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'Race to Nowhere' Vicki Abeles Says Don't Focus on Grades

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Grace Hess-Quimbita: Momlogic recently had a chance to catch up with Vicki Abeles, director of the new documentary "Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture," which parents, educators and policymakers all around the world have been watching. Here's part two of our interview.

Race to Nowhere
momlogic: Regarding the current overemphasis on grades -- which your film cites as one of the top stresses in schools now -- what specific tips do you have for parents?

Vicki Abeles: I would recommend that [their] conversations [with their kids] focus on ... what is going on in school socially [and] what they are excited about learning. Don't focus on grades, but on a growth mindset. [Ask kids], "What did you learn today? What are you engaged with? How did you contribute positively to your school community?" We need to see our kids as much more than a grade.

ml: Do you support the idea of no grades in schools? 

VA: I wish, instead, that students would receive narrative feedback, emphasizing growth instead of reducing learning to a letter or number. I am an advocate for a balanced approach, meaning I don't see every assessment as needing a grade. In elementary [school], I recommend no grades, and think there is validity to this approach in middle school as well. [Grades] make kids focus on the letter, or the extrinsic reason for doing something, rather than the opportunity to learn. Some of our colleges and graduate schools have eliminated grades. When we get rid of the grades, you focus on learning and growth.

ml: What specific advice do you have for parents when it comes to tests?

VA: I take a hands-off approach, because I want [kids] to own their learning, to learn how to prepare for the test. It gives our children a chance to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. I don't micromanage -- unless they seek me out. Your child needs to know that they are more than a test score [and that] love is not conditioned on their performance on a test. Approval should not be connected to performance.

ml: What is your opinion on personalized, individualized, differentiated learning?

VA: I am an advocate for this. We should have that for every student and every teacher in professional development. We are not making cars or widgets; we are people, and we all grow at different times and in different ways.

ml: Some critics have argued that a child doesn't end his or her life over getting a B in a class just because of academic pressure. What do you think?

VA: When we are talking about suicide, we need to recognize [that] it is a complex issue. We need to examine the relationship between unhealthy environments and mental illness, especially on growing, developing bodies. Rising stress levels contribute to rising depression rates, which place young people at a greater risk for suicide. We need to look at the impact of sleep deprivation, lack of exercise and the increase in cortisol production which comes from undue stress. We need to remember that it is not always easy to see if a child is struggling, so keep communication open between parent and child.

To find out where the movie is playing near you, go to

Read part one of our interview with Vicki Abeles here.

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