Friday, May 20, 2011

Education Films Series II: Why I Didn't Like Race to Nowhere

Race to Nowhere resonated with a lot of edu-folks I find common cause with. When it first came out I cheered it as an alternative perspective to the one presented in Waiting for Superman. Then my husband, Cedar Riener, saw Race to Nowhere and presented me with some valid criticisms. Cedar is an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Randolph-Macon College. He normally blogs at Cedar's Digest. Here are his thoughts on the film:

I watched Race to Nowhere as part of a special preview opportunity last summer. While I found much to agree with in this film, there are two critical flaws that made me dislike it. First, the film takes the upper middle class problems of wealthy suburban California and presumes that the entire American educational system has these same problems. Second, it places too much blame for increased rates of depression and suicide on high stakes testing and homework.

First, let’s address the common ground. I agree that increased emphasis on high stakes testing is negatively affecting all of our schools. I agree that stress, depression, and suicide are important problems that deserve better solutions. I agree that in some schools there is too much homework and that many high schoolers stress too much about getting into a good college.

Given that director Vicki Abeles and I agree on the above, why am I not a fan? Maybe it is because as a scientist, I recoil at sloppy generalizing logic. Maybe it is because as a psychologist, I am skeptical of “single cause” explanations of complex problems. Maybe it is because as a teacher, every semester I can look out into my class, and tell that yes, some are stressed out. If I get a chance, I tell them to relax a little, that 89 on the exam isn’t going to kill them. But plenty of others need exactly the opposite; hey, that D- is kind of a big deal, maybe you should try stressing out a little bit more…

So here is a brief synopsis of the logic of the film. Kids today are over scheduled, over worked, and over stressed. They stress about high stakes tests, they have performance anxiety about their extracurricular activities, they start worrying about college way too early. A few scapegoats for this dire situation are the mountains of homework and AP classes.  The film presents a compelling emotional narrative, culminating with statistics of a rising suicide rate, and a heart-wrenching story of a thirteen-year-old girl who committed suicide after a poor math test score. How can we go along with a system which does this to poor innocent little girls?

My first problem with this logic is that there are (at least) two educational systems, each with their own brand of high stakes testing, which each result in different bad consequences. In Lafayette, California, where Vicki Abeles is from, and in Marin County, where this film has quite a few fans, AP exams, the SAT, and PSAT are high stakes for the students, and they get stressed about them because they see them as determining whether they get to have a future or whether they have to endure utter shame and failure by attending a non-Ivy, non-elite Cal State School. I have a sneaking feeling that some of them may even get some stress and expectations from their high-powered, elite-educated parents, who also may be a little more concerned about college than they should be.

In many other places, however, the high stakes tests are important for the teachers, but not for the students. Student disengagement is a problem in many urban systems. Ironically, many reformers talk about needing to include them in the “achievement culture,” which of course is seen as a good thing. And for students at the many urban charter schools with names that might as well be Achievement Academy for Achieving Achievers, promoting a culture of engagement and achievement may actually be part of the solution (although I am dubious that the names have anything to do with it).

In other words, for some wealthy students the problem is caring too much about school, but for many other children the problem is not caring enough. Overall, students do less homework in college, with less rigor, than they did even ten years ago, and this has been a gradual trend for thirty years. These are not the students from this movie.

My second problem is that suicide is a multiply-caused, complex problem, and we should not blame it on too much homework. The recent small uptick in suicides is a mystery, attributable to many different factors (and probably is due to a combination). Many psychologists argue that we should treat suicides as acute problems, rather than the tragic end of a chronic battle with depression. Many who commit suicide would not satisfy the criteria for depression. It is horrifically tragic that thirteen-year-old girls commit suicide (and so do seven-year-old boys, the age of my twins). And I agree that caring too much about your five upcoming  AP tests is a bad thing. But I don’t have to say that homework causes suicide to have a reasonable conversation about homework, do I?

I wanted to like Race to Nowhere. There are benefits to having a big tent of high-stakes test doubters. Placing too much emphasis on unreliable quantitative test data is bad anywhere. Anything that chips away at the market-based reformers stranglehold on the national dialogue is a good thing. If the hard-working immigrant 10th grader who is expected to read on grade level after two years of formal schooling won’t do it as a poster child for why the NCLB “failing schools” model of testing doesn’t work, maybe a rich thirteen-year-old suicide victim from Lafayette, California will work.

On the other hand, the schools and the students in Lafayette and Marin are actually different than those in the DC Public Schools that I remember, and the public schools that my kids have gone to, and lumping them together does each a disservice. We need to treat them differently because they have different problems. I disagree vehemently with the view presented by Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias, that rich kids can have their creativity (and content), but poor kids just need to learn how to read and get basic math skills before they get anything else (let’s eliminate recess! drill baby, drill!). But the attitude in Race to Nowhere doesn’t address the urban reformers like Michelle Rhee who don’t care about creativity and curiosity if you can’t read.

