The Education Reform Movie You Haven't Seen

Race to Nowhere gets quiet praise, though Waiting for Superman is the bigger box-office hit

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It's the "other" education movie out this year. Waiting for Superman may have gotten the big buzz, but Race to Nowhere is getting some quiet, serious praise in some quarters. Race to Nowhere--not, in fact, a play on Race to the Top--looks at the constant pressure on suburban students, not the lack of standards in inner city schools. Whether in primary school, secondary school, or college, these students are expected to heap on activity after activity, honors class after honors class, all while coping with increasing homework loads. Unfortunately, the message of the movie seems to be that no one can say this work is actually making them any smarter or better-prepared for adult life. Instead, it's pushing them to cheating, emotional distress, and, in extreme cases, suicide. The movie may not be as popular or "slicks" as Waiting for Superman, say its supporters, but the message is just as important.

  • Disclaimers  "Filmmaker Vicki Abeles is no propagandist," writes Marc Bousquet at the Chronicle of Higher Education, attempting to explain why the movie may not appear as convincing, on the surface, as it's "glib" competitor. The film "spends too much time on the issues of wealthy children competing for college admission and occasionally conflates those issues with those of other students, especially the much larger group of young people for whom 'overscheduling' means wage labor pulling lattes and serving pizzas to her own children." Adds John Merrow at The Huffington Post: "As a movie, 'Race to Nowhere' is--unfortunately--depressingly linear, which means that, at the end of the day, it's not a great film." He "wish[es]" it "were as good a movie as 'Waiting for Superman.'"
  • The Film Is Honest  "That counts for a lot in my book," continues Merrow. Bousquet uses the word "honesty" as well.
  • 'We Are Exploiting and Super-Exploiting Young People,' writes Bousquet, talking about the larger system of which resume-dressing volunteer hours and underpaid workare a part:
We herd them into a system that manufactures desperation and then hand them hamster wheels with sickly hypocritical grins on our faces. The best of them tell us to piss off, find a better path, or destroy themselves in the searching. The next best run in circles just to make our shopping, our research leaves, and our foreign policy as cheap as possible. Only a handful ever stop pacing the wheel.

Many things may get more expensive, from education to fast food. But we need to stop displacing adult wage labor with students and volunteers, especially volunteerism of the extorted variety.
  • And the Cost Is Tremendous  The worst-case scenarios explored in the movie, writes John Merrow, are real. 
In my 35 years of reporting for NPR and PBS, I have covered these issues more times than I care to remember. In the late 70's I spent several weeks in mental institutions for children and met kids like those in this movie. In the late 80's I reported on adolescent suicide for what was then called The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, a segment that still wakes me up in the middle of the night from time to time. And in 1995 we produced "A.D.D: A Dubious Diagnosis?" for PBS and saw some of the same pressures being put on kids. I promise you that this movie is telling the truth. ... Our obsession with test scores is dangerous and counterproductive. When parents and schools treat young people like automatons, they not only kill their childhood, but they are not preparing them to lead healthy adult lives. In what is almost a throwaway moment, one employer says that these young adults make lousy employees because they're always waiting to be told what to do. Throwaway or not, it's shockingly effective.
  • Lessening the Load Would Actually Help  Danny Miller, also writing at The Huffington Post, is particularly struck by the fact that "when several AP teachers in the film cut their homework load in half ... their students' test scores went way UP."
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