Are You Racing to Nowhere?
Jill Hare | Teaching
I had the privilege of seeing a screening of Race to Nowhere recently in Atlanta. I have a feeling that the hour and twenty minutes I spent watching that movie could alter my future as a parent and educator more than any other single event in my life. As I looked around the screening room at the almost 500 other people watching the movie, I had to wonder, how could we get the people who really need to see this documentary to watch it? If like me, you bought a ticket to see Race to Nowhere, you already recognize the issue and want to learn more. But the movie isn’t for those of us who are trying our best to stay abreast of the latest research and make changes accordingly.
The issue that spoke to me most as an educator was homework. The movie talked to so many stressed students who had mountains and hours of homework each night. One teacher said, “When did the teacher get to decide how students spend their time when they leave school for the day?” So many parents saw the stress that homework had on their kids, and craved to have time after school to let their kids just be kids. Research says there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school. There is a correlation between homework and learning in middle school, but after an hour of homework, the correlation disappears. The same is said for homework at the high school level, but after two hours, the correlation of learning and homework drops off.
Homework is a local school issue. Each school has homework policies, and my hope is that every teacher knows where the value of homework stops. Teachers need to talk to each other at each grade level to ensure that students don’t have more work than they can handle.
If parents talk to each other, they might find that homework assigned in certain grades or at certain schools is too much. Advocating for appropriate levels of homework should be a dialogue between schools and parents. Making students sit for hours each day after school to complete unnecessary homework doesn’t benefit the teacher or the student.
One high school AP teacher said when he started assigning less homework, his students’ grades got better. Several schools, because of parent advocates, started implementing homework free nights or no homework altogether. Students became more excited to go to school and learn, and after school time with families was drastically improved.
Homework Tips to Take to Heart
Homework isn’t all bad. It teaches students responsibility and helps them practice their newly learned skills. “One thing is certain,” stresses Roch Chouinard, vice-dean of the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Education, “homework is more beneficial when it is short but frequent rather than long. What’s more, the correlation between homework and cognitive and social benefits is precarious. This means if there is too much homework potential benefits can become negative. This tipping point varies from one family to the next and from one environment to the next.”
Pat Hensley, author of Successful Teaching writers, “Don’t give homework just for busy work. Make sure there is a valid reason for the students to be doing this assignment.”
“Make sure the assignment length and difficulty is appropriate for the age of your students. One rule of thumb is that very young children should have no more than 15-20 minutes of homework a night (all subjects combined), students in grades 4-7 should have less than an hour (all subjects combined), and secondary students should have no more than 2 hours a night (all subjects combined). An alternative rule of thumb is that there should be no more than 10 minutes per grade level each night. For example, third grades have no more than 30 minutes, fifth graders no more than 50 minutes, etc, "author Julia G. Thompson writes.
Expectations & Praise
If you’re a teacher, how do you praise your students? Do you hold your praise until each student attains the same accomplishment? Or do you praise every students for their personal achievements? Many students in the movie felt guilt until they completed their homework. One student told his mom that he had to do his homework or his teacher would get mad. Reflect on your homework expectations and how you reward students. Make sure the process is one that helps students understand the value of learning.
As a parent andan educator, the message of Race to Nowhere was more powerful. The language parents use to set expectations for kids and the way they are praised for their accomplishments is an important issue. Many times in the movie, parents had motivated their kids to do school work to “get in to a good college.” This is where the name of the movie transpired. One student described how he was working so hard to complete everything and do it well, and then he would get to college and do it all over again to “get a good job.” All of the racing to nowhere didn’t make sense if the goal of life was to be happy.
The parents in the film were mainly middle to upper class parents who pushed their kids to be the best, get involved in as much as possible, and motivated them by the results of a great college and top job. Parents reflected that sometimes they focused too much on trying to get their children to be the highest achiever. One mom said she always asked her child “How’d the test go?” And by innocently doing that on a regular basis, she may have created the stress the child felt towards doing well in school. It’s great for parents to care about the school day, and each child should be held to reaching their full potential. However, doing well shouldn’t be stressful. After school hours should be filled with a mix of activities, both free and planned.
The education system we have today doesn’t measure all types of success. It’s important as an educator and a parent to find and redefine success based on the individual, not what society defines as successful. For me, success is happiness. What do you think the ultimate success in life is? Share your thoughts about these issues and your take on the movie Race to Nowhere.