This month marks the public television premiere of a very important film, Race to Nowhere. Vicki Abeles' provocative documentary tells the story of children, parents and teachers who are increasingly frustrated by an educational system pushing our kids to breaking point. As a pediatrician and a parent, I am heartbroken by the growing number of kids I see with anxiety, depression and mind-body ailments like ulcers and migraines associated with the stress of just trying to keep up. Shockingly, some of these children are in elementary school.
Race to Nowhere serves not only as a vehicle to tell these children's stories but also as a wake-up call, as Abeles notes, to "mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens."
Questions abound. What is the purpose of school? Are we preparing our children simply to be overworked, stressed-out adults? Child health experts across the country, myself included, are worried we've gone off track. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, an adolescent medicine specialist and author of "Building Resilience in Children and Teens," in an interview with the New York Times wonders, "What are we really trying to do when we think about raising kids? We're trying to put in place the ingredients so the child is going to be a successful 35-year-old. It's not really about getting an A in algebra."
How do we define success? In typical American fashion, we've lost sight of the long-term goal. We as a society tend to take the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?" approach. It's true in sports, in politics, in economics and alas, now, in childhood. Starting early in preschool puts us ahead for elementary school, where more and more kids are tutored even if they are on grade level. Middle school grades determine high school placements, and college prep begins in 9th grade, not 11th as it used to be. And so on. We are so focused on THIS TEST that we lose sight of the whole child. What about non-academic strengths? Shouldn't we be emphasizing "well-roundedness"? The parallels with health care are notable. "Why prevent tomorrow what you can fix today?" is our mantra. We should be concentrating on creating wellness through prescribing healthy lifestyles, promoting good nutrition, fitness, rest, and free play in natural settings instead of a pill for each ill. Chronic sleep loss is so significant a concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a landmark policy urging middle and high schools to push morning start times later. There is mounting evidence that incorporating mind-body skills training -- like yoga or meditation -- in schools reduces stress symptoms and problem behaviors like aggression while strengthening cognitive functioning and improving focus. Furthermore, coaching kids to develop these self-mastery skills promotes resiliency and confidence.
Here's what I remember. The teachers who had the greatest impact on my life were not the ones who gave me the best grades. They were the ones who connected me with the wider world and challenged me to grow as a person. Our children will not always remember their standardized test scores -- but they will remember those moments when they were challenged, and struggled, and learned, and grew. Success can be defined not by the grade given but by the lessons learned. We must create a system that values those achievements.