“Race to Nowhere” and The Great Homework Debate

| Posted On Apr 19, 2011 | By:

The poster for the documentary "Race to Nowhere"

There is a movie being shown under the sponsorship of school parent groups in the suburbs of Boston called Race to Nowhere.   It is about teenagers, but not the teenagers I assumed it was about. When I initially heard the title, I thought it was about the teenagers racing to precociously initiate adult “activities” such as sex, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, etc.  These are the risky behaviors I counsel younger and younger teens about every day in my office.

I was wrong. The teens in this movie are the ones competing (racing) to get into top-notch colleges. 

A brief description of the movie:  stressed-out California kids of all ages are becoming physically ill and sleep deprived as they struggle to fit in extracurricular activities and ample amounts of homework into their days in order to become the ideal candidate for prestigious colleges.  Also in the movie are stressed-out teachers being forced to teach to standardized exams rather than passing on their love of learning to their students.   There are comments from educators attacking the lack of free play for grade school children and education solely for the sake of college applications. The parents in the movie blamed the curriculum at their children’s schools; some even removed their kids from these demanding schools.

I participated on a panel discussion of this movie at one high school. I was accompanied by a child and adolescent psychiatrist, high school principals and a superintendent.  Parents were invited to comment and the majority of comments were about TOO MUCH HOMEWORK, from elementary school to high school. Some parents pleaded for a reduction in homework in all grades. One parent voiced that homework is unnecessary in elementary school.

What I found most distressing was that many parents in the audience took the attitude that homework is punishment and has no value – it ruins weekends and vacations and the schools are to blame. I beg to differ but not from the point of view of educators, but from a pediatrician’s perspective. How a student deals with homework – and ALL of their other activities and commitments – can inform me about a patient’s mental and physical health.

First, some parents allow sports, theatre and other extracurricular activities to occupy more of a child’s time in a week than homework. I agree it is not healthy for a 13-year-old child to­­ spend 3 hours a night stressing over homework, but it is equally unhealthy for that same child to participate on 3 teams in one season or play one sport 12 months of the year. ­­­ In a previous blog post, I provided some information on the physical stresses of frequent sports participation.

Second, homework is a parent’s window into their child’s school life. I agree that in elementary school, homework should not be a major interference in family life. I contend that a parent fighting with a child under 11 about getting homework done may be a signal for a greater problem, and perhaps an evaluation is needed to determine why there is such a difficulty. Does the child have a learning disability? Does the child have difficulty finishing tasks that are not stimulating?  These homework battles should be discussed with a school counselor, a teacher, or a pediatrician. 

Finally, in middle school and high school, how a child manages the homework volume may reveal other underlying health issues. As one principal on the panel with me noted (and what I witness in my own pediatric practice):  one student in multiple ‘honors or AP courses’ may complete homework in 1.5 hours, but it may take another 5 hours for the same assignments. Why such a difference? If the latter child is becoming sleep-deprived or shows physical signs of stress, a behavioral health evaluation may be warranted. It is possible that lengthy study sessions can be due to anxiety distracting the teen or obsessive compulsive thoughts forcing an adolescent to check work over repeatedly.

There may also be another reason why an adolescent’s homework may interfere with pleasurable activities or sleep and then become the etiology of stress-related physical complaints: that child may be taking too demanding a course load because they are in a ‘race to nowhere’.

Homework should not be viewed as an onerous task. Rather, it should be viewed as both a tool in education and a measurement of a child or adolescent’s well-being.  For other ideas on how you can “end the race” and help balance your child’s daily load, this list from the documentary’s website is a good starting point.  And I would encourage you to speak with your pediatrician about any specific concerns or questions you may have.

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About Dr. Jessica Rubinstein

Dr. Jessica Rubinstein practices pediatrics for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates at Concord Hillside Medical Associates in Harvard, Massachusetts. She is also the Chairperson of Pediatrics at Emerson Hospital in Concord and the school physician for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. Dr. Rubinstein enjoys caring for all ages of children; she has a strong interest in caring for adolescents, especially office gynecological visits and eating disorders. To stay active, Dr. Rubinstein enjoys bicycling and downhill skiing; in the winter, she goes to the gym three times a week.

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