Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Race to Nowhere

Tonight I had the pleasure of viewing a screening of the documentary Race to Nowhere at the Shepherd Valley Waldorf School. With other education films such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, Nowhere provides a very different, yet very important perspective on American education. Check out the trailer:


People need to see this movie -- especially people who see Waiting for Superman. (Are you hearing me, Oprah?) Where Superman wants you to point fingers at a school, a teacher, or a union, Nowhere doesn't try to assign blame. Nowhere wants you to understand our educational culture and our roles in it, and use that understanding to change the way we as a society view school. Instead of over-scheduling, over-working, and over-stressing our students, Nowhere advocates for children, letting kids be kids and fostering their creativity and happiness to make them (or let them be) accomplished learners. Nowhere paints a powerful picture of accountability-based, high-stakes reform, and we begin to see how easily we fall into the traps of our system even while we understand its failings. Where Superman demands anger as the impetus for social change, Nowhere is a plea for compassion. Anger generally trumps compassion when it comes to getting people's attention, so I have doubts that Nowhere will be getting the attention it deserves alongside Superman. But we don't always make our best decisions when we're angry.

I'll admit it: for most of my life I scoffed at the idea that student self-esteem was a prerequisite for student achievement. I always thought it should be the other way around. After a year or so of grad school, with sufficient guidance and time for reflection and self-enlightenment, I now realize that my opinions were far too grounded in my own experience as a relatively stress-free, high-achieving student. This movie isn't about the warm and fuzzy student self-esteem I may have discredited in the past; the students in this movie are being harmed both psychologically and physically in ways that are hard to watch, and students who don't want that stress are giving up altogether. Nowhere seeks a balance, a reciprocity between student welfare and achievement that we must desire as an educational outcome. High standardized test scores always look good, but not if they come with higher incidents of student sickness, headaches, sleepless nights, caffiene and stimulant abuse, eating disorders, and suicides. (The film contains a heartbreaking story of a 13-year-old girl who killed herself, essentially, because a bad test in 8th grade algebra was going to prevent her from getting straight As.) The most powerful voices in Nowhere are the students. They are bright, well-spoken, driven students who want to do well as much or more than any parent, teacher, administrator, or policymaker wants for them. They are the stars of this movie and they deserve not only our attention, but our action. Where should you start? Go see the movie and watch for the answers to that question at the end of the film.