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'Race To Nowhere' Film Scrutinizes Achievement Culture in Education

A documentary called Race to Nowhere takes a critical look at what's happening in schools. It examines the pressure placed on students through mandatory testing, excessive homework and an education culture obsessed with achievement. "You have a system that is trying to further roboticize students to be these academic competitors, these producers," a teacher in Oakland, Ca., says. "I'm doing this so I can go to college, and get a job I like, ultimately so I can be happy. But if I'm not healthy, then none of that really matters," laments one teen-ager. "Some of the pressure that is out there is real if you want to have the same opportunities that your parents had to attend those kinds of schools and all; you have to do more," says a parent and member of the Lafayette (California) School Board. Race to Nowhere screens tonight at Omni Montessori School in Charlotte. The film's director is Vicki Abeles. She spoke to WFAE's Scott Graf from her office in the San Francisco area. Here's a transcript of their conversation. You can also listen to it here. Scott: You're an attorney so first tell us why and how you got involved in a project like this. Vicki: This film really got its start in my home and in my local community when my daughter, who was twelve at the time, became physically sick from the pressure she was feeling around school and our culture. And that inspired me to start speaking with people in all sorts of communities, and what I found were kids who were anxious, depressed, sleep deprived, and in lesser cases checked out of the learning process. Scott: For those who haven't seen this firsthand, explain just how much pressure and where this pressure is coming from that these kids face. Vicki: I think the pressure is coming from a lot of places. I think there is tremendous pressure today in our schools and amongst our educators for some kids to prepare a college resume starting at a very young age. And also the pressure tends to be just very performance oriented. You know, you are seen as your last grade and your last test score. I think that parents place pressure on kids, I think the universities place pressure on kids, I think we've got policies coming together, and I think we have a culture that defines a successful young person in a very narrow way. Scott: We hear a lot about teaching to the test and why that is not good really for kids or educators or anyone involved, but what do you believe we are losing with the current education system and the way it's set up? Vicki: I think we're losing so much. I think that we're training young people rather than educating them, and I think when the test becomes so important, then that translates into what's happening in our classrooms. And so many classrooms have become test prep centers rather than places for young people to engage in learning and to see learning as a lifelong skill. We're losing the critical thinking skills, the problem solving skills, and I think more importantly we're losing so many of the other aspects of education that are important and develop the different parts of the brain, the creative aspects. I think lots of things that smack of fun have been eliminated from our school day, and we hear a lot about that from the education experts in the film. Scott: Vicky, the kids in this film appear to be from well-to-do families for the most part who attend affluent schools. Do the issues you raise in Race to Nowhere apply to education across the board? Are these issues that can apply to kids in poor, rural, or inner-city schools as well? Vicki: Well, Scott, I think in fairness there were a handful of kids who we interviewed in inner-cities. I think we did a reasonable job crossing economic lines, but what we're finding as we go out and screen this film across the country is that our film is speaking to young people in all kinds of communities, and where the pressures may be coming from different sources. I think what we have right now is an education system and a definition of success for all young people that is really narrow and we're seeing the fallout in terms of the coping strategies. And so whether you're teaching to a test, and we're talking about standardized tests in urban communities, or we're teaching to AP tests, we're seeing young people who are under tremendous pressure to perform, and it's not working out well for any of these kids. Scott: Well one thing the superintendent here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is talking in terms of innovation is a pay-for-performance plan for teachers. What do you think of a concept like that? Vicki: I have a lot of feelings about pay-for-performance and I know it's being tested in a number of communities. When you see the film you'll hear some of the experts talk about when we give kids an extrinsic reason for doing things, we deprive them of developing that intrinsic desire to learn. If we really want to develop a generation of lifelong learners who see learning as rewarding in and of itself, I think that it's a mistake to start paying for performance. Additional info: The film screens tonight at 7:30 at Omni Montessori School. Tickets are $10. There will be a second screening November 3rd.