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Guest Review: ‘Race to Nowhere’

Documenting Our Schools: What Role Does Film Play in the Need for Reform?

One of the teachers in the documentary

Credit: Reel Link Films

Above: One of the teachers in the documentary "Race to Nowhere."

"Race to Nowhere" is an independently produced documentary about America's educational system. It is being screened at schools across the country and has upcoming screenings in San Diego.

As an educator, I am frustrated by the glaring flaws in the public school system. Despite our country’s efforts to improve the educational experience for our children, the numbers are grim; according to "USA Today," U.S. mathematics and science K-12 education ranks 48th worldwide. This may sound extreme, but other sources don’t paint a much prettier picture; a short video on GOOD places the U.S. rankings at 24th, 21st,and 15th for mathematics, science, and language arts, respectively.

So how do we fix the system? In the aftermath of the documentary “Waiting For ‘Superman’”, this has become the cause du jour. Public discourse is key, as nothing will change until the general public demands it. It is critical, however, to have documentaries and grassroots campaigns if we are to have any success in resolving them.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Reel Link Films

A student coping with homework in the documentary "Race to Nowhere."

I approach documentaries about the public school system with nearly equal amounts of hope and wariness. After high hopes, I was disappointed to find that Davis Guggenheim's “Waiting for Superman’” incites fear, but does little to outline specific issues with the educational system, and as a result lacks the ability to propose true solutions. Expounding the virtues of charter and private schools is great, but how will we meet the needs of the other 90% of our children? We need to discover the specific problems with the system; vagaries like an unidentified number of bad teachers and a shadowy, politically-driven teacher’s union don’t quite cut it. Once we target the actual issues, we need to look at what successful schools are doing to resolve them and implement these practices everywhere.

The documentary “Race To Nowhere” takes a step in this direction, as it starts to lay the groundwork for productive discussions of change. The film targets a specific issue: students today are up to their necks in homework and extracurricular activities, blindly reaching for a future that they are told to want without being told why. A parade of students, parents, teachers, and doctors share their horror stories about stress related disorders, drug use, anorexia, cheating, and even teen suicide. A factor in each of these stories seems to be too much work stuffed into too little time, and the resulting frustrations and esteem issues that arise when expectations are not being met. As one student eloquently puts it, “they are truly in a race to nowhere”.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Reel Link Films

The documentary "Race to Nowhere."

I understand that the homework dilemma may seem trivial or easily resolved to some people, but it hints at larger problems. In the film, teachers relay their frustrations about working within a system that prioritizes high stakes testing over cooperative, problem based learning. College professors lament the need to remediate over 50% of their students in basic skills due to the cheating that runs rampant in high school. Businesses share the fact that they need to hold their new hire’s hands through everything because they have never learned to think for themselves. These anecdotes indicate that something is wrong when our schools’ curricula and teaching methodology is driven by testing, when it should be the other way around.

I see these issues in my own teaching experiences. My students are four or five years old. They are just entering this new world of organized learning, and it should be an enjoyable and magical process. My team works hard to make learning fun; every lesson is punctuated by silly voices and puppets. We find time to sing and dance and play every single day. We tell parents not to spend more than twenty minutes a night on homework, because we want them to develop a love for the learning process. Parents tell us how much they love school, and that they miss it over their vacations. I feel good about what we do, but disheartened by the fact that so much of the momentum we have had the luxury of building will soon be overshadowed by the threat of standardized testing.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Reel Link Films

Another teacher in the documentary "Race to Nowhere."

Several of my contemporaries are racing for the door in pursuit of a career path that offers them something more. Part of it is monetary, of course, but more important is respect. Educators today are not trusted to make the choice to integrate what they have learned about effective instruction into the curriculum. That is why so many of us view our Master’s degrees as no more than a step up on the pay scale; we learn innovative new methods, but it is impossible to use many of them in the current educational mold. One young teacher in the film resonated strongly with me, as she had just resigned because she felt forced to lead her high school students down the wrong path. Good teachers are leaving the field because what they are forced to present to their students isn’t good teaching. Clearly most of us love teaching- it is becoming far too difficult to do if you can see doing anything else. But how long do we have to cling to the hope that things will get better?

The time for public discourse is long overdue, but we must approach it systematically. Film is a great vehicle for this message, but we can’t simply rely on sentiment to get the job done. Without clear objectives, all anyone can do is point fingers at each other and hope that someone else comes up with a solution. "Waiting For Superman" could have been a true game-changer; riding on the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," Guggenheim had the money and marketing needed to get his message across loud and clear. Unfortunately, his message was convoluted and vague; as a friend commented, his work would have been better served as a miniseries. Then there would be room to take a critical look at several good charter schools and see what makes them work, followed by suggestions of how to integrate these practices across the board.

"Race to Nowhere’s" effectiveness lies in the fact that it addresses a specific issue. The film opens a forum that can lead to true solutions. While it is an independent film with a limited release, they take advantage of Facebook and community screenings/discussions to encourage debate and build momentum. I have no doubt that the success of "Waiting For Superman" will at least open the door for other filmmakers that want to attack this problem. Hopefully film and other social media will begin to act as a catalyst for solidarity and forward thinking. The challenge ahead is great, but if we do nothing the cost for future generations will be far greater.

-- Erika Hughes is a local kindergarten teacher.

Visit the "Race to Nowhere" website for San Diego screenings coming up this month including screenings tonight and on December 6.

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