Saturday, April 30, 2011

Do American Students Study Too Hard?

My students don't. I wish I could get them to study more, a lot more, and to study better and more effectively. But after 11 years I've unfortunately become a bit less optimistic that I can motivate all of my students to outstanding academic achievement. The measurement of success for a great many of my students --- if not the majority --- is simply course completion. What the movie "Race to Nowhere" is looking at, in part, is the culture of achievement among middle class families with college expectations. There are two worlds out there when it comes to "making it" in America through higher education today. But it's completely politically incorrect to discuss, much less address, the debilitating disadvantages that are holding back large numbers of students, especially those from minority and poor backgrounds. Keep all this in mind while reading James Freeman's essay on the this, at Wall Street Journal:

Bergen County, N.J.

Young moviegoers have driven "Rio" to the top of the box office, but the film generating buzz among New Jersey parents is "Race to Nowhere." It's a response of sorts to last year's buzzed-about documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which argued that ineffective schools and intransigent teachers unions are what's wrong with American education.

The new film may have arrived just in time for the New Jersey Education Association, the giant state teachers union locked in a continuing battle with Gov. Chris Christie over the cost of teachers' benefit plans. Directed by parent and first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, "Race to Nowhere" is marketed through a kind of partnership with local schools. The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy.

Ms. Abeles reports that she has been screening the film nationwide and even in numerous foreign countries. But few places have embraced it as enthusiastically as the Garden State. While in many states there are no showings currently scheduled, according to the film's website, New Jersey has 13 in the next month ...

The movie's recurring theme is that American kids are under intense pressure to succeed, forced to complete up to six hours of homework each night and therefore increasingly driven to mental illness. The movie is promoted with the tagline, "The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture."

The dark side is illuminated with powerful anecdotes—we learn of one young California girl who, we are told, committed suicide after a disappointing grade in math. But the achievement is tougher to spot. The film reports that as hard as kids compete to win acceptance to name-brand colleges, they come out of high school without knowing much. The University of California at Berkeley, we are told, has to provide remedial education for close to half of incoming freshmen before they can handle a college course load. The film notes that American kids score poorly in international tests. If they work so hard, how do they learn so little?
More at the link.

Teachers love to bash the Bush administration's education agenda, and while conservatives despised the expansion of federal power in education, I've always supported more attention to standards. The problem is tying teacher and school accountability to student performance, because teachers will ultimately get blamed for things over which they have little control --- especially the culture and degree of educational attainment at the family, household level. It's generally not as high among lower income communities and minority households (lots of books on this, discussed here previously), and thus we can see why addressing the cultural roots of academic failure is pure taboo in progressive education circles.

By the way, the movies to watch are "Waiting for Superman" and "The Providence Effect." Folks know what needs to happen. And we know that disadvantaged communities can excel. It makes you think sometimes: What is it exactly that's holding folks back? Maybe it's progressive education shibboleths and the destructive power of teachers unions. Er, well, better not talk about that. I've got to work with these people ...

UPDATE: And the timing couldn't have been better. At Boston Globe, "Discord in Harvard’s education school: Protesters want more focus on social issues."

Glenn Reynolds summarizes:
Protesters demand more emphasis on community organizing and “social justice,” less on practical training. I guess the higher education bubble news hasn’t gotten there yet ...