Apodaca: Are we sending kids on a 'Race to Nowhere'?

Are we raising a generation of anxious, overly stressed, sleep-deprived kids? Or are concerns about how hard we're driving our children misguided and overblown?

Those questions are often on my mind, but even more so since last week, when I attended a local screening of the provocative documentary "Race to Nowhere," a film by former Wall Street lawyer and mother of three Vicki Abeles.

Through interviews with students, parents, educators and mental-health professionals her film makes the case that pressures on children have grown so much that we've compromised our kids' health, happiness and ability to truly succeed in learning.

The documentary has been making the rounds in communities across the country, tapping into a groundswell of unease among parents, who fear that our educational system and goals have gone badly astray.

"Race to Nowhere" relies heavily on testimonials and anecdotal evidence to make its point, and tends to throw a very large net over a wide range of issues, from teen suicide to eating disorders to cheating. It provides little in the way of hard proof that excessive amounts of homework, an obsession with testing and the high-stakes college admission game are worsening these maladies.

Yet, judging by the nods and murmurs of assent throughout the audience, I'd wager that most parents know instinctively and through their own experiences that Abeles is right.

As I write this, I am distracted by worries over my 16-year-old son, a high school sophomore who got exactly two hours of sleep the night before. No typo: two hours.

What's most distressing is that it's not unusual. Indeed, I'd estimate that so far during this school year, he gets an average of five to six hours of sleep each school night. At his age, he should be averaging at least eight to nine hours nightly.

Let me stress that my son is a normal, hardworking, conscientious teen with an academic load that is typical at his school. He plays a sport, does a few other extracurricular activities, and fulfills his required community service obligations — again, all standard fare for students his age.

But this typical teen is so exhausted that he sometimes nods off during meals, and so overworked that he missed celebrating Easter with his extended family.

It was the same painful struggle for my older son. He is now a happy, well-adjusted third-year college student, but he was so miserable in high school that he still has difficulty talking about that stressful time.

This is in no way a slam on teachers, who I generally admire, and who are caught up by the same anxiety-inducing forces that have consumed our children's lives. The problem, as Abeles suggests in her film, is complex and rooted in our society's dependence on an acutely competitive, performance-driven model for our system of educating children.

In this "Race to Nowhere," we push our kids to their overbooked limit, while dangling the ultimate prize — a college acceptance — as validation for their pressure-cooker existence. And the race starts early, with many parents working themselves into a frenzy if Junior isn't composing sonnets by third grade.

But the way off this treadmill, though not easy, can be fairly straightforward when it comes to one of the biggest stress-inducers. We need to reduce the amount of homework.

I'm not arguing the benefits of targeted, effective assignments and the importance of learning to research, study and review work independently. But that type of homework, at least in my experience, is the exception rather than the norm. Much of what's assigned is simply long, tedious and of questionable value.

Is it really helpful, for instance, for a high-level college-prep class to have a project that includes coloring? How much is gained from interminable, repetitive lessons that cover the same ground over and over — what one educator I know refers to as "drill and kill?"

Is rote memorization of vocabulary lists really a good use of students' time?

And why is homework sometimes given the night before a test that does little to help the student understand and prepare for what is being tested?

What parents like me are sensing about homework is difficult to pin down, but there is some research that lends credence to the "Race to Nowhere" argument.

For example, a Duke University study, which was cited in the film, found little to no relationship between homework and achievement in elementary school. In middle school, the study found, the benefits of homework reached the point of diminishing returns after 90 minutes per night, while for high school students the benefits diminished after 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. I'd guess that my son would be thrilled, if he could wrap things up in a mere couple of hours a night.

In "The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It," authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish contend that we've turned our kids into unhealthy "homework potatoes." They urge parents to become advocates for change.

To be sure, that change won't come easily. But it can happen if parents, like the ones in "Race to Nowhere," speak up.

I'd love to hear from other parents on this matter — whether you agree with me or not. Together we can at least keep the discussion alive, and perhaps help our schools find the solutions that our kids deserve.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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