Sunday, January 30, 2011

AP Courses, Workload and Expectations

More from teachers and students

I have been very encouraged and grateful to the Hunterdon Central teachers who have given me an opportunity to gather feedback from their students about the film Race to Nowhere. Especially for the AP teachers who felt the film important enough to take time away from their extraordinarily crammed schedules (something talked about a lot in the documentary) so that they could engage their students in this important conversation.

I am sharing responses from a class of AP students who were asked before viewing the film to consider the speakers and perspectives presented in the film and determine if there were things they could relate to. They were also asked to consider whether they agreed or disagreed with the comments made in the film. The students were given some time the following day to share their thoughts; some of which I am sharing with you now. First however, I would like to share some feedback from some of our finest AP teachers:

“I had a chance to see the film today. As a parent of a Junior at another high performing high school, I though I had my act together. Since as far back as I can remember I have told my daughter that there was no such thing as a good school (college). There were only good fits between schools and students. I left picking her schedule up to her with the advice to take AP classes only if she was really interested. I told her not to worry about grades as long as she was working as hard as she could.

However, I still asked about homework, I still asked about tests and I stilled checked her grades online every couple of weeks. My behavior is in need of further modification.

I need to spend some more time mulling over what it means to me as a teacher. I don't think that simply not assigning homework is the answer. We (as a community) need to figure out how to prevent students from just "doing school." Thanks for making the film available.”


“Initially had to decide whether it was worthwhile to take my classes/miss instructional time (it was!) I think there are numerous and varied issues raised in the video; I agree with some and disagree with others (much like my students. The single biggest point raised, and this was by AP students and their teacher, was time management. In addition to teaching our AP courses, we continually work on time management skills at the AP level (Even I could identify with the AP Bio teacher that said "This course is a runaway train - no one can possibly teach it all in the time allowed!") My students found strength in this and expressed the real value of these skills as they get ready for college. Sleep was an issue for so many of them, as was "pressure from parents and counselors to take as many Honors and AP courses" as they could. Their favorite quotes from the movie were "the world is run by C students" and "maybe you don't need to take 5 or 6 AP courses." We also discussed (and continue to discuss) issues involving motivation and goals - these vary greatly for the different students as enrollment has increased in recent years in our Honors/AP courses at Central. The trick, of course, is to keep our standards high, courses rigorous, and still keep kids "coming to school full of life and creativity without taking it out of them" (you can tell some of the quotes resonated with me).”

AP student feedback

“Something that really resonated with me from the movie was when the one boy was talking about balancing his sport with school. He said in wrestling his coach would say his whole life is wrestling and you have to devote everything to wrestling. Then is school, your teachers say your school work is everything. I have to deal with this everyday with my sport and my coaches ……it is a struggle to do all my school work after a hard practice. Sometimes I am extremely tempted to just not do my homework. After a hard practice all I want to do is sleep but then I have about 4-5 hours of homework ahead of me sometimes not starting to 7 -7:30 p.m. Often I get less than 4 hours of sleep from doing my homework. This just leads to getting yelled at by my coach for not sleeping. It is a long never ending cycle.”


“I felt that the movie accurately showed how students are stressed but in an exaggerated way. I felt the examples shown were extreme cases that aren’t realistic with normal students. Also, I don’t agree that students are on a Race to Nowhere because if the students are motivated and want to amount to some higher standing, then it is worth it for them. I believe in the saying “short term pain for long term gain.”


“I could really relate to the section about AP and Honors courses. A lot of times my parents ask me why I take so many AP and Honors courses that I won’t necessarily need. For example, I took AP English which I don’t think I will be majoring in. I’ve tried to explain to them how EVERYONE ELSE is taking several AP courses and how all the counselors say to take as many Honors and AP courses as I can handle and how taking several AP courses is practically necessary to stay competitive in the college selection process. My parents don’t really seem to understand. A lot of times I wonder, what is the point of all this work? Why do today’s students have to participate in so many clubs, advanced courses, community service and after school activities? Why has it become BAD to get a B or a C once in awhile? I often wonder if I am wasting my energy in a literal race to nowhere.”


“I liked the discussion on the overtired/no sleep issue because I can relate to that completely. The most important thing to consider is time management. Procrastination is a big issue with many people I know and time management is something people should really understand and think about.”


“….another relatable situation presented in the film was parents putting pressure on their kids and the kids wanting to make their parents proud. There are many times where I overstress and get tired not only because I want to do well, but also to make my parents proud. When I do not do well on a test, I feel like I have let my parents down. Having an older sister, my parents want me to meet the same expectations or at least come close.”


“My parents pushed me so hard to take all the AP classes that I could. I ended up taking 8 in total because (just like the movie said), I wanted to be in the top 5% to get into a good college. I was accepted Early Decision at my top choice and I think that was due to my strenuous workload. Therefore, when the movie talked about limiting AP courses, I strongly disagree. Although I may have lost sleep, I found time to socialize, date and play sports. I have fun. AP classes are not that much of a hindrance and should not be considered one. They stimulate thinking and surround me with the other people who have a thirst for learning.”

