Corporate finance attorney Vicki Abeles has emerged as an unlikely hero in the education field with her documentary Race to Nowhere. The first-time filmmaker and mother of three focuses on the mental and physical toll today’s competitive school system takes on students, teachers and families due to an overemphasis on testing, drill-and-kill instruction and overwhelming amounts of homework.
The film depicts real-life students who focus on grades in hopes of being accepted into prestigious universities at the expense of true learning, critical thinking and happiness. Middle school and college-bound students from all socioeconomic levels are shown to be sleep deprived from studying all night, taking stimulants, cheating and dealing with depression. There is also the story of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after failing a math test. Teachers in the film say that they are under so much pressure to raise test scores that learning has become secondary. An Oakland teacher tearfully explains her decision to leave the profession because she feels unable to meet the needs of her students with so much emphasis on testing. Experts in the documentary say these issues not only hurt education, but pose a threat to society and our future.
But it’s not all bleak. Solutions aimed at students, teachers, parents, administrators and mental health professional are listed in the film, and can also be accessed at racetonowhere.com. Anyone who would like to schedule a showing of Race to Nowhere in their school community may do so through the website or by calling (925) 310-4242.
The Reel Link Films production has been shown in more than 80 theaters nationwide, which isn’t bad for a documentary. But the real impact has been at the local level. Screenings have been held in auditoriums at elementary schools, secondary schools and universities throughout the country; at community forums and conferences; and at CTA’s Issues Conference in January and CTA’s State Council. During the past six months there have been 1,400 screenings held in 48 states and 15 countries.
California Educator’s Sherry Posnick-Goodwin recently caught up with Abeles for an interview. Several of the questions were submitted to the Educator by CTA members who attended recent screenings.
EDUCATOR: How would you describe the reaction from viewers and critics to RTN?
VICKI ABELES: It’s been overwhelming. The film is resonating with hundreds of thousands of people including parents, students, educators, school board members, administrators, college professors, college admissions departments and policymakers. It resonates not only because of the personal stories told, but also because of what the research is showing and what experts have to say. I felt it was an important story to tell and that it would provide students and educators with a voice about education reform. It was my hope that the film would be a centerpiece for communities generating a new dialogue around education and creating policies that will transform what we are doing. I was hoping for a film that would inspire change. So many people in communities where there have been screenings say they have found the film to be empowering and comforting because they know they are not alone.
Your film shows that middle school can be a turning point when students stop enjoying school. How do you think we can we modify middle schools so we can give students the study skills that they need and not have them be totally stressed out by the time they arrive at high school?
(Question submitted by María A. López de Howard from Sacramento City Unified School District.)
We have to first start shifting the mindset about what it takes to provide children with a good foundation in high school, college and life. We need to take into account where young people are developmentally, so we can provide them with high expectations that are developmentally appropriate. And in both middle school and high school, we need to focus on education that is meaningful and relevant. We need to structure the school day around inquiry and learning and engagement.
Some of the students were extremely stressed out from five or more hours of homework each night. Should homework be abolished altogether? How can teachers assign some homework, but not too much?
It’s a challenge. Standards drive homework. Testing drives homework. And parents drive homework. But we have to look at both the quality and quantity of homework. Research shows the only homework that contributes to academic achievement in elementary school is reading for pleasure. Research shows that when it comes to middle school, an hour per night may contribute to academic achievement, but after that you start to see negative consequences such as kids who start hating school, kids who are bored and not engaged, and kids who aren’t sleeping enough. Expectations are out of line with where kids are developmentally, so parents are doing homework for them. In a way, it’s teaching students to cheat. Our labor laws wouldn’t allow our kids to have jobs for six and a half hours each day and then work for another five or six hours. We need to stop worrying about homework and start using school days efficiently. We need to look at how kids are spending their time in school, rather than focusing so much on homework.
How do we start refocusing on “respect for the child” so we aren’t just producing achievers, but developing the uniqueness that exists in every child?
(Question submitted by Kendall Vaught from Los Alamitos Unified School District.)
Great question! That’s what I’m advocating for. There is no silver bullet; many things have to happen in our schools so the focus is on growing individuals, looking at the whole child, and helping to foster individual talent and life skills. We have to change our school culture so it isn’t focused on testing, competition and the pressure to conform. A lot of it has to do with building good relationships between educators and students. But teachers often see too many students in a day for this to be realistic. Some say class size doesn’t matter, but that’s not true.
How can we change the paradigm that one is “incompetent” or “incomplete” if he or she doesn’t get high grades or get accepted into a prestigious university? (Question submitted by Karla Davis from San Juan Unified School District.)
Again, we’re talking about changing a culture. I think all of us as adults have to believe in young people, and we need a much broader definition of success.
Why have unions been blamed for the problems in education — and what role can unions and teachers play in helping to improve teaching and learning?
It’s not just teachers unions; there’s a lot of blame going around. My message is that we need to stop blaming each other and working collaboratively to do what works for young people. Teachers and unions aren’t to blame. Teachers want to do a good job, but they are not supported. We have a system based on punishment rather than supporting our educators as professionals, which we should do. Those in teachers unions need to mobilize members and add their voices to the discussion. It’s going to take work. It means going to school board meetings, spreading the word, and engaging in dialogue about education outcomes to show the present system isn’t working.
Students in the school say they are just “doing school,” rather than learning and problem-solving. Is No Child Left Behind to blame? (Question submitted by Vince Rosato from New Haven Unified School District.)
I think it’s a big contributor, but it’s not the only thing. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of fear driving what is happening in our schools. There is fear that our kids won’t have opportunities we had growing up and that they won’t be able to compete in a global economy. NCLB and Race to the Top are in reaction to other countries outperforming us on tests. But now other countries like China are looking to move away from test-driven instruction. They are going back to the type of system we used to have in the U.S. because they have found that test-driven instruction has not resulted in a generation of independent and creative thinkers. It has had the opposite effect.
RTN depicts the stress your own children experienced from a high-pressure school system. Have things improved for your children stresswise since you released this movie? If so, what can be attributed to these changes?
When I set out to make this film, my family was never going to be in it. But a year into production, other people leaned on me to do this. As a parent I wanted to be careful about this; what kids agree to at age 11 is not always something they are comfortable with at ages 15 or 16. My kids are thriving today. I have shifted my mindset so my kids are under a lot less pressure. They know they have the support of their family at home and that we value them. I protect their sleep at all costs. I am not afraid as a parent of what the future holds for my kids. My interest is in raising children with life skills who are resilient, happy and healthy people.
What is next for you?
I am committed to this campaign of social action and helping to support educational change at many levels. As screenings continue, we are still filming in schools to tell the story of what is happening in education. We are continuing to engage in conversation about the potential for change. We have power to create change. This film is just a tipping point.
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