Driven to excel, at what cost?

This article was originally published on the front page of The News & Observer‘s The Chapel Hill News.

Published Sunday, February 13, 2011

Film explores student’s stress

Chapel Hill— Thirteen-year-old Devon Marvin loved math. But after receiving her first-ever “F,” she doubted she could place into advanced algebra.

Unable to overcome the debilitating blow of a failing grade, she fell into an unnoticed depression and killed herself.

“She had this internal pressure,” Devon’s mother, Jane, says in the documentary Race to Nowhere. [She] was so successful on so many fronts, and then there was this stupid math grade.

The film’s sold-out screening at the Varsity Theater on Thursday was sponsored by Emerson Waldorf School. Alice Armstrong, the school’s outreach director, organized the screening as a rebuttal to the much-discussed film Waiting for Superman.

She said that the film’s solutions for education reform—more school, longer school hours, and more testing—have parents concerned.

“People in this highly competitive, Chapel Hill community are thinking about these things,” Armstrong said. “They must be seeing these issues in their own children.”

Emerson Waldorf is based on an alternative form of education developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919. Children are not graded until middle school and are given only two traditional textbooks during their K-12 education: one for math and the other for a foreign language.

Emerson Waldorf is also exempted from standardized testing by the N.C. Department of Non-Public Schools. Students are measured by an approved curriculum checklist.

Top-notch success

Race to Nowhere documents the expectation for children, whether it’s from parents, schools, college admission requirements, or even the students themselves, to achieve top-notch success in all aspects throughout their K-12 grade levels.

Reading flashcards are marketed to 6-month-olds. Elementary students as much time on homework as they do in a classroom. Middle school students are expected to excel at sports, music, art, and academics.

In addition to that expectation, high schoolers are advised to load up on Advanced Placement courses, perform community service, and obtain summer internships. Teachers are pressured to teach to standardized tests. Parents struggle to squeeze quality time into their child’s hectic schedules.

Freshmen enter college burned out before their first semester even begins. Meanwhile, employers are left wondering why the latest crop of new hires lacks critical thinking skills. In a society of “Tiger Moms” and No Child Left Behind, Race to Nowhere asks whether all this is paying off.

In 2010, American students ranked 17th in overall education compared to the rest of the world. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama referred to the realization that the United States has fallen behind in its international standing as our “Sputnik moment.” He proposed a ‘Race to the Top” challenge to individual states, speaking of “raising expectations” for American students.

Today’s expectations

At the Varsity, Bill McDiarmid, UNC’s dean of the School of Education; David Cooper, Elon University dean of the School of Education; Emerson Waldorf music teacher Jason Child; and local psychologist Merideth Tomlinson discussed the implications today’s expectations have on children striving for success. Tomlinson told the audience that similar gatherings are popping up all over the country, as the issues in the film are beginning to be discussed.

She cautioned that the cumulative stress children are experiencing will take its toll and make students prone to more serious issues. Meanwhile, she said parents are anxious about keeping kids calm and stress-free. One after another, audience members told their own stories.

One mom said she got out of the “rat race” and decided to home school her children. Audience member Karl Lenox, also a child psychologist who moved to Chapel Hill from Wake County for the school system, said she has seen children in middle school hospitalized due to school-related stress.

It’s on a different level than in the past,” Lenox said. “We’re seeing suicidal behavior.

Typical adolescent stressors over friends or adjusting to a new school have morphed into serious mental health issues such as cutting or eating disorders, she said. She put responsibility on the parents.

“It’s this competitive environment that starts with women listening to Mozart [while the child is] in the womb,” she said. “At age three, it’s swimming lessons; at age five it’s soccer. Then it’s a sport and a musical instrument. This competition didn’t exist before.”

She said some parents have a false mentality that what’s good for a 7-year-old is good for a 5-year-old. She balked at children in kindergarten being taught to read. “I didn’t read until I was 7, and I have a Ph.D and graduated from Duke and UVa,” she said.

McDiarmid suggested the solution was to “start with policy and work all the way down.” Colleges such as UNC are also pressured to place high in national rankings, he said. A high ranking means more selective admissions.

If the end result is to have a student admitted into a good school, Child challenged what the definition a “good school” should be. He said it should be seen as a place where a student learns to become who he or she is meant to be and not a status symbol.

“What if your child was just happy and productive?” he asked the audience. “Is that enough?”