Academic Rigor: A Right, Privilege, or Burden?

I recently attended a screening of Race to Nowhere, a wide-ranging documentary film that addresses a number of issues related to the increasing academic demands, pressure, and resulting stress and anxiety facing students today. The film covers a broad set of topics, with several themes that stood out as strikingly counter to my thinking and philosophy around the importance of high expectations for all students.

The film posits that there is too much homework for all students, starting at too young of an age, which ultimately detracts from children’s time spent with their families and their opportunity to enjoy “just being kids.” It also makes the point that students are under too much pressure to focus on their future, particularly college and career, at too young of an age. It also frames college as an option that isn’t for everyone and that we shouldn’t approach K-12 education as such (it doesn’t address the idea that college as an option that is available to everyone). Another segment of the film notes that an increasing focus on achievement within traditionally “academic” subjects limits students’ opportunities to explore other potential gifts and passions such as music and the arts. As I took it in, I was struck by the film’s seemingly false dichotomies and all or nothing propositions. I don’t believe that an academically rigorous curriculum has to exclude music or the arts or different learning styles. I believe that homework can be a powerful tool for student learning and mastery as well as parent engagement. There is also an evidence-based connection between homework and student performance and achievement (a point that the movie cites, prior to making a plug for other schools to do as a “homework free” school in Wyoming has done).

I was also struck by the position of privilege of the students and families in the movie (with one token-esque exception). In general, the students and families portrayed were white, middle to upper-middle class, with personal familiarity and experience with post-secondary education and professional careers. These are parents concerned that their children are losing their childhoods because of too much homework, too much pressure, and not enough opportunity to find themselves and their passions. These are families where, with less (or ideally no) homework, fewer tests, and less rigorous experiences (one recommendation at the conclusion of the film was for students to avoid taking Advanced Placement courses, one route towards earning tuition-free college credit while still in high school), the large majority of these kids would still go onto be accepted into and thrive in college and life.

The film left me wondering how this can possibly align to all of the efforts to increase the readiness – academic, social, emotional, and financial – for college among low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color whose parents are likely not able to offer the same level of support, engagement and know-how as many of the parents in the film. Its messages left me baffled in their contrast to programs like that in Washington State’s Federal Way School District, with its Acceleration Program that automatically enrolls qualified middle and high school students in advanced classes, including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. In the Acceleration Program, students who meet standard on the state’s standardized tests are automatically enrolled in advanced classes. Parents of qualifying students have the option to opt their children out of the classes, and students who do not automatically qualify are able to opt-in. Though the program is still relatively new, it has seen early success in increasing the number and diversity of students in advanced classes. Over two-thirds of 11th and 12th grade students enrolled in advanced classes this year, and nearly two-thirds of 11th and 12th grade students of color enrolled in advanced classes. Federal Way recently received a grant to develop an assessment program for its Acceleration Program to understand student outcomes over time.

Learning about Federal Way’s program left me inspired for the many capable students who may not have seen themselves as being well-suited to “those classes” or not as college material. The potential of a system that is more equitable, more demanding, and ultimately more rewarding for typically underserved students makes me excited for those kids, and hopeful for the broader implications of such a program. Watching Race to Nowhere left me thinking that the kids portrayed would probably do fine with their wishes for no more homework and no more AP classes granted. Their parents went to college and have the means and experience to keep their children on a path toward success as adults. But what about the kids we didn’t see in the film? What about the low-income students, first generation students and students of color in Federal Way? What would come of further limiting the opportunities for underserved children to learn, grow, and discover and embrace their potential? To me, that seems like the ultimate race to nowhere.

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