Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How About a Race To Somewhere?

By Pat O'Connor PhD

It’s been a year since Vicki Abeles released Race to Nowhere, a documentary that looks at the negative impact our culture of teaching-to-the-test, getting into the “right” college is having on the lives of our students and families.  I thought the message was drowning out some of the media-driven college frenzy that has nothing to do with really preparing and applying to college.

Then two quotes came along that hit me harder than a slap in the face with the Fiske Guide.

“My daughter’s in 9th grade and will have all this free time this summer.  Can you tell me what community service activities she should get involved in?  You know, the ones the colleges like?”

The dad who called wasn’t wrong to ask the question—he loves his daughter, and wants her to have every opportunity to create a bright future.  He thinks “right” community service activities will open doors at the “right” colleges that “wrong” community service activities won’t.  Since that’s what he ‘knows”, he’s just trying to close the deal…

…and that’s why Vicki Abeles made Race to Nowhere. Like it or not, our No Child Left Behind culture not only tells us there’s just one answer to the capital of Nigeria and 3x+2= 5i; it also suggests all answers can be known without being explored, and the first one to get all the right answers wins.  College isn’t like that; college admission isn’t like that; life isn’t like that. Just ask Thomas Edison about finding the right filament for the light bulb.  It wasn’t the destination; it was the journey.

Our society certainly took some hits when students graded themselves in college (ask your parents), but we seem to be overcorrecting.  If classrooms can’t ask students what water feels like, or how world hunger will end, then knowledge is finite—and if we had admitted that 20 years ago, you wouldn’t be reading this column, because the Internet wouldn’t exist. Meandering has its purpose, too.

On the other hand, we have quote two:

“If Harvard receives 35,000 applications for a mere 1,640 freshman spaces, something is clearly amiss in our value system.”

This is Vicki Abeles herself, in an article where she argues the only two choices in parenting are to “push” children or “encourage” them.

But Vicki Abeles is wrong on both fronts. If bright students have worked hard in school and enjoyed understanding who they are and what the world looks like without feeling the stresses of doing so, why not Harvard?  Harvard is a great fit for the free thinkers Race to Nowhere wants to nurture, and it’s free to families who make under $60,000.  Given that, it’s a wonder a million kids don’t apply.

As for the argument that parenting is either about pushing or encouraging, whatever happened to it being a little of both?  If your child loves music, encouraging them to practice is a snap; if the discipline to practice is part of the recipe of enjoying music, then pushing enters the picture.  Just ask Yo Yo Ma, who, to this day, hates to practice.

Schools need to wonder why kids who spend five hours nightly on homework can’t remember what they were tested on last week.  At the same time, encouraging students to do their best without learning anything gives us the same result—dysfunctional kids who don’t know where they’re heading, or why they need to get there. The truth is somewhere in the middle; now that the extremes have been established, we need to get there, and in a hurry.

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