By Marsha Sutton
This was the week for movies — not thrillers, adventures or light entertainment though. Two documentaries that expose hard lessons about the grim side of public education have just been released and are triggering deep discussions among parents and educators about a system that’s broken from one end of the socio-economic spectrum to the other.
The good that might come from these bleak portrayals is that frustration and outrage may be escalating to a tipping point.
Affluent communities have the schools that families living in poverty long for, yet the problems facing high-performing students are no less challenging than the desperate needs of low-income students who are denied access to quality schools.
The film “Race to Nowhere” — shown earlier this month at La Jolla High School — traces the dark side of over-achieving, hyper-competitive high school students frantically running an impossible race to fulfill all the admissions requirements they and their parents think they need to be accepted to elite universities. (To read about "Waiting for Superman," see below.)
Students in these schools (La Jolla High, Torrey Pines High School, Canyon Crest Academy to name three) enter this race from Day One, whether they signed up for it or not. Without knowing what hit them, these kids find themselves competing with students around them for courses, grades, sports teams, volunteer opportunities, clubs, school leadership roles, jobs and internships, awards and everything else that makes up a high-performing high school student’s every waking moment.
Free time is nonexistent for these kids, a concept as remote and fantastical as a good night’s sleep. To say the pressure is intense is the height of understatement. Because top colleges now expect students to come armed with loads of Advanced Placement classes and grade point averages that well exceed the 4.0 mark, students are struggling with classes beyond their ability, interest and available time.
The pressure to succeed has led to rampant cheating, mostly because, to be successful, top students cannot possibly juggle the after-school demands of sports, clubs, work and volunteerism — and still keep up with the hours and hours of evening and late-night homework. Squeezing in enough sleep each night to be fully functional the next day is a pipe dream.
Cheating is not the only byproduct. Drug and alcohol abuse, heavy partying, increased incidents of bullying, depression, cutting and, tragically, even suicide have been associated with the competition-fueled environment that defines a high-achieving high school.
In affluent neighborhoods, parents hire private sports coaches to teach their darlings how to improve their athletic skills at ages as young as 5 or 6. Athletic prowess soon becomes more important that academic learning in high school for many students, as they chase that elusive sports scholarship.
High-priced private college counselors, now in abundance, tell kids how to build their resumes and fill in the holes lest any single thing be missing from an overwhelming checklist of activities.
The private tutoring industry has mushroomed, along with the pressure for good grades and excellence in demanding AP classes, and with the emphasis on No Child Left Behind and closing the achievement gap. With society’s recent notion that every child could and should go to college, tutors have been kept busy.