The Race Against Homework

The place was packed and several were turned away. We all arrived with the same baggage: the concern that the love of our children and our desire for them to be happy could make them miserable. When the film was over, we knew it could actually be true, miserable and sick.

Watching "Race to Nowhere" at Park Dale Lane Elementary last Tuesday night was more difficult than I thought. Hearing the voices and seeing the proof that our children are being driven to stomach pains, headaches, hospitalizations and even suicide from the pressure to succeed had a visceral effect on the crowd. I ended up with a stomach-ache just watching it.

"Race to Nowhere" is the result of one mom and filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, who saw the tolls that overscheduling and academic pressures were taking on her entire family, including her heartbreaking fourth grade little boy, and decided to do something about it.

As she says of the film, "Race to Nowhere" points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace; students are disengaged; stress-related illness and depression are rampant; and many young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired." Not only does the film give voice to this problem through personal stories and interviews, but it also offers ways for parents, schools and policy makers to turn things around.

I was there because I wanted to know more about the unhealthful rise in the amount of homework given to our kids. I have no idea what it's like to have a school-aged child (My eldest is four and a half), but I'm always shocked when I hear a friend with older kids tell me that afternoon hours are off-limits for play because they're doing homework. "From 3:30 to 5, we do homework," one says, and makes me wonder what a fourth grader is doing for one and a half hours and why his parent has to do it with him.

I don't remember my parents ever doing homework with me. They were there to answer questions and sometimes asked how much I had but, aside from one science project in sixth grade, I don't remember them ever being there for much of the work. I like to think that encouraged me to "own" my assignments and to be responsible for them.

But then, I guess if a 9-year-old is expected to do an hour or more of homework and reading, perhaps the only way that's going to happen is with his mom sitting there and keeping him on task.

Again, I do not have a 9-year-old, so really, I can't say.

One of the solutions offered in the film, however, was actually not asking your kids at all about school work or even tests. Is this a little extreme, I wondered. But when you hear advice from parents who have had to hospitalize, move schools and reconsider college just to get their kids healthy, you tend to listen.

If you're thinking, like I wanted to, "not my kid," then hearing those connected, aware parents say the same thing may make you think again. For some, like the film's director, it took opening the door in the middle of the night to see her high school daughter doubled over in stomach pains or seeing her fourth grader crying because he was worried his teacher would be disappointed in him if he couldn't do all the homework. Children trained by social media to put on a good face can mask their pressures with things like getting up in the middle of the night to finish homework or not eating for more energy.

Homework was only one aspect of the epidemic laid out in the film, but it was a large one. And the increase in homework since the 80's, for all grades, is only made more challenging by the overscheduling of kids with activities like traveling sports teams. What our kids give up in order to get it all done is sleep, healthy and clean bodies, self-esteem and -- did we forget? -- play?

Play and the lack thereof in the lives of our children these days was a point made again and again in "Race to Nowhere." Unstructured play not only develops the body in ways children need, but it also develops critical thinking and the right side of the brain in ways that many young Americans may lack today -- the ability to solve problems by thinking outside the box. This comes with play and also with the time to just be bored, looking around for things to do, hopefully developing your passions and identity in the process. But when is there time for that if you get home from extracurricular activities at 7 p.m. and do homework 'til midnight?

The kicker is, studies repeatedly show that homework doesn't work.

According to research and interviews in the book "The Case Against Homework," by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish (also in the film), there is no correlation between homework in elementary school and student performance. There is a benefit for homework in the upper grades, but it tops out at an hour a night for high school students, max. Most of the kids interviewed in the movie were doing an hour before even reaching junior high and it radically jumped up from there.

At the screening, I sat with Bonny, a woman I know from my neighborhood. She shared my sadness at the voices of children who had been largely robbed of their childhood. Periodically she whispered to me about her son, Gavin, who has a really hard time with homework. "I'm terrified of middle school," she confessed.

When the lights came on and a panel assembled for discussion, Bonny told me that for the first time ever, in the fifth grade, Gavin finally loved school. Fifth is supposed to be a big jump in homework year, so I was surprised to hear this. But apparently Gavin's teacher gives him so much time to complete homework at school that if he applies himself, he doesn't have much to do at home at all.

"And would you believe some parents complain about the teacher because they think he doesn't send home enough homework?" Bonny said. Her sentiment was echoed at the panel discussion where every question asked was about lessening homework.

It seemed as though the school's principal, an administrator and a teacher on the panel could possibly be moved in the direction of lighter homework policies, such as those suggested by the film. But there was still a tension over what other schools were doing and what parents and future institutions will expect.

I wondered who would be first to take a stand, for surely someone would need to for things to change. Perhaps cynically, too, I thought about the No Child Left Behind policies the film points to and how much the school's curriculum needs to be dictated by what they will be tested on in order to get funding.

Then I thought of Dr. Pam Redela, who is the mother of a Park Dale Lane first grader and teaches at Cal State San Marcos. Pam saw "Race to Nowhere" at Flora Vista school and realized she needed to set up a screening at Park Dale. "As a college teacher, I see what these policies have done to my incoming student population," she told me, echoing what the film says about the rise of remediation for college freshman. Apparently, when you enter college only knowing how to cram for, then pass a test and forget much of it quickly, you end up pretty unprepared for higher learning. "I wanted to figure out how to head it off before my daughter gets there, so we looked into having a screening here at our school."

I thought of Pam and how her concerns led to action, rather than stagnation. I thought of Vicki Ables, who responded to the puzzling decline in her kids' health not with overwhelmed defeat, but by creating a powerful call to action. And I felt energized. Slowly, my stomach-ache began to clear.

"Race to Nowhere" is spreading like wildfire. Check their screenings page to see when the next one is near you. If you don't see one, there are directions to host one for your own community, so you, too, can feel the energy spread.

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