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