This is a review of the documentary Race to Nowhere about problems in US schools.
Race to Nowhere Review Race to Nowhere is a new documentary film about the pressure to perform in American public schools. [http://www.racetonowhere.com/] It contrasts with cultural themes denouncing schools as too easy and children as too lazy, or the Chinese Mother article denouncing Americans for coddling their kids [ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html ]. It documents and comments on the rat race that many children feel trapped in seven hours of school, followed by hours of sports practice, and music and/or art lessons, then hours of homework each night, followed by less than eight hours of sleep. Then they get up the next day and do it again. All this is not to be educated, but to be a performer. This film was created because a mother noticed something was wrong with her own children. They seemed stressed and off somehow. The spark happened when a beautiful young 13 year old girl, popular and good at school, committed suicide. Given how she was described, she s probably the last person you d expect to commit suicide. This caused her to investigate what was going on with her children, and other people s children, and create the documentary Race to Nowhere. Her family apparently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically Lafayette. This is a wealthy area and the successful are not old money or people who made money while never leaving the beach, but largely the driven types who spent years in school getting advanced degrees and work in law firms, tech firms, hospitals, pharmaceutical and biotech firms, etc. The documentary gives a voice to many high school age children, as well as her two younger children, to speak about the pressure cooker lives they lead. They literally have no time to play or figure out what s important. It isn t clear they re learning that much either. Many kids feel the need to cram before tests and then forget everything they crammed for. They don t have time to care about the material. Many kids talk about rampant cheating. Kids take drugs to perform. One teenage girl developed anorexia she discovered not eating gave her more energy and the ability to stay up later. The key thing is to perform, to not disappoint the teachers, to do well on the tests, to get in to a top college. They also speak with minority kids in Oakland, presumably from a lower income area but possibly all the kids are at a high school for high performing minorities. These children also feel similar pressure in high school to perform to get in to college. The schools in Oakland are now being graded so there is additional pressure for children to do well on tests. There is a great part where a female teacher speaks about how impossible her job is, she must teach for the test. She loved working with the kids, reading their writing, teaching about literature and Shakespeare. But gaining a love of literature or understanding drama doesn t directly help you do well on the tests. She also notes that the kids are being tested on their culture, and not surprisingly they don t do well. As Thomas Sowell has noted, in all countries the elite tend do well on their country s tests. Many teachers, psychologists, the head of Stanford s education department, all speak as well. A big theme for them is how overstructured the kids lives are. They have to go to school, do homework, participate in sports and the arts, or even see a tutor, go to SAT classes, work at a job, etc. They have no spare time and it isn t clear how they re supposed to get all this done. While the film doesn t say this,
presumably quite a few kids find it quite easy to do well in school or they ll coast in to good schools by their high test scores. However if all children are expected to be well above average this creates a huge pressure on everyone. There is a constant danger of falling behind for many children. They also mention the question as to whether homework contributes anything to the children s performance. While establishment education reformers always mention other countries where kids have more school and more homework do better on tests, they never mention all the other countries where they do less school and less homework and still do better on tests. According to the film s primary interviewee on the subject, only low levels of homework have any impact, and then only in middle school and high school. More homework is a waste. They talk about and to teachers who found that eliminating homework increases performance. One person specifically mentions how school is a horrible intrusion in to the child s entire life and the parent s home life. At the end of the film parents discuss how they try to step back and not pressure their children. They try to let them know there are other important things. What kind of a life is it for a child or an adult if you re so busy you don t have time to play with your cat or dog or have dinner with your family? Why work hard just to raise kids who have to work hard, so they can raise kids to work hard? There are no doubt statists who will be horrified by all this. What will happen if kids and their parents reject the system? We already have mothers and fathers working and paying taxes and training their kids to get high tax bracket jobs. What will happen if they reject the rat race? What if they start deciding what is important rather than spending an entire life as high performers complying with what other people have told them is important? They talk about how the kids are always coached. A big cost of the system is that supposedly educated kids have problems thinking for themselves. This would create a big problem in real life people want to hire someone who they can tell figure out how to do this. One adult says that kids don t feel it is ok to say what you think and get a C on a test and think the teacher just didn t get it. They don t ever have a situation where they have to figure it out for themselves. Often to really learn you fall, you hurt yourself, you dust yourself off and you try again. They also mention how school isn t necessary for success, Bill Gate didn t finish school, Steve Jobs barely went, and Richard Branson didn t go at all. Whatever their faults they clearly had the education to do great things. It is a film well worth seeing and also showing to the students themselves. There are lots of screenings and hopefully the film will be released on DVD soon and on to file sharing sites.