As a superintendent and educator, I am moved to take action by the film, the issues raised by our students and teachers (these are just a small fraction of the responses) and I will be sharing the parent feedback in a few days. One of the overarching issues that our students have not seemed to highlight but which resonated with me is whether or not our students are prepared to be successful in this new society that continues to emerge and evolve. There are critical issues related to the way that instruction is being delivered in classrooms across the country. Students who are able to ‘game the system” and “do school” are at a distinct advantage in traditional classrooms but are they really prepared as critical thinkers, self directed learners with a love of learning?

This is a topic in which I am keenly interested and in which I have great concern is not being addressed in many schools. Inquiry based learning, authentic learning experiences and project based learning are more than emerging new ed-speak. The leveraging of social networking sites and personal learning networks has, like a magic wand, made the walls of the traditional classroom simply disappear.

There are incredible, exciting changes ahead for EVERY student, in EVERY school. The discourse around what is happening in our classrooms must escalate rapidly. We simply cannot allow our educational systems to continue to move at their traditional rate of change.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Race to Nowhere

This has been an interesting 2 weeks of dialogue and sometimes very intense conversation following the screenings of the documentary film Race to Nowhere at Hunterdon Central. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, over 1000 parents, students, educators and community members had an opportunity to see the film and reactions were interesting and varied. For those who are unfamiliar with the film, it highlights many of the pressures being faced by our young people today and also their families. The film captures the maniacal pace and pressure to succeed at all costs and the toll it is taking on the lives of our teenagers and even our middle school students.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind comments that the film “raises important questions that educators and parents must confront ….a provocative, conversation starter of a film” which is precisely why we chose to be a screening venue for the film. Hunterdon Central, along with most high schools, is desperate to engage parents in meaningful conversation about what is happening in our classrooms and why we need to make dramatic changes in what we are doing. What all of us are doing. The film is an edict on the value or lack of value in the amount of homework being assigned to our kids. What is the quality? What is the quantity? What exactly is the goal of homework?

In addition to pointing a finger at our schools, it points a finger at our parents who have bought into the relentless over pursuit of extracurricular activities and over scheduling of our kids from elementary school through high school. This running from one activity to another that overwhelms their children and decimates any chance for the kind of “family time” that most of us agree is essential to strong family connections and meaningful relationships with parents and siblings.

The film also speaks to the outrageous competition being created by the college application process and the fact that colleges have become “big business,” marketing to our kids and relentlessly piling on requirements for AP courses and Honors classes in order to be considered for admission. In addition, the coupling with exacerbated demands for community service and participation in athletics, clubs and activities has left our teens and their families exhausted, physically ill and depleted.

For more information about the film you can go to

Here is some of the parent feedback I have received –

“Just wanted to again thank you for bringing "Race to Nowhere" to the high school. Many friends and family attended and commented how informative it was. I was very impressed with the students who stood up and talked, my college son being one of them
We were a little nervous since we had no idea he was going to speak, but the documentary has really moved him.”

“I wanted to thank you for acknowledging the stress of our youth by sharing the documentary "Race to Nowhere" at HCRHS. I attended the 4pm viewing with some other educators and parents and we all thought it was fabulous! I cried a few times as it hit me personally as a parent as well as an educator. Watching my senior daughter, suffer from stress over the past few weeks has been painful. She currently has AP Statistics (along with Honors Physics, Honors English and Holocaust) and is waiting for college acceptances. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. The fact that you are facilitating discussions with your staff is encouraging. I know there is a trickle down effect and pressure from gov't on down to see performance by test scores,(College Board is a whole other story) however it is so sad to see so many of our elementary students already with anxiety/stress disorders.”

“Thank you for facilitating the showing of the documentary last night. It was well received and so many people are interested in an ongoing dialogue. My daughter was the freshman who spoke at the end about how overwhelmed she already feels.”

Below is some of what my students have to say:

“The most important take away is homework. From the movie we saw yesterday, it talked about the importance of children growing up and living as a normal kid. With all the school's homework and extra activities outside of school, children have less time to be themselves and grow individually. Kids as young as 9 years are coming home with hours of homework to do and don't have enough time to spend with there friends and family or do any hobbies they are interested in learning. And all of this homework responsibility put on little children has caused them to be overly stressed with getting assignments handed in on time because they don't want to upset their parents or teachers by not doing the work. Too much homework and extra time put in to learning and getting good grades has caused young teens to kill themselves, stop eating, and not getting enough sleep. I think that in order for improvement in staying healthy and taking care of themselves, homework needs to be cut to an extent time. Some schools argue that it is not needed and shows no improvement with a child's ability to learn. If schools keep overloading young teenagers with homework that is not needed to begin with, they will continue to be overly stressed and unhealthy.”

