"Race to Nowhere," a film by Vicki Abeles describes itself as:
Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Race to Nowhere is a call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.
After viewing it at a private screening in NYC last night, I learned the following things:
* Children are pressured to succeed in America by their parents. Any choices they make as a result are not their fault. But, their parents are pressured by society and thus are also not personally responsible for anything, because society tells them success is only about how much money you make, and they are helpless vessels, swallowing the message hook, line and sinker without thought or analysis. This is a problem unique to America as "things aren't like this in any other country." (I guess someone really did sleep thought a big chunk of Social Studies class.)
* Education in America was perfect pre-"No Child Left Behind" (well, there was a minor achievement oriented blip post-Sputnik, but the 1960 ethos of peace and love quickly cleared that up). Once testing was instituted, all learning promptly stopped. (It was interesting to me how the movie blamed "No Child Left Behind" for all of the system's ills, yet the title initially made me think of the latest "Race to the Top" Federal school strategy.)
* A majority of teachers quit during the first five years because their profession is not given the same kind of respect as other professions and choosing to be a math teacher is choosing to "live a difficult lifestyle." (Funny, my husband is a high-school math teacher and what people think of his occupational choices in comparison to those of doctors, lawyers and bankers is, I can confidently say, not really a concern at all. He's more worried how to get his Algebra II section done in the face of all the snow days we've been having!)
* Teachers become teachers because they are passionate about something, but when asked to institute state standards into their curriculum - and then be judged or "graded," if you will, on it - find it impossible to do and are obliged to quit. In other words, the system should be rejiggered for the personal fulfilment of the teachers, not the needs of the students. (Perhaps next, nurses in hospitals could have it mandated that they'd really prefer it if people didn't come into the Emergency Room when it was already crowded.)
* It's a problem that SATs only focus on math and English and there is "no way for someone who is right-brained and good at the arts to stand out and excel" (we are informed in voice-over as the girl speaking is shown doing make-up for her school play.)
* When faced with a long school day, homework, and multiple extra-curricular activities, the solution is merely to cry and lament how hard it is to keep up with Jones (while sharing a story of taking their daugher to the hospital for stress-induced stomach pains)... not, say, drop an activity or two. Yes, even if the child fights it!
* The biggest problem with education in America today is that "we are teaching all children in the class as if every child is in the top two percent." This is what causes high-school drop out rates, especially among boys. (This must be staggering news to inner city schools where seniors are barely reading at a third grade level.)
* Kids only cheat in school because there is pressure on them to be perfect. They can't possibly just be lazy. Or just kids.
* All children in America are white, upper middle class and suburban (not even Asian which, in light of the Tiger Mom storm, is an even more noticible oversight). Okay, I'm exaggerating, there was one Black boy and one Latina girl featured from Oakland, both attending a selective public school. But, they are worried that if they don't get good grades they might not get financial aid for "UC." Because there is only one UC - Berkeley, rather than a chain of schools all across the state with varying levels of GPA/SAT score acceptance rates, and the California State four-year schools don't exist at all. We are told their choices are UC or a humiliating "two year community college."
* Teen suicide, anorexia, cutting, etc... is caused exclusively by academic pressure. No other factor - home life, peer relationships, genetic mental illness - could possibly contribute in any way. A frequently invoked thirteen year old girl who commited suicide after getting a bad grade on a math test was only motivated by the math test. Nothing else. We know this for a fact.
What's most sad is that the movie brought up many valid points:
* Excessive amounts of homework IS counterproductive
* Memorizing facts without learning how to apply them IS pointless
* Imagination IS more important than knowledge
* Finding your passion, bliss, what have you, is absolutely the key to a happy life and a thriving society, to boot.
But those facts were lost among the... there's no nice way to put it... unbearable, utterly unself-aware whining.
Also ignored was the heretical notion that some kids enjoy competing. That it's possible to take an AP class because you truly enjoy the subject and not just to "build your resume for college." That working hard and achieving your goals can be really, really fun. And that even kids know that just having your ego stroked, when you know you haven't earned it, is lame.
"Race to Nowhere" presented an elite, exclusive, overpriviliged, overpampered minority and shrieked that this is "Education in America."
Or, as my 11 year old put it when we were walking out, "Blah, blah, blah, me, me, me, I screwed up, it's all your fault. Fix it. But don't tell me what to do."