But you know what? Some homework is fantastic. Some tests are necessary. Some students are too motivated and some are not motivated enough. The sooner we all can realize this and start trusting their teachers more to find the right solutions for the students in front of them, the better. Unfortunately, I am not sure that Race to Nowhere starts us on the road to the somewhere.


  1. I agree that the film generalizes, and that the challenges in urban schools vs. suburban middle class schools vs. wealthier suburban schools are vastly different (I've taught in each). Perhaps the film would have been more successful if it limited itself to the latter, where these problems are very real -- with a big part of the problem, in my experience anyway, being parents who accept anything less than an Ivy as failure. The UC-Berkeley admissions rep who told the kids essentially "you must do everything and do it well" is functioning as these parents do -- you aren't allowed to take risks if success is the only acceptable solution.

  2. oops, I meant only acceptable end point.

  3. Allyson, thanks for commenting. I agree that one of the other factors, besides too much homework, is definitely pressure from the adults.
    I think in many cases this is not crazy parents acting like their kids are dead when they get a B+ (as goes the legend about Henry Kissinger) but parents wanting their kids to have the opportunities that they had, but realizing how much more competitive these opportunities are now. I am tempted to put this on crazy parents (and I am sure you have experienced your fair share of those) but I think it is also parents who are not crazy, but just going along with the expectations that seem to be in the air in some of these schools.

  4. Suicide is a product of many factors, but I think the problem with schools is a sick value society in which material success becomes the only way to fulfillment. Eventually, at the rate the human race to nowhere is going, is a planet that has run out of "stuff." To have a sustainable future teaching students to deal with a world of "less" would make more sense than arguing about how best it is to teach for a future of "more." The world didn't come to an end today but we're moving rapidly in that direction.

    Joel Shatzky

  5. I haven't seen Race to Nowhere, yet. But even without having seen it, I appreciate this critical evaluation of it because it's obvious, Cedar, that you grasp the complexity and variation of the problems our school "system" faces. If only our lawmakers had done the same, we would not have the ridiculously detrimental NCLB law. We probably wouldn't even be so focused on "accountability" as the answer to our problems.

    And just as you say,there is no consistent "single cause." However, I believe there is a single process that will improve schools and we call it a "school improvement process." It should be unique to each school but will only bring "success" when instituted properly.

    Unfortunately, proper use of proven techniques requires education of all parties involved (not just but including teachers)...and so it goes in a "system" incapable of "fixing" itself...a never ending circle of failure for some and failed laws that govern all.

  6. @Joel, I agree that a materialistic value system is corrosive as well, but I am dubious of the ability of schools to counteract that in any way that they aren't already. I guess I am in favor of schools having more local and regional power, and reflecting local community values, within the legal protections and separation of church and state, of course. I wish our schools could avoid mcdonalds fundraisers etc, but ultimately I am not sure how powerful schools would be in instilling a countercultural value system. These days, more education for the sake of more education is practically revolutionary.
    @Victoria, I totally agree that change should be more local, and involve teachers, administrators, and parents, not just educating them, but actually including them in the decision making process.

  7. Part of it hinges on whether you take the problems of relatively well-off people seriously. Middle-class parents have a "fear of falling" (out of the middle-class, into the working class, or lower) instilled in their kids if possible. But right now the reality in the United States is it's better to be a smart plumber, mechanic, electrician, etc. than a second-tier paper pusher or 'spreadsheet monkey.' Ivy League admissions is relatively meritocratic but after (and even during) college (1) connections (networking) and (2) capital / lack or presence of debt reverse that. So we have really three distinct metrics which can diverge quite a bit from each other: 1. Education in the pure sense; 2. Wealth, income, earning-potential [also divergent among themselves]; and 3. Social / occupational class. There are Harvard graduates working $8.00 an hour jobs (not charitable jobs: real for-the-money jobs), just a mostly illiterate (but sufficiently skilled / hard-working) artisan or farmer can make a decent living. Credit Orwell for pointing this sort of thing out even back in the 1930s.

    Enjoyed this post. Sorry comment was a little off-topic, however.

  8. @Victoria
    I haven't seen the movie yet either, but I'm rather concerned when I read articles like this. There is an immense lack of coordination amongst those who oppose NCLB or those who oppose the reform community.

    If Cedar's review is correct, this film myopically extrapolates from an upper middle class population to educational issues at large. To me, that feels like we're merely substituting liberal upper middle class dictators to replace the conservative upper class dictators currently running the show. Until there are real grassroots organized efforts from the communities most adversely affected by NCLB, most of the protest movements are likely to be ineffectual, similar to how the NAACP and its "rightness" had limited value besides symbolism until real grassroots political pressure was possible through the Civil Rights movement as the good cop and the Black Muslim/Black Power strains as the bad cop.

    Does anyone on this thread have ideas about where to watch some excerpts from the movie?