her documentary is making its way across the country in grassroots fashion, airing at PTA meetings, in school gyms and community centers.

“I think today’s system isn’t generating kids who are independent thinkers and ready to contribute to the world,” Abeles says. “So I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are wanting to create a generation of test-takers and resume-builders, or do we want problem-solvers and life-long learners and healthy young adults.”

Of course, there are larger policy concerns complicating the issue. The pressure is on right now for American education and American students. New numbers out last week showed American 15-year-olds well down in the world pack in math, reading, and science, while Chinese students, in particular, ranked very high in many categories.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education, says the debate should not be framed as “‘push’ or ‘not push’ – it’s a lot more nuanced than that.” We should keep these global comparisons in perspective, she says, and students in places such as Shanghai are having some of the same problems with stress and sleep-deprivation.

Credit: Racetonowhere.com

“There are going to be other countries that are training their kids – and ‘training’ I think is the key word there – to really perform well on those kind of standardized tests,” Pope says. “What I think that test[ing] does not measure is creativity and the ability to solve complex problems. And what we need to think about is, ‘What do we want as a country as the outcome for our high school graduates and for our college graduates?’”

Yong Zhao, professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education and author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, says there’s a lot of data showing that standardized test scores do not predict a nation’s success.

“Many of China’s college graduates cannot find a job,” says Zhao, director of Michigan State’s US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence. “At the same time international firms in China are actually complaining they can’t find qualified talent–so there’s some irony there … Going after test scores is the wrong indicator to look at for the quality of education.”

Guests in this show:

Vicki Abeles, director of the new education documentary “Race to Nowhere.” She’s an attorney, a mother of three, and first-time filmmaker. She made the film ‘Race to Nowhere’ after her own 12-year-old daughter was treated for school-induced stress.

Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education. She’s author of Doing School: How we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and mis-educated students. She’s also co-founder of Challenge Success, a national research project to reduce unhealthy pressure on youth

Yong Zhao, professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University and author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. He’s executive Director of the US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence.

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