Race to Nowhere: The dark side of America's achievement culture

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Review: "Race to Nowhere"
by Anthony Gayle

"Race to Nowhere" examines some of the internal and external pressures faced by students in the American educational system. The film argues that the parents and the schools are putting a tremendous amount of pressure on our kids to perform at the expense of a true education and their childhood. In response, our children are increasingly suffering from a host of issues including, but not limited to, stress-related headaches, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. "Race to Nowhere" provides an interesting contrast to the scapegoating of teachers and unions found in "Waiting for 'Superman'”. It should be noted that this film was produced and titled before "Waiting for 'Superman'” and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative for those who might be tempted to think it is a response to the former and/or a slight to the latter. Having said that, it is leaps and bounds beyond "Waiting for 'Superman'” because it places the focus where it should have been all along: the children and their parents.

"Race to Nowhere" is not without its flaws. I have no doubt that there are some children under tremendous pressure to perform academically. There are some parents who try to live vicariously through their children. I would argue that these parents represent a subset of a larger group of parents who simply do not have the physical and mental well-being of their children as their highest priority. Unrealistic expectations can be as damaging to the personal growth and development of children as having no expectations at all. In my teaching experience, I can’t recall too many (read any) students who I honestly believed were spending one to two hours on each subject every night as some of the students in the film claimed. I know I never spent that much time on homework and I went to an elite private school, took several AP courses, volunteered, maintained a 95% average and was a member of the track and field team. I even attended a science and technology program every Saturday morning. I never felt the need to take prescription stimulants to stay awake in order to cram for several more hours. I never felt overwhelmed by my studies or my other activities. My parents understood the value of education, but they didn't put undue pressure on me or reduce me to a test score. They weren’t overbearing micromanagers looking at every test score to determine whether or not I would be a success or a failure in life. Perhaps this is the case in some of those suburban schools I see sitting on manicured lawns. I can say I never witnessed that particular kind of pressure in the schools where I taught, but I have seen something equivalent when my grading could affect a student’s ability to play a sport. I have seen a failing grade arouse the ire of some parents who essentially saw their child’s ability to throw a ball as the only viable option to a successful future. They were more concerned with a passer rating than a passing score. In this context, I completely understand the point director Vicki Abeles is making about inappropriate parental pressure and influence. I think, however, by limiting her focus to a subset of overly-stressed kids, she loses some credibility with those who teach in schools marred by a culture of academic underachievement rather than a false culture of over-achievement.

The film also does not give much in terms of solutions until the end. Furthermore, it doesn’t spend enough time discussing them. Among the suggestions in the film: a no homework policy. Critics of the film will pounce on that suggestion. Given the standing of this country, particularly in math and science (PISA, TIMSS), it does seem counter-intuitive and counterproductive to argue for less or no homework. To be fair, the notion of “developmentally appropriate” homework is brought up—albeit briefly—in the film, but there is a greater emphasis placed on the idea of limiting or eliminating homework. I interpret all of this to mean that we need to create the space for children to be curious. We need to give them assignments that further their understanding of the world around them while continuing to pique their interest. Too often we give students assignments that focus solely on repetition and don’t encourage plasticity of thought. I know the idea of “drill and kill” is anathema to some educators, but I think it’s only a bad thing when that’s all that’s done. I’ve found that sometimes learning certain things by rote can be an effective method. As a High School Math Teacher, I needed my students to know basic multiplication facts. If I ask a student to multiply a single-digit number by nine, I need the answer to be automatic. I can’t have a high school sophomore or junior spending several minutes in class trying to count out groups of nine or, worse yet, acting out because he or she can’t even make the link between multiplication and repeated addition. It makes the job of teaching some of the more complex mathematical ideas in Algebra nearly impossible. Said another way, I can’t teach you the beauty of Shakespeare if you’re busy trying to decipher the individual letters of the alphabet. You’re going to miss the forest for the trees. I remember one student-athlete with incredibly weak math skills who asked me why he had to do so much extra math homework. He wondered where and when he would specifically use the skills covered in the homework. I responded, “I see you practice every day after school. Yesterday, I saw you do a hundred push-ups, but I’ve never seen you do a push-up during a game. My point was that the push-ups help to physically prepare you so you have the ability to make that circus shot or get the shot off after a hard foul. Similarly, mathematics is training for your mind. In some cases, heavy repetition and practice is necessary to put you in a position to do more complex things. The ability to problem-solve can help you whether you are solving a mathematical equation, checking the consistency of a poem or arguing a case as a lawyer. Overall, there needs to be balance when it comes to assigning homework. Moreover, the equilibrium point between remediation and enrichment in homework should depend on the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. I believe this was the aim of the director, but I’m not sure one necessarily comes away from the film with that idea.

Still, the film is a step in the right direction. I think it’s important to realize that the educational system in this country is not about learning; it’s about standardized test scores. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative will only reinforce this notion. As high-stakes testing and merit-based pay becomes ubiquitous, we are going to have to deal with greater numbers of people trying to manipulate test scores. In Atlanta, the CRCT cheating scandal has brought into question the work of hundreds of students in at least a dozen schools. In New York, the pass rates on state tests were seemingly improving year after year. In 2009, 86.4% of the state's students were "proficient" in math but, after the test was redesigned to include more content and remove redundancies, the number plummeted to 61% in 2010. In 2009, 77.4% were "proficient" in reading, but that number dropped to 53.2%. In New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg was reelected on the strength of his test score gains, the results were even worse. The city’s pass rate for 3rd to 8th reading grade fell from 68.8% to 42.4% and the math proficiency fell from 81.8% to 54%.The only unquestionable gains we’ve made in the last decade have been in the number of stakeholders who are trying to game the system. We have students cheating on tests so they can finagle their way into the college of their choice. We have teachers and administrators cheating so they can keep their jobs. At some point, we have to decide to stop playing this perverse game; we have to decide to get out of the race. We need to shift the paradigm of education from one of competition to one of cooperation and mutual respect.

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