“I thought this was a very interesting film to say the least. What I thought was interesting was that a lot of the students felt the same way about the work they were given. It was pretty unbelievable to see that some kids are so stressed out about school that they begin to get stomach aches and have physical pain. But another thing that was interesting was that most of the parents did the same thing when they saw that his/her child was stressed. They sent their kids to a stress management course to help them out. One high school took a different approach and ultimately took a big risk for a big reward. The high school actually decreased or eliminated homework which brought test scores up in that school. I think that may have worked because when you have a lot of homework most kids just try and finish it really fast so they can get to their next subject to complete their homework faster. But if you have little or no homework it gives you time to think about what you’re doing and finish it correctly. When students try to finish their homework fast they won't necessarily do it all correctly. But I thought giving very few or no homework assignments was a very unique approach to the whole situation. Overall though, the film really shows what's really happening with students in school. But it's not just students. Surprisingly, school not only effects students but also effects the parents. All parents hate to see their son/daughter fail or do poorly and that's how it was effecting the parents. High school also effects the teachers as well. One of the teachers in the film actually quit her job because it was too much for her as a teacher. She couldn't handle what she had to teach and the amount of work she had to give. The film really brought out the key aspects of what actually happens behind the scenes for high school students, teachers, and parents.”

“I really enjoyed the film Race to Nowhere because it was about a topic that I could relate to. There was a lot of information that could be taken away from this film that teachers, parents, and students could ponder. The most important take away piece of information is that students are becoming stressed due to their parents, teachers and education system, and colleges. This aspect of the film was the most important because each one of these people is pushing the students to their breaking points in order to get them to be the “perfect” student/child. Parents are pressuring their children to do really well in school so they can be successful in the future. Teachers and the education system are stressing students out my giving them tons of homework and tests as a way to teach them. The students worry so much about getting good grades on these that they are staying up to late hours of the night studying and doing their homework instead of resting and being able to spend quality time with their family and friends. Colleges are putting pressure on students as well because they are making a mold of what they want in a student in order for them to be accepted into their College. The standards for this mold are over the top. They want students to get good grades, do extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs, and on top of that they want them to do community service. Due to this mold that the Colleges are creating students are becoming stressed because they can not fit the mold and they feel that they will never be able to go to a “good” college. If all these people make their expectations lower or change their education system students will not be as stressed and they will not go into depressions where some commit suicide.”

Reading about the reactions to the film …perhaps you might want to respond ….this makes me think (what?) and makes me wond

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Welcome to my weekly Superintendents Blog!

In an effort to engage in ongoing and meaningful dialogue with our parents and community, I will be sharing information about teaching and learning at Hunterdon Central while inviting and encouraging your feedback. We are in the midst of great changes on the educational landscape as evidenced in this recent piece from the January 7, 2011 New York Times regarding the status of Advanced Placement courses

This month, Hunterdon Central screened the newly released film Race to Nowhere for our parents and community on Tuesday, January 25th in an effort to engage in meaningful dialogue around serious issues plaguing our teens such as extraordinarily overscheduled lives, voluminous amounts of homework, parental pressure to be accepted to select colleges, self-imposed pressure to achieve at all costs and other issues such as sleep deprivation and depression. Hunterdon Central plans to take a leadership position around these issues and engage in structured dialogue with our students, teachers, parents and community.

Hunterdon Central is a high performing high school with strong community support and high community expectations. It is a privilege for all of us who work so closely with our community’s children. With this privilege however, comes great responsibility and over the past two years, our school has engaged in rich conversations internally with our administrators and teachers around 21st Century skills and high school redesign.

Initially utilizing the work of Dr. Tony Wagner, Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Global Achievement Gap, the district began collaborative inquiry work with administrators and teachers in the spring of 2009, focusing on what Wagner calls the Seven Survival Skills: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective written and oral communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination. By using these skills, promoted by Wagner in his journal article Rigor Redefined published in Educational Leadership in October 2008, the district was able to give specific examples of what is meant by the phrase “21st Century skills.”  By doing so, the phrase achieved a universal understanding among our constituents.  Traditional faculty meetings were abandoned during the 2009-2010 school year and that time was used instead for cross-curricular teacher groups, activities and discussions.  This strategy gave teachers the opportunity to consider the nature of today’s learners who are ubiquitously connected, globally aware, motivated to make a difference and developmentally different. Teacher groups explored the realities faced by today’s students, who will be required to work independently and to adapt to rapidly changing technological environments.  From the perspective of teaching and learning, it soon became obvious that an effective educational system cannot continue doing things the same way they have always been done.   Strong student performance on standardized tests can no longer be the sole standard used to evaluate preparedness and proficiency.  Old measures can no longer be used as an excuse not to change.

Over the course of this school year, I will be sharing the district’s pathway toward reform and inviting your feedback and insights.