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Running in a Race to Nowhere

The other night I joined a boisterous, energized crowd at the Rio Theater to see the second of two films about education making waves these days. (See my review of the first, Waiting for Superman. I’m going to attempt to avoid a compare/contrast of these two radically different films here; hopefully I’ll get to that soon.)

Race to Nowhere is tailor made for Santa Cruz. The audience loved it, alternately cheering and sighing (and sometimes a bit of crying) for kids suffering from the high stakes of our current educational system. You’d think that Race to Nowhere was just preaching to the choir in Santa Cruz, a city/county chock full of alternative educational opportunities. But the comment time afterwards made it clear that the film’s message is one we could pay a lot more attention to here.

Race to Nowherewas made by a mom, Vicki Abeles, whose daughter was hospitalized due to the stress of her middle school education. Abeles realized that her daughter’s experience was not only not unique, but that it was becoming more and more common. Faced with pressure to succeed from kindergarten or even before, kids are stressed out and anxious. But far from being stressed by an education that demands that they grow and learn, they are being stressed out by an education that constantly demands busy work with few real applications in their future lives.

The film is a low-budget affair, with bad lighting, inexpert camera work, and bare basics editing. But what it doesn’t have in fancy tricks is made up for by the overwhelming sincerity of the people who took part in this project. They didn’t just criticize our system, they poured their hearts out about their experiences in it.

Abeles develops her theme by first showing that our kids are stressed out, and that they don’t have to be. A generation ago, kids were taking home less homework, taking fewer tests, and worrying about college much later. In the last 20 years, our culture and our educational system have changed radically. Where homework once was used as a tool to help kids learn, now it’s used as a tool to punish kids and families by taking away their free time. Where kids once competed with each other for honors, kids now compete with a system designed to constantly cut them down. Where teachers once taught kids how to think, now they are forced to teach test-taking skills. Where kids once learned for life, now they learn for the test and nothing more.

Some of the most poignant aspects of the film for me:

A high school English teacher in East Oakland is shown being the brilliant teacher she clearly is. She inherits kids whose education has left them with few options. Instead of spending another year trying to get these kids to do better on tests, she spends that year inspiring them and teaching them to think for themselves. At the end of the film, she tearfully relates why she became a teacher… and why she is now quitting.

A mom whose teenage daughter committed suicide speaks, for the most part, calmly and with a challenging look at the camera. She knows that her daughter’s story is important. What we don’t know until the film advances is that her daughter’s story is also about how our culture has made getting good grades a life-and-death issue for some kids. This mom challenges us to reconsider our beliefs about teen suicide: her daughter didn’t show any warning signs. She didn’t have any obvious emotional problems. She didn’t run with a bad crowd. She was a normal, healthy girl who was driven to suicide by the pressure placed on her by school, college, and, her mother admits, her parents themselves. Late in the film, we see the mom interacting with her surviving son, and we hear her talking about how she has changed her parenting. She has learned a lesson in the way that none of us wants to have to learn.

The anecdote of a school where the principal read an anti-homework book and decided to try cutting out homework for a while. The parents and teachers liked it so much, they decided to cut out homework entirely. The result? Happier kids, families, and teachers, and no change in test scores. In fact, homework has no correlation with test scores.

I came into this film a member of the choir. In fact, many homeschoolers are part of the league of composers who have been composing for this choir for quite a while. For whatever reason, we took our kids out of school. And then we noticed some weird things:

Our kids were learning more.

Our families were happier and less stressed out.

Our kids (or the older homeschoolers we met) were doing just fine in college and in life, without tests and stress and piles and piles of homework!

But I thought that this film did an admirable job of presenting the facts clearly for those who have never even considered listening to this chorus of voices telling them that everything is being done backwards. In Santa Cruz, a hiss rose from the audience when George W. Bush was on the screen announcing what he hoped to achieve with No Child Left Behind. But we have to remember this: Most of the country, even liberals around this country, thought that NCLB would improve things. This was a bill co-authored by revered liberal politicians. The fact that the educational establishment largely predicted its ill effects on education aside, most people in this country applauded more testing, more focus, less fun.

If you’re one of those people, if you’re reading this and poo-poohing all I’m describing, you are the person who needs to see this film. Yes, it’s short on data. (Most films are.) Yes, it’s heavy on tear-jerking. But these tears are for real kids who suffered real abuse from our educational system. The overwhelming strength of this film is its emphasis on simple reality. No predictions are needed. Kids with less homework are happier kids. They learn just as well. Kids who go to OK colleges learn a lot and become productive members of society. We don’t all have to go to Harvard. If your kid fails algebra, it’s not the end of the world.

And if your kid gets a B in algebra, it shouldn’t be the end of her life.

The open comment time at the end showed just how much this film is needed even in alternative universes like Santa Cruz. The most powerful speakers were teens who got up and talked about the stress and competition at their schools. A graduate of Pacific Collegiate School (PCS) talked about how the teaching in this school that is regularly cited as “one of the best in the country” was geared to the test. He said that AP classes were shoved at students and it was just an exercise in memorizing information for tests. He talked about how many kids in his class dropped out due to the stress.

Ironically, this film was hosted by a number of local private schools, some of which are notable for their reputation for piling on huge amounts of homework. After the film, I heard a parent go up to one of the schools’ information tables and ask, with a twinkle in her eye, “So, you’re going to cut out homework at your school now, right?”

The mom manning the table simply rolled her eyes.

It’ll take more than a film to change our culture, but at least it’s a start.

Posted in Culture, Education, Films.

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