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Education in the Media

“Race to Nowhere:” An Educational Horror Movie

[Admin note: Trevor Przyuski is my instructional coach and a critical friend from our days back on our division’s strategic planning committee. I find his writing to be compelling so I secured his permission to cross-post this review of Race to Nowhere from his blog, Trevor in Mid-Stream. I also write with Trevor on Hamsterdam Public Schools (you’re invited!), and I love this “making-of” video for his most recent film project. – Chad]

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.

About trevorinmidstream

Middle-aged husband, father of two. Teacher and Instructional Coach for mid-sized school division in Central Virginia. Lover of baseball, music, film, fun and all things philosophical.


5 thoughts on ““Race to Nowhere:” An Educational Horror Movie

  1. I really want to see this movie… I wish I hadn’t been forced to miss the screening that happened here in Vancouver.

    I suppose I know the plot-line though, as we’ve discussed the very same problems on the Coop Catalyst for months now.

    Posted by David | January 19, 2011, 9:12 pm
  2. Not having seen the movie I have to say my comment may be totally wrong, but I still thought to ride on my assumptions based on what I read from the official site and could catch from the trailers and post few thoughts.

    The first is that I’ve heard time and time again from parents that kids in K-12, especially in earlier grades, don’t learn enough. The pace is slow, the material watered down, etc. Of course, this is all folklore and I haven’t yet experienced it properly myself given that my older daughter is only grade 1, but I suspect it is fair to assume that there is some truth in the folklore?

    On top of that, as this group knows the best, the current system of formalized education is failing to inspire kids for lifelong learning on many accounts, so it may be wrong to try to weigh the material if we think the approach to learning has to change anyway.

    Nonetheless, if the parents’ opinion is true and if the kids get challenged only later in the final grades of high school, the question arises why the material is backloaded instead of balanced? I get reminded of many unsuccessful projects in the corporate world ending in death marches and huge stresses just because the management team decided to ignore the obvious signs of failure early on and decided to compensate with extra hours at the end.

    The second issue I have is that there is a risk of coming to broad conclusions after watching a movie that seems to focus on a group of students that is pushed by their and in particular their parents’ desire for entering elite colleges and being awarded significant scholarships.

    I think that instead of rallying parents against the system, it is much better to integrate them into the system, provide opportunities for them to get educated about the values and pros/cons of various programs and enable open communication between them and the teachers.

    Posted by kima | January 20, 2011, 2:40 am


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Race to Nowhere:” An Educational Horror Movie « Cooperative Catalyst -- - January 19, 2011

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