California Educator

February 2011

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Q&A with Vicki Abeles ‘Race to Nowhere’ redefines success Corporate finance attorney Vicki Abeles has emerged as an unlikely hero in the educa- tion field with her documentary Race to No- where. The first-time filmmaker and mother of three focuses on the mental and physical toll today’s competitive school system takes on students, teachers and families due to an overemphasis on testing, drill-and-kill in- struction and overwhelming amounts of homework. The film depicts real-life students who fo- cus on grades in hopes of being accepted into prestigious universities at the expense of true learning, critical thinking and happiness. Middle school and college-bound students from all socioeconomic levels are shown to be sleep deprived from studying all night, taking stimulants, cheating and dealing with depres- sion. There is also the story of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after failing a math test. Teachers in the film say that they are under so much pressure to raise test scores that learning has become secondary. An Oak- land teacher tearfully explains her decision to leave the profession because she feels unable to meet the needs of her students with so much emphasis on testing. Experts in the documentary say these issues not only hurt education, but pose a threat to society and our future. But it’s not all bleak. Solutions aimed at students, teachers, parents, administrators and mental health professional are listed in the film, and can also be accessed at racetono- Anyone who would like to sched- ule a showing of Race to Nowhere in their school community may do so through the website or by calling (925) 310-4242. The Reel Link Films produc- tion has been shown in more than 80 theaters nationwide, which isn’t bad for a documentary. But the real impact has been at the lo- cal level. Screenings have been held in auditoriums at elementary schools, secondary schools and universities throughout the country; at com- munity forums and conferences; and at CTA’s Issues Conference in January and CTA’s State Council. During the past six months there 18 California Educator | FEBRUARY 2011 empowering and comforting because they know they are not alone. Your film shows that middle school can be a turning point when students stop enjoying school. How do you think we can we modify middle schools so we can give students the study skills that they need and not have them be totally stressed out by the time they arrive at high school? (Question submitted by María A. López de Howard from Sacramento City Unified School District.) have been 1,400 screenings held in 48 states and 15 countries. California Educator’s Sherry Posnick- Goodwin recently caught up with Abeles for an interview. Several of the questions were submitted to the Educator by CTA members who attended recent screenings. EDUCATOR: How would you describe the reaction from viewers and critics to RTN? Vicki Abeles VICKI ABELES: It’s been overwhelming. The film is resonating with hundreds of thousands of people including parents, students, educators, school board members, administrators, col- lege professors, college admissions depart- ments and policymakers. It resonates not only because of the personal stories told, but also because of what the research is showing and what ex- perts have to say. I felt it was an important story to tell and that it would provide students and edu- cators with a voice about educa- tion reform. It was my hope that the film would be a centerpiece for communities generating a new dialogue around education and creating policies that will transform what we are doing. I was hoping for a film that would inspire change. So many people in communities where there have been screenings say they have found the film to be We have to first start shifting the mindset about what it takes to provide children with a good foundation in high school, college and life. We need to take into account where young people are developmentally, so we can provide them with high expectations that are developmentally appropriate. And in both middle school and high school, we need to focus on education that is meaning- ful and relevant. We need to structure the school day around inquiry and learning and engagement. Some of the students were extremely stressed out from five or more hours of homework each night. Should homework be abolished altogether? How can teachers assign some homework, but not too much? It’s a challenge. Standards drive homework. Testing drives homework. And parents drive homework. But we have to look at both the quality and quantity of homework. Research shows the only homework that contributes to academic achievement in elementary school is reading for pleasure. Research shows that when it comes to middle school, an hour per night may contribute to aca- demic achievement, but after that you start to see negative consequences such as kids who start hating school, kids who are bored and not engaged, and kids who aren’t sleep- ing enough. Expectations are out of line with where kids are developmentally, so par- ents are doing homework for them. In a way, it’s teaching students to cheat. Our labor laws wouldn’t allow our kids to have jobs for six and a half hours each day and then work

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