For a great list of quotes that may help to put this documentary in context, please see this blog post by Dangerously Irrelevant.
I recently saw Race to Nowhere, a wonderful documentary on the high stakes culture we have constructed in American life and education. As I tweeted earlier this week, “If you really love kids, heck if you really love people you need to see this movie.” After watching, I called my family and begged them to see this (I have younger siblings in high school and elementary school). And now I beg you.
The movie shows that the only way we measure success in school is straight A’s, high-test scores, and admission to a top university. We tell our young people that if you don’t achieve this model than you will not be successful and your life chances are slim. Teachers, parents, society and peers push this one-size-fits-all model to every single student. We don’t ask young people to be creative, to think differently, or to be engaged. We teach them to be a good test-taker, a good performer. In effect, we are telling them this is the only way to be happy. We are asking our young people to sacrifice the natural happiness and joys of childhood, in order to aim for these unrealistic expectations and faraway adult constructs. To achieve this model of success we are pushing our children to hