What disturbed me most about the much-lauded educational documentary Race To Nowhere was not the outcry of adolescents who explained how school led them to develop anorexia, cut themselves, consider suicide, or require hospitalization for severe anxiety. I knew all that.
What disturbed me was the disempowerment of even the most passionate and devoted parents who have resigned themselves to believing that schools, not parents, have ownership over their children's education. Vicki Abeles, a concerned mother turned filmmaker was inspired to create this film as she realized the high-stakes, high-pressure culture that has invaded our schools and our children's lives had resulted in her three children each in someway falling victim to school-induced stress. The problem was so severe that in addition to mental anguish, her children experienced headaches, stomachaches, and depression that resulted in trips to the doctor's office, therapist, and hospital. She dedicated the film to a beautiful young girl and gifted musician from her neighborhood named Devon who at 13 committed suicide. The suspected cause of death was that the pressure to succeed at school in general, algebra in particular, became extremely challenging causing self-doubt, depression, loss of self worth, anxiety, and ultimately death.
The film shines a light on the price our kids pay for what one kid in the film identifies as being in a "race to nowhere" resulting from an educational environment where stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, cheating is commonplace, and yet even after all that, young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. The documentary has put out a call to families, educators, experts and policy makers to examine current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become the healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens in the 21st century.
Surprising, however, is that while Race To Nowhere puts out this call to action, it fails to provide ideas about what can be done beyond, "examining current assumptions." The movie did a great job of examining. Parents get it. Teachers get it. Students are getting it whether they like it or not. Now it's time for real ideas about what to do next. This is absent from the movie where we discover even the passionate and desperate parents in the film are stuck in the "way things have always been" mindset. They feel powerless to do anything outside the options of stay in school or drop out. Toward the movie's end, we discover Devon's parents share their solution to raising their surviving child. They ask him fewer questions about his classes and more about how lunch and recess went. Another family featured a child wandering in fields who seemed rather lost after dropping out because she was unable to manage the pressures of school. Even filmmaker Vicki Abeles, who paints an excellent picture of what is wrong with what schools are doing to our children and their parents who are driven to stop at nothing to get into top colleges, doesn't see an alternative to school. Even after exposing all these problems, we learn her children are still in a traditional school. The only difference now is that the parents put less emphasis on homework and the importance of good grades. The solution for another family featured in the movie was to switch high schools to one known to be less academically rigorous.
I was left wondering why the only change these parents could come up with was to change THEIR behavior or drop out rather than demand a change in the cause of THE PROBLEM...an outdated, boring, and irrelevant school system, unnecessarily causing students to jump through hoops so they can ultimately pass more tests and more difficult tests. USC education professor Stephen Krashen recognizes the growing problem of the United States Department of Education that believes the key to college and career readiness is planning more tests including interim tests during the year, creating tests that are more difficult to pass, encouraging testing all subjects (not just reading and math) and also measuring growth, which likely means pre- and post-tests each year. He explains it this way,
"We have an educational system that thinks weighing the animal more frequently is more important than feeding it."
So, why after all this is revealed, are parents still subjecting their children to this? Are they incapable of Thinking Outside the School as Kate Fridkis, so eloquently asks in her piece on the topic? It seems implausible that eliminating the source of the problem wouldn't occur to the parents featured in this powerful documentary. Especially since the film distinctly acknowledges that many of today's top CEOs know the truth about the unimportance of a college education. Heck, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Ted Turner, and David Geffen never bothered graduating college. Many of today's successful musicians (Lady Gaga), actors (Patrick Stuart), artists (Ansel Adams) didn't bother with college either. Many well known writers (William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, J.D. Salinger) never graduated or even bothered looking at colleges. Perhaps most interestingly is that several U.S. presidents (Truman, Washington, Lincoln and Van Buren) never attended college. More and more, smart students too are beginning to understand that a college education is not what it's cracked up to be and they are dropping out.
But the masses seem to have been brainwashed into believing traditional school and college are the only keys to success even if our children are sick, depressed, or worse. DEAD. Are we not concerned that we expend littletime or energy helping children discover what their dreams are for their lives beyond college? Or that college only need be part of the journey for a portion of the world. Aren't we also developing citizens? People who treat each other with compassion, become our friends, colleagues, and significant others. What about helping students discover and develop their passions? Are parents conflicted knowing that we're misleading this generation of future college graduates, known today as "Generation Debt" as they leave college with tens of thousand of dollars in debt for a degree that they're often not even quite sure about what they will do with it? Are we really doing a service to the children of our future or are we making these choices because it's what everyone else is doing? Keeping up with the Joneses if you will.
The reality of our past -- do well in school, go to college and the rest will take care of itself --is no longer true. First, what it took for the over-40 set to do well in school and what today's students are required to do looks very different. As one parent in the audience viewing the film shared, "I feel responsible in part. They keep piling more and more work on these kids so we keep hiring more and more tutors. This fosters a vicious cycle that will never get better better because we're just paying for the right to let schools take over the precious little time we have left with our children each day."
Next, the cost of college has outweighed the economic gain. As hard as it is to believe, in most cases when you work the numbers, you are actually better off skipping your college experience and your college debt. Financial considerations aside, we're raising a generation of students like Amy, Carlie, Jessica and Maria who have learned to do exactly what they're told and are motivated to succeed, but they have no idea why. When you read each students bio, you'll notice they are driven, motivated, and happen to be strong writers, but like most students there clearly has not been much attention placed on helping them identify and pursue their passions, talents, and interests.
Therein lies one of the big problems. If we never help students to discover what they love, what they're good at or what they're passionate about, how does all this learning and all these test scores really have intrinsic value or meaning? When the only answer to, "What do I need to know this for?" is "College" or "To pass the test." what are we REALLY preparing students for?
While education as the cause of physical illness, mental illness, death and debt all sound rather bleak, there are answers. Answers that call for moving from examination to action and involve taking a stand and not following the mainstream. The answers are out there and as more and more parents believe they are entitled to become empowered to take ownership for their children's learning we'll see more joyous, passionate, successful happy children. It is time to move from acknowledgement to empowerment and for parents to take a stand and say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more." As hard as this may seem to do in an educational system driven from fear of failure by not following the norm, this is possible and there are already parents engaging in this work. Furthermore, there are school leaders and teachers who will be excited to have your passionate voices behind them to help them do what we all know is best for children.