Anyone involved in or concerned about education (which should be all of us) should watch the film Race To Nowhere, a documentary that explores the increasing psychological toll that public school is taking on kids. This film is being shown at many screenings held at schools and institutions around the country. Beginning with her own experience as a mom, producer Vicki Abeles examines the emotional lives of public school students today. The arguments made are largely anecdotal, but a number of solid points emerge as the film paints its picture.
Students everywhere are under stress, and this stress has emotional and physical consequences, manifesting as anxiety, depression, and even suicide. (The film highlights the suicide of a 13 year old girl, Devon Marvin, that took place in 2008.) This undoubtedly accelerates the effects of lifestyle diseases, such as hypertension, that are known to shorten the lifespans of adults. Furthermore, stress causes poor performance and degraded learning ability, the exact opposite effect that schools are supposed to create.
Homework is highlighted as a primary source of stress. All homework must be questioned for its purpose, relevance, and value, as there are experimentally revealed limits to its effectiveness in promoting learning, particularly in younger children. Nationally, homework has been rising since the 1980’s, spiking in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). Another detrimental effect of this act is the increased focus on testing, leading to teaching to the test rather than exploratory learning, and the fact that under NCLB, poorer performing schools get fewer resources, leading to a vicious cycle
The film also draws attention to several other issues, including the prevalence of cheating, rampant prescription and legal drug use, and the pressure exerted on high school students to go to college at the same time as they are being woefully underprepared for the experience, setting them up for career dead ends and burdensome debt.
Also addressed is the multi-million dollar tutoring industry, which, as a private tutor, I feel compelled to weigh in on. My view is that private tutoring, at least for kids who are in public school, is a subsidy of the public education system. I consider it a sad and sorry fact that the quality of our education system has been declining for decades. Our teachers are largely unrecognized and unrewarded, and they are also fighting a losing battle: ever more kids, ever higher standards, ever fewer resources. I consider it unfair that public schooling fails to deliver its promise to provide a quality education for free to every child, and that the time and money costs of education are encroaching more and more on students, whose schedules are dominated by school, homework, and extracurricular activities, and parents, who are supposedly paying taxes to support public schooling, along with all the other rising costs they must manage. That is part of the reason why I volunteer to tutor for free, and why I prefer to work with exceptional students who are passionate about math and physics, especially those pursuing independent educational goals. The sad fact is, though, that tutoring is necessary for many bright students just to meet the demands placed upon them by the public education system, and it is especially necessary for gifted students who want to unlock their full potential.
The film espouses the view that being bored is a critical component of innovative thinking, and that too little unstructured time inhibits self discovery. For health, for learning, for happiness, kids need to be kids. All kids are naturally passionate and eager to learn, and it would be a victory if we just didn’t steal this from them.
The film suggests that we make radical changes, including abolishing homework, grading, and standardized testing, and that it is imperative for us as a civilization that we figure out how to redefine success and teach to the individual. It makes specific calls to action to students, parents, teachers, administrators, and medical professionals. Students are encouraged to speak up about how they are feeling, to take care of their health, and to allow themselves to enjoy life. Parents are urged to discuss the meaning of success with their children, to let off the pressure, and to organize to change education. Teachers are called to experiment with assigning less (or no) homework, study and implement the latest research, and empower students. Administrators are charged with addressing stress as a problem, creating opportunities for involvement, and opening pathways to change.
In my view the film could have benefited from addressing the related problems of grade inflation, rising tuition costs, and the shortage of employment for college graduates. Also, the film made little if any reference to successful alternative education models that already exist in the forms of private schools, homeschooling co-ops, and many others. However, by serving the purpose of drawing attention to many insidious pressing issues and bringing people together to discuss them, Race To Nowhere performs a laudable service for future generations.