A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker shows a mother pulling her little boy away from his toys as she says, “You’ll have plenty of time to play once you’ve been accepted into college.”

Last night the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation hosted a showing of the documentary “Race to Nowhere” about pressure on students to succeed. Nearly every seat was taken, many filled by overachiever parents and their glum and stressed-out teenagers.

In a society that tends to be overweight, the crowd at Chapel Hill High School’s Hanes Auditorium last night had a preponderance of thin people. Tension lines and overworked jaw muscles from grinding teeth defined many of the faces of the parents in the packed auditorium. Some chewed gum. Several adults checked e-mail and phone messages during the introductory speeches and surreptitiously throughout the film. One mother dragging her son to a choice seat down front elbowed her way past others in the aisle, telling her boy, “I want you to be able to see.” Let your more plebeian peers sit in the back, seemed to be her message.

After the lights came back up at the end of the show, a panel of experts – two local high school students, a psychologist, a guidance counselor, a school principal, and the director of admissions and a dean from UNC – weighed in on what works and what doesn’t in our education system, how students cope with the stress and how we define success.

All of us would like to reduce the pressure on our kids, but no one wants to be the first to step off the fast track. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools have an excellent record of student achievement; it’s what keeps our property values so high. But a big part of the stress on our children comes from students internalizing the pressure to score well on the tests that ensure bonuses for their teachers and the pressure to make parents look good by getting into a name-brand college.

But is the stress worth it? One CEO in the film pointed out that America’s biggest corporations are run by C students. In our rush to force our children to get top grades, we may be sacrificing creativity and problem-solving skills necessary to successfully negotiate life. One lawyer pointed out that when she asks young lawyers in her firm to write a brief, they ask, “How many paragraphs?”

The film gives plenty to think about, not only policy decisions that perhaps should be changed but also what constitutes success. The film will be shown again on Feb. 10 at The Varsity Theater on East Franklin Street. Make time for it. Our town and our country need leaders who can think. We need to make sure our excellent but high-pressure school system is doing the job.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Mark Marcoplos

     /  January 26, 2011

    I guess those “C” students who became heads of big corporations spent many classroom hours wishing they were “too big to fail”.

  2. Elliot

     /  January 28, 2011

    Thanks for bringing attention to this event. Your opening reference to the New Yorker cartoon really hits the mark.

    I attended after reading about the filmmaker’s intent of the to reduce pressure on students. Ironically, CHCCS is the poster child for everything the film rails against. The recommendation in the film that brought the biggest outburst of applause from the audience, was a push to limit homework. The movie showed stressed-out kids who were popping amphetamines and skipping sleep and meals to stay up late in order to complete excessive homework demands. Over time, they became like zombies, unable to focus.

    High school kids are still growing and need eight hours of sleep. I have noticed that many high school teachers pile it on, without any concern for scheduling. The idea that an hour and a half of homework is acceptable, doesn’t mean that it is acceptable for each class, every night!

    If the school district wants to take anything from this documentary, it should be to back off on the homework. Stop assigning projects and papers over Spring Break and try the recommendation of occasionally scheduling “homework-free” nights or weekends. A homework load that leads to sleep deprivation is clearly counterproductive.

  3. Mike Kelley

     /  January 28, 2011

    “…the pressure to score well on the tests that ensure bonuses for their teachers…”

    Minor point but I am pretty sure there were no teacher bonuses last year and they probably will not be returning any time soon. Even the sign-on bonuses for hard to recruit positions are being eliminated this year.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  January 28, 2011

    As a counterpoint, the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress provides national performance data and finds a steep gap in science learning.

    The question school administrators and parents need to debate is how to balance rigorous academics for ALL students in an environment that supports mental and physical health. I applaud the school district for sponsoring this film.