Education Opinion

New Documentary: Race to Nowhere

By Anthony Cody — December 05, 2009 4 min read
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Yesterday I attended a screening of a new film created by a Bay Area parent who discovered that her own children were suffering psychological and physical damage due to the tremendous stresses our competitive school culture was creating. Race to Nowhere is now being screened for audiences of students, parents and educators, and will go into wider release early next year.

The metaphor of a race is so often used in discussing education, we do not even stop to think about the implications. This film gives voice to our students, so seldom heard from in the clamor about their education. One said, “School is just so much pressure. Every day I would wake up dreading it.” Another said “I would spend six hours a night on my homework.” But they agreed that they were not learning deeply. They are learning to answer questions on tests, learning to cram information into their heads, learning to cheat so they can get the all-important grade that will get them into the best college.

It is all a race. And races have winners and losers.

The parents, it is clear, are motivated by great fear.
They are seeing that the middle class in America is shrinking, and the standard of living is dropping. They believe that if their children are not in the top tenth, they may not be as successful as they were. Many parents have bought into the American equation of wealth with status and thus happiness, and see that the next generation is going to have a rougher time achieving this dream. So the pressure is on from an early age, and students are coached to be performers.

The documentary reveals the tremendous cost of this pressure.
Children are losing their childhoods. They have little time to play, or relax, and research has shown how valuable unstructured play is in building social skills and imagination. They are constantly seeking to please someone else - a parent, a teacher, a coach - and they lose sight of their intrinsic motivation. Why are they doing all of this? What are they passionate about? This is a question that is deferred until after the test, after admittance to college, after graduation, after they have a job. But many children wind up feeling empty, even suicidal, when they contemplate the years of drudgery that awaits them, and cannot even see the point.

We also are brought into schools in Oakland, where teachers struggle against a testing regime that systematically devalues the culture and learning styles of their students. I strongly identified with a teacher there who shared her frustration with the constant pressure to prepare students to take tests.

But we are shown alternatives as well. The Blue School in Manhattan was started by a member of The Blue Man group, a highly creative dance troupe. This private school’s mission is “to cultivate creative, joyful and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.” Students there are given space to be children. The goal is to build on their innate curiosity and creativity, and by nurturing that, allow the children to develop into naturally inquisitive and passionate learners. It is clear that the ability to solve problems, think critically, and to collaborate with others are the core skills of the 21st century. These are the skills embedded in the pedagogy at the Blue School, and in approaches such as Project-Based Learning, inquiry-based science, and many others.

I am sorry to say I do not believe the Blue School approach would succeed in the public school system today. Our current system demands that all students be proficient on standardized tests, and this is difficult even with intensive test preparation - and utterly impossible following a more wholistic approach such as the Blue School’s.

This film is an emotional experience.
It is a huge wake-up call to parents, educators, and to our children. As one parent says, “We all have to get off this treadmill together.” The film calls us to question so much in our current system, and it makes it clear this is not just about test preparation. It is all connected to how we define success in our society.

Lastly, and most importantly, the documentary is a call to action.
It was interesting that in speaking with the director, Vicki Abeles, afterwards, she suggested that parents need to reach out to teachers to get their support in this effort. I have been thinking that as teachers, we need the support of parents to change our direction. There is clearly a synergy possible here, an awakening that we can pull together into a real movement for change in our schools. Parents, students, educators - we are all much more closely allied than we have realized. And we are all being abused by the rules of this “race.”

Please visit the Race to Nowhere web site , view the trailer, and sign the petition there. If you are interested in engaging your school/parent community in discussion around these issues, I would highly recommend a screening of this film. The creators of the film have discussion guides, and recent screenings are leading to heartfelt discussions in schools about the need to examine homework practices, the role of AP courses, and ways to shift school cultures in a healthier direction.

What do you think? Are our students in a race to nowhere? Can we build a common cause with parents and students?

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