“Race to Nowhere:” An Educational Horror Movie

When my wife suggested making a date of seeing “Race to Nowhere,” I was initially reluctant. I knew enough about the film and its subject matter to know that this was not a feel-good flick and that after a day of working in a public school, it wasn’t going to feel like a pat on the back either.  But also knowing about the passion that my wife and I share for raising happy children, I figured the film would give us one more point of reference for making joint decisions for our own kid’s schooling.  I’m proud to say that I was right on all counts.

“Race to Nowhere” is an indictment of our current test-centered, data driven school systems.  It highlights the false promise of quantified academic “achievement” and the horrific toll it takes on children, teachers, and family life. The film is packed with examples of kids struggling through four, five, six hours of homework a night to keep pace with their peers.  It chronicles kids developing eating disorders, quitting sports teams they love, fighting with their parents, learning to cheat effectively, and hating every minute of their so-called learning. The movie interviews once-passionate teachers on the verge of resigning out of frustration and a sense of powerlessness. It was as depressing a movie as I’ve ever seen about education.  Having said that, everyone who has kids or plans to one day have kids should see this movie.

Among the difficult questions posed by the film is the question of how to move away from this disaster toward something more humane, more authentic and, most importantly, more healthy for our children. The fundamental obstacle seems to be our cultural insistence on quantifiable results and concrete proof.  Nothing happens in America without being tested, counted, measured, and replicated to insure its validity.  No one moves forward or backward without a number, a degree, or classification.  But trying to quantify a thing as subjective, multi-faceted, and complex as a child’s cognitive development is like trying to count stars. The very act of quantification dismisses what’s most important: that every child is unique, every intellect grows independently of its peers, and all the various gifts and competencies of children are valuable and important to that child.  To count and value only one way of knowing is to discount and devalue all the others.  We’re not leaving one child behind. We’re inadvertently leaving them all behind.

The movie offers no easy solutions, but arrives at the conclusion that it’s going to take bold and courageous steps by parents, teachers and administrators to break the cycle of dependence and move toward a process-based model as opposed to a product.  Parents need to educate themselves about the limited usefulness of homework and then work closely with teachers and PTOs to influence policy.  Teachers must resist the pressure to fall in line with district mandates that make AP scores and standardized test results the first and often only priority. They need to return to the practices and instincts that made them want to become teachers in the first place. Administrators and politicians need to let go of the myth that they’ve invested so much time and energy trying to validate: The myth that we can count all the stars and use statistics to prove that they’re shining.

If there was any encouraging aspect of the evening, it’s that 500 or more parents and teachers packed the auditorium to see this film.  Parents and teachers are beginning to assert themselves and seeing that the responsibility for our kids learning lies with them, and not with the school board.  Each individual in the community is a stakeholder in our public institutions and the administrators we elect and hire are accountable to us.  We have a right to be insistent, a right to be apply pressure, and when our voices fall on deaf ears, we have a right to dismiss those to whom we entrust our children.

And it all starts with you showing up for a meeting.


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