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"Race to Nowhere" Stirs Up Dialogue About Education in Tolland

A screening of filmmaker Vicki Abeles' 2009 documentary gets parents' and educators' talking about the preoccupation with high achievement and test scores.

Do today's educators and parents expect too much of students? Are we too preoccupied on achieving high test scores and not enough on developing critical thinking skills?

These questions and more were raised Thursday night among a crowd of 175 Tolland parents and educators who attended a showing of the provacative 2009 documentary, "Race to Nowhere."

The screening was held in the Tolland Middle School auditorium and was sponsored by the Tolland Elementary PTO.

"Race to Nowhere," by first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, challenges today's teaching methods and expectations for students in the K-12 education system.

Abeles did not set out to be a filmmaker, according to a letter she posted on the film's official website. Like many modern parents, Abeles battled with her three children about completing their homework assignments while juggling getting them to their extra-curricular activities.

However, when her daughter ended up in the emergency room, doubled over in pain from what doctors diagnosed as stress-induced illness, she started talking to other students, to parents, to teachers, and to experts in the field of education. According to her letter, Abeles concluded that today's educational system is driven by a high-stakes, high-pressure culture.

"Race to Nowhere" claims that a tremendous preoccupation with performance, whether it be from parents, educators, or students themselves, particularly at the middle school and high school levels, has resulted in too many of today's children becoming over-stressed, depressed, and, on rare occasions, suicidal. 

In "Race to Nowhere," the mindset of achievement at any cost has become firmly entrenched in today's culture and everyone is culpable. Anxious parents worry that their children won't get into top colleges. Good teachers, whose hands become tied by a bureaucracy that stresses high test scores over developing a joy of learning, end up leaving the fold.

Unreasonable expectations for achieving not only high grades, but holding leadership roles in sports, clubs, and other extra-curricular activities leave students exhausted and petrified that they won't get into the right school and nab a good job after graduation.  

Despite the heavy focus on testing and homework in today's educational system, "Race to Nowhere" makes several thought-provoking claims, including a statistic that a full 50 percent of University of California entering freshman are required to take remedial classes to get them up to college level work.  

Nicole Canavan, vice president of the parent-teacher organization at Tolland Intermediate School, said friends in the D.C. area had seen the film and recommended she share it with her PTO. She said the film is only shown through PTOs, schools, churches, and other community groups as a means to facilitate discussion and create a grassroots movement to call for changes in the educational system.

The dialogue that followed the screening showed the film had clearly touched a nerve for both parents and teachers alike.

"This movie completely resonated with me," said Leila Lee, mother of a first- and a fifth-grader. Lee said she grew up in Germany and attended a top school, but still didn't feel the pressure that some students in America are feeling to become top performers.

"I feel there are too many kids being diagnosed with ADHD because of school pressures. They are becoming medicated just to fit in and keep up," Lee said.

"It's a sad thing when kids worry more about their grade rather than what they have learned," said Kim Reilly, a 7th grade language arts teacher in the Tolland school system. "Sometimes we need to deviate from the test."

While the film focused mostly on students in Advanced Placement classes and high schools and colleges that appear to be placing unreasonable demands on our youth, others recognized parents' culpability when they push their kids to achieve simply in order to have bragging rights about what school their child is attending.

"We as parents have to be okay with not having our kids in every activity and getting into ivy league schools," said Ellen Skoly, a Vernon parent. "We can't blame it all on schools and homework. Let them have downtime. We are raising kids who don't know what to do with downtime."  

"We need to back off," Skoly added.

"I think the most compellng message coming from the film is that across the board our system isn't working," said Canavan. "We want our children to succeed, but the testing culture in place today has replaced the development of critical learning systems and creativity."

Canavan added that despite all our efforts, America continues to lag behind our global counterparts.

"I believe it is important that we as a nation as well as a community need to redefine what skills we think today's students should have in college and the workplace. It is open dialogues [like this] that can help us accomplish this and to also determine how to create a necessary balance in children's lives," she said.

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