The Chinese Mother The film definitely provides an interesting contrast to Amy Chua s article Why Chinese Mothers are Superior [ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html ]. In that article she says that Western parents coddle their children and accept less than top results from
their children. She works at educating her children and expects hers to work very hard to excel at school and music and they do. She was so tough many commentators saw the story as one of essentially child abuse. Certainly in traditional Chinese culture doing well in school and understanding the arts was quite important there was no other way to pass the exams and become a powerful mandarin with all the opportunities for personal advancement and protection of family that entailed. It should be noted that the article is ripped out of a larger work, and the whole story is that her kids are individuals too with their own values and they set their own boundaries which the mother had to respect. What is also important about Amy Chua story is that she taught her children that they were good enough and smart enough to achieve things they thought impossible. She had a huge battle with her child to make sure her daughter learned to play a challenging piece on the piano her other child had learned, and the child did learn it. Whatever one thinks of her methods, it is the kind of lesson that elite children and successful people learn. In many ways this is the kind of spirit that built this country Garrett in his book on Henry Ford The Wild Wheel mentions how Ford would buy companies and his people would come in and turn them around, and Ford was convinced they could achieve the impossible of making sheet glass and they did. What is sad about the movie is that the children genuinely do seem to be putting in a lot of effort and they don t want to disappoint their teachers and parents. However if the child isn t fast enough, the child is expected to perform better. His or her lack of performance is the fault of the child or the parents and not the fault of the school. The schools are graded on how well they do but that only put pressure on the students to do well. Everyone must conform to a centralized plan. [ http://blog.mises.org/15411/tiger-moms-and-the-central-plan/ ] Many children are not learning that with dedication they can succeed at the impossible. They are learning they are supposed to perform and if they can t learn fast enough to measure up to the state s or someone else s standards they failed. The pressure does become a real problem. As the documentary showed children in hothouse environments will cheat or take drugs to do better, and sometimes commit suicide if they feel like they failed.
Comments It is worth bringing up a few comments. The makers of the DVD probably aren t aware of John Taylor Gatto. John Taylor Gatto [http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/ ] talked about a lot of this 20 years ago especially the overly structured life of middle class and upper middle class children. Similarly Walter Kirn, who wrote Up in the Air, wrote about his experience going to Princeton in 1982 [http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/lost-in-the-meritocracy/3672/ ] without
having really learned anything. After college he was sick with pneumonia and pulled Huck Finn off the shelf and finally began to learn for the love of it. There is some historical context. The film maker does go back in time a bit and talk about how levels of homework have varied and children prior to Sputnik had more spare time, and then again kids from the 60s to about 1982 grew up with less emphasis on homework and performance. However that seemed to change in 1982. Unfortunately she blames most of the problem on new issues, especially No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on more testing and the increased demand for getting kids in to top Universities (there are also many more high school students than in 1992 when I graduated.) They seem to have no awareness of the basic problematic structure of school itself. School is a system which structures 7 hours of a child s day. They hadn t read John Taylor Gatto s Seven Lesson School Teacher [http://childrenarepeople.blogspot.com/2009/02/seven-lesson-schoolteacher-by-john.html ] which shows the message of the medium of school. They aren t aware of the history of schooling. As Gatto and others have documented, schooling was invented to socialize children, not to educate in a substantial manner. [ http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/ http://mhkeehn.tripod.com/ughoae.pdf http://www.scribd.com/doc/27806789/The-Underground-History-of-American-Education-by-JohnTaylor-Gatto ] School is about compliance and being able to give new progressive values to children and adults. WASPs were horrified by immigrant cultural practices, especially drinking and Catholicism, and wanted to Christianize them with secular schools. The film makers don t know about the Jewish riots in early 20th century New York, when outraged Jewish parents rioted against the dumbing down of schools. One senses the filmmakers and interviewees don t know what to do, but at least things might be better if there were less testing and standards and teachers and administrators had plenty of money to waste. Unlike the movie The Cartel [http://www.thecartelmovie.com/], they don t deal with the fact that schools are a huge business and system for an enormous re-distribution of wealth with extremely high spending per class room. While many kids are having the love of learning beat out of them, spending a fortune so kids can waste seven hours a day will only teach that learning isn t important. As John Taylor Gatto noted, for many if not all kids who don t do well in school there is a fundamental intellectual rejection of what s going on. It s not that they re stupid, it is that they re too smart to fall for the scam. Most of school seems meaningless and irrelevant even the teachers actions betray that teachers don t really think it is that important. The other irony with the film is that we know many children on the bottom are so poorly served. They re told they re not good enough if they don t measure up, and many don t learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Their performance at school brands them as societal failures. Yet as the film pointed out corporations are run by C students who were persistent. As John Taylor Gatto pointed out many famous politicians were horrible students. He also points out that the two people who basically ran the human genome project were horrible school students. One was home-schooled on a farm his rule was to do whatever he was interested in until he got bored. The other was a rotten public school student in California and surf bum. Yet they re responsible for probably the most prestigious current scientific achievement. [ http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/historytour/history8.htm ]
If kids and adults love something they ll learn it. They need time to do this learning. They also need time to figure out what is important what do they value. The documentary is correct that while spending all day doing homework and scripted activities doesn t give time to grow, they don t discuss that the seven hours or so in school also take up valuable time they could spend reading, playing, thinking, and growing. Schools like Sudbury Valley Schools have great stories about how kids develop naturally and want to learn and follow their interests. Yet sometimes those interests veer off the non-academic path a girl with a talent for writing may spend her time organizing parties, but that s how she learns about real people, not through media. Gatto and Sudbury Valley [ www.sudval.org ] also point out how it takes so little time to teach a child the basics of reading and writing, and that math up through algebra can be learned in a semester if the child really wants to learn it. Children in public schools can t learn on their schedule and when they re developmentally ready. Children are all now expected to read when they re five or six, yet many kids aren t ready and many famous intellectuals didn t read till late, and some even learned to speak late. Much of the concern for education and schools is that children won t be successful. However education and schools are two different things. School won t directly teach you how to tell a joke, dance well, talk to the boy or girl you think is cute. Nor is it good at teaching one how to determine if the facts or values of the authorities are wrong or to invent or discover something new. For many parents fear for their children s success is fed by fears of global competition. They don t know that free trade allows us all to benefit from the increased numbers of engineers and scientists creating new technology. If foreigners make TVs Americans make many of the movies and shows they watch. Foreign expertise helps Apple in California make a fortune designing, selling, and marketing the devices they depend on others to build. Yet wealth isn t really determined by schooling or even a liberal education, the Soviet Union was poor but full of extremely smart knowledgeable people. Countries are wealthy where the people are allowed to be rich and where government programs didn t get in the way, not because of government programs to elevate the condition of men are necessary as Lincoln claimed [when he addressed Congress on July 4 1861]. Where there is peace, liberty, and property and all are allowed to flourish in their own way, people will naturally love learning and education and grow wealthy.
To see or host [http://www.racetonowhere.com/host-screening] a screening go to http://www.racetonowhere.com/screenings