Screening of 'Race to Nowhere' causes debate among viewers

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 | 10:53 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A debate on whether encouraging children to do well in school is putting too much pressure on being what is considered successful followed a screening of the documentary "Race to Nowhere" on Wednesday night.

Columbia Parents for Public Schools, a parent-to-parent organization that partners with public schools, hosted the screening at Ragtag Cinema to encourage conversation among viewers about the pressures students are faced with today. 

After the film, which examines whether an achievement-obsessed American education system properly prepares students for college and the real-world, Sarah Read, president of Columbia Parents for Public Schools, and four other board members led a discussion.

Andrea Herries, 40, shared her own strategy for helping her three boys deal with their workload — she started writing letters to her children's teachers. 

"My child spent 20 minutes tonight already doing this, but we also had to do this tonight, or we're not doing the math homework tonight because he's struggling with it, and I have gotten great thanks," she said. "Instead of getting it all checked off the list it's, 'I'm looking at my child, and this is what I think they need'."

Implementing a no-homework policy is just one of the ways teachers in the film tried to rethink the education process.

Comment cards were passed around the theater, so the audience could further participate in the conversation.

One card read: "I am a teacher in the Columbia Public Schools, and I implemented a no-homework policy two years ago, and the results were amazing. Test scores shot up, work was completed, and cheating was minimized. One of my students won the nonhonors departmental award the last two years taking the AP test, failure rates dropped."

Starting a no-homework policy was one of the examples the film included to help children make time for family or fun.

Pamela Jones was a world history teacher at Hickman High School for 24 years. She began to read statistics on the effectiveness of homework after she found that sometimes up to half of her students did not turn in their work. 

"This has been increasing over the years. There was a time when kids did more homework on their own, but they were also doing less activities outside of school," Jones said. 

Many students were plagiarizing their work and copying from other students, she said.

"I'd have 20 kids with the same mistake. You know, the same misspelled word. Really?" she said. "So finally I said: 'That's it, we're done,' and I told my students that from now on we have a no-homework policy."

From that point on Jones and her students did all work in the classroom. Other than the projects the students did on their own, they went over the answers to homework as a group.

"It was like 'licensed cheating,' and they were thrilled," Jones said as the audience laughed.

She said she began to worry that having no homework was affecting children's ability to think for themselves, but she found their test scores went up. 

Liz Peterson, director of Columbia Parents for Public Schools said adding pressure and extra activities to kids' lives won't help them reach their peak.

The film also suggested that because students' lives are so jam-packed, they don't have time to be a kid and play. Some students go to school for seven hours, play a sport after school and come home exhausted with four to six hours of homework ahead of them. 

Steve Calloway, chair of advisory board for Columbia Parents for Public Schools appreciated some of the film's points but was bothered by others.

"I am still concerned about how many people represented in there (the film) are not successful to begin with," he said. "How does a no-homework policy serve those kids who we really need to get engaged with, kids we expect more from?"

Some feel that parent's pressures are what cause the high amount of stress on children. 

"I know that from my experiences with my parents who don't push me with my grades that I do fine," Jordan Hoffman, a 17-year-old Hickman student, said. "I know other students who their parents will make them study for two hours a night every night and they don't do so well."

Not pressuring children and letting them have the opportunity to make the choice to do their homework can make things much easier for them, she said.

"Sometimes I love homework, and I know that sounds crazy, but sometimes I really do," Hoffman laughs. "Once the pressure is off, it becomes so much easier to do it. I don't know why."

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