Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Race to Nowhere: A Film Review

I saw the film “Race to Nowhere” last night at a screening put on by a local private school.  I first heard about the film a few months ago and was intrigued by its message.  It is a documentary created by a parent who saw her children getting caught up in a child’s version of the rat race, riddled with anxiety and stressed by hours of homework each night.  With homework a nightly challenge at our house, it was more than worth seeing.

As I see it, the film targets three issues.  The first is only touched on – jam-packed schedules.  There’s school sports, recreational sports, travel sports, student government, clubs and activities, and community service.  Several students interviewed in the film talk about how it’s not enough to get good grades; how colleges want an A student who plays a sport, is involved in school life, and volunteers in the community.  This is not the director’s main beef, however; so while it’s mentioned, it does not get a lot of screen time.

Much of the film’s message is directed at homework. You meet students, parents, teachers, and psychologists, along with Sara Bennett, founder of Stop Homework.  While their messages are powerful, I wanted more.  For instance, Bennett mentions a principal at a Wyoming school who stopped giving homework.  I would have liked to have met that principal and heard, first hand, how it worked.  What kind of school was it (although I suspect it was not a public school)? Did student scores and grades fall or improve?  What percentage went on to college?

Other countries are also mentioned, but I would have liked to have seen some comparisons.  The film was made before the most recent international PISA assessments were released, but it’s no secret that both China (where the pressure is greater) and Finland (where the pressure appears not to be so great) far exceed our educational results.  I would have liked to hear from educators in those countries, particularly Finland, to hear how they approach education and homework. 

The last area that the film addresses is college preparation, probably the hardest topic to cover.  It’s obvious that college as an educational goal has become a norm.  When I was in first grade and told my family that I wanted to go to college, it was breaking news.  No one in my family had ever gone to college before and it was still considered to be something for wealthier, more connected families.  Things changed a lot societally between first grade and twelfth, but it was still not as widespread a parental goal in 1984 as it is today.  What parent today does not hope plan for their child to attend college? 

As more students strive for college, the competition to access college gets greater and greater.  And students don’t aspire to attend the local community college; rather, they want their dream schools, who in turn want better grades, higher ranks, and more AP classes.  The result is students pushing themselves to the brink, often cheating just to keep up.

The film primarily focuses on upper middle class, predominantly white schools and communities.  Several are in California, including the school the filmmaker’s own children attend.  I don’t know which of these are public or private, but the school profiled in New England is definitely private.  She includes a short piece on a student from the Midwest, and also includes a teacher in an urban Oakland school and several students from a technical school in Northern California.  At times it’s hard to align the challenges facing the less affluent schools with the more affluent ones. 

There are no schools in the South profiled. The parents attending the screening – most of whom I would guess send their kids to private school – felt that things were not as extreme in New Orleans.  I don’t necessarily agree with that view and, in fact, I think it actually begins earlier here due to the pressure to attend the right high school.  But that's a blog post for another day. 

The film’s message is scary and there are no ready answers.   I may return to the topics it brings up again in this blog.  I recommend viewing this documentary as a starting point, as one element to consider in the ways that we educate our kids.  We want well educated kids, but we want kids who can think critically, make honest, mindful decisions about their lives and the lives they touch, and who can live full, happy lives, whether that means getting into a “good” college or not. 

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