Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Race to Nowhere" questions the extreme pressure we put on kids, from grade school to high school

The documentary “Race to Nowhere”, directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, builds a case that we are simply piling on unreasonable demands on our upper middle-class kids in public schools, even going back to elementary school, but particularly in high school.

The 85-minute film, with interviews and footage originally shot in 2009 (largely in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area schools), is finally available on DVD from Reel Link films. The DVD so far hasn’t been sold on Amazon (at least when I ordered it directly).  Schools must order a version licensed for large public exhibition. But the company encourages home use purchasers to hold “house parties”.  That’s no joke; when I was substitute teaching in the Arlington VA school system in 2004, the Career Center kids made a film called “The House Party”.  I have it. (The sequel was  called “Slices of Life”.  Maybe director Russell Burger should meet and network with Abeles; they obviously share common concerns about our teens.)  Seriously, I think that Abele and Reel Link should look for commercial distribution with at least a limited theatrical release in “art cinema” houses.  I don’t know if it was submitted to any film festivals (AFI Silverdocs sounds appropriate to me). 

The film interviews author Etta Kralovec (“The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning”, with John Buell, Becaon Press, 2001).  The problem with this book is that it predates George W. Bush – who, for all his Republican ideology, implemented one of the most intrusive Federal education programs ever – No Child Left Behind.  The film does cover the agony of “teaching to the test” and teacher bonuses based on kids’ performances.  And I think that this film predates DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee (she appears in “Waiting for Superman”), who held DC teachers to unbelievable standards. 

As I type this, I have to note that CNN is now presenting a teen Alex Berdy, who campaigned for President Obama in 2012, at age 16 – learning real world political skills.  He has actually met Obama.  Consider that report “today’s short film”. Now, back to this movie!!

In fact, the CNN interruption makes the point: that learning needs to be practical.  It is a lot more than standardized and teacher-specific exams, term papers, and  grades.

The film interviews a particular high school student, Sam, who struggled with some aspects of his academics, but also wrestled.   The varsity sports issue is brought in to show that students are expected to do everything for college applications. Sam says he would starve himself to make weight.  “I have to deprive myself for ‘them’.  I belong to them.”   There could have been an even racier opportunity here if the movie had presented competitive swimming, and shown boys “shaving down” (their legs) to peak and supposedly maximize athletic performance and gain the tiniest competitive edge (rather like the “two bishops” in a chess game).

The film also presents a girl who composed music and who had made good grades, but one day (in ninth grade, I think) made an “F” on a math (algebra) test.  She would soon take her own life.  Once you’re a 4.0 student, the only way to go is down.  But that’s true in sports when you’re in first place.

The film does cover the problem of cheating (starting with copying homework and plagiarism), which really was taboo when I went to high school 1958-1961, and when (even in a world with a military draft and student deferments) a lot was made of honor codes.  If you cheat, are you cheating yourself? Maybe not always.  David Callahan's 2004 book "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Books blog, March 28, 2006) seems relevant. 
The film depicts unbelievable amounts of homework expected in both elementary and particularly middle school.  I certainly had that homework, but I don’t remember its being excessive in the 1950s.  Then, the mantra was “read, don’t watch television”.  Now, kids seem to spend all their time – homework and social – online.  Well, not those who play football, wrestle, or swim.  (I guess Washington Nationals’s ace fastball pitcher Stephen Strasburg didn’t either.  But could today’s schools allow another Strasburg to flourish?) 

When I substitute-taught in the 2004-2007 period, I had the impression that most of the tests and homework as reasonable.  The algebra tests were straightforward and pretty standard.  If I brushed up, I could have worked the AP calculus tests (which were sometimes divided into “with” and “without “ calculator.   In math and physics, it’s possible to make up extra-credit test problems that actually engage students (like how fast would Clark Kent have to run to catch his own forward pass in the end zone, if it reaches a certain height when thrown?)  One AP chemistry class made a short instructional film about a fictitious radioactive element  (see drama reviews, Dec. 14, 2012 for more on this).  The kid who directed” the short film was a pitcher (lefthander) for the high school baseball team.  Yes, if he shows up in the majors I’m going to remember and go to the game.  Actually, I know another high school student very skilled on video and performance arts, probably enough to work in the film business right now.  It’s hard to see that AP and IB courses are too much for students who are capable of the work.
I guess my point is that what I have seen personally is a lot more varied – and encouraging – than what is depicted in this film.  Still, the film makes a point about how far our culture has carried the idea of personal meritocracy.  “Who happens to those who can’t?”  Maybe we are encouraging students to focus so much on “making it” that, besides the obvious medical risks (anorexia, lack of sleep, increased risk of mental illness – suddenly recognized as a serious risk to society) they don’t learn to become social beings.  Look at the issues with fewer children born later in life (International issues blog, Dec. 21).

The official site is here
Here is Reel Link’s theatrical trailer.  So maybe it did have a platform theatrical release, but I never caught wind of it.  The film has a great theme song "Nobody Knows Me at All" by the Weepies.  

Don’t confuse this film with the dramatic film “Road to Nowhere” (July 14, 2012 here). 

I reviewed the film "The Impossible" on my "Films on Major Threats to Freedom" ("cf") blog yesterday, Dec. 21, 2012/

(Don;t confuse with "Road to Nowhere" July 14.) 

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