Saturday, January 22, 2011

Race to Nowhere


A week before I board the plane to Korea, I go to a showing of an important film about schools—Race to Nowhere. The message is familiar. In the workshops I give around the country, I’ve talked to the teachers who have lost their passion (or their jobs) because they’re players in someone else’s plan—bureaucrats far away from the students they teach, indeed, people who will never meet these students or see first-hand what damage they’re causing by substituting superficial performance for deep inquiry. But in this film, I hear from the students themselves. It’s worse than I thought.

The film is not in mainstream theaters and on purpose. The filmmakers wanted it to be shown in community settings so there could be follow-up discussion. It seems like a good idea. In the theaters, it would just be another drop in the roaring river of entertainment, leaving the viewers dispirited and hopeless, When shown in community centers—
schools, churches, synagogues, temples, neighborhoods and the like— there’s the possibility of actually talking about it. And then—radical thought in our increasingly passive notions of democracy—actually begin to act on these issues.

I came away from the film with a seed of hope. It’s been clear for awhile that meaningful change will not come from the halls of power. Indeed, next to the ongoing wars abroad, my biggest disappointment in the Obama administration is substituting No Child left Behind for Race to the Top. And as one student in the film eloquently remarks, it’s essentially a race to Nowhere.

If the politicians are hopeless and the teachers powerless and the students too busy keeping up with homework to do anything else, where will change come from? And here I felt a glimmer of hope—the parents. The parents, in league with the teachers and their own children, can be an enormous and powerful voice in demanding change to protect their own children. But as one high school senior remarked so eloquently, “We can’t step off the treadmill individually without feeling punished. We have to step off together.”

Indeed, even before this film, there have been inspiring stories of communities banding together and doing just that. It’s really not that complicated. But though agreeing on a no homework policy is a good first step, we need more. In today’s world, time freed up from homework might simply mean more TV, chat rooms, Internet surfing, the whole arsenal of electronic addiction. It’s not enough to stop excessive testing and homework. Parents, teachers and children need to actively engage in healthy alternatives. For schools, follow the best practices of great schools based on hands-on learning, inquiry, arts, meaningful discussion and community celebration. For parents, restore the family dinner with talk, kids helping with chores, walks in the park and hikes in the woods. For kids, shut off the screens and go out and play.

First step? Get a group together and watch the film.

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