Saturday, October 2, 2010

Race to Nowhere

I attended a screening of the new documentary Race to Nowhere last Thursday, at the Chicago Waldorf School. It is an important film I think, but left me unsatisfied.

The unsatisfaction (not dissatisfied, mind you, just not satisfied) isn't a fault of the film itself -- it does a fine job of addressing the issues it sets out to address, namely the heaps of work and stress laid on children today out of a mad desire to make it in the crazy world of adults. The title comes from a comment by one of the students interviewed in the film, but appropriately echoes the Obama administration's abusive Race to the Top initiative.

Race to Nowhere I think benefits from being released at the same time as the Waiting for Superman film, an attack on teachers and public education by the same filmmaker that made Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. (If you are in education and by some strange phenom have not heard of Waiting for Superman, check out Rethinking Schools' site set up to address the convenient untruths in the film.)

While Waiting for Superman is doing an effective job helping to mis-frame the debate around public education, Race to Nowhere addresses only a slender part of the issue -- and don't get me wrong, it makes no pretense of trying to address the totality of the problems facing public education. But that's the lack of satisfaction for me -- I was hoping for something total.

Race to Nowhere focuses on children who see themselves having a chance in the mainstream world, either because their parent(s) are there already and are pushing them along, or the students have the academic interest or drive, and possibility, of getting a precious scholarship and attending a top university. The film reminds the viewer to return to the basic question of "what is education for?" (And so it seemed appropriate that it was screened at the Waldorf school, an pedagogical tradition which has managed to keep its bearings about what education should be for.) One section of the film portrays a teacher driven from the profession by testing and the narrowing down of what education is and can be. A major theme in the film though is the amount of homework that the students work hard at doing, and the other pressures of school and expectations students face, threatening health, and in one case in the film, driving a student to suicide. And there it became clear that this film was addressing only part of the world of education.

A whole other part is immersed in poverty, where for whatever reasons, the students have been disengaged from education, or maybe never were engaged. Most of the students I have worked with never stressed about homework, as far as I can tell -- most of them never did it (so much so that in my area, the percentage of final grades comprised by homework has been reduced to five percent). The film addressed one side of the Great Divide in America.

To be fair, the film does include a few students from poor communities who are struggling along with the well-off students to keep up with classes, homework, after-school programs and community service. But largely absent are those other students, the ones that see only limited opportunity or have given up on school entirely. So while this is an important film, it isn't the film to counter Waiting for Superman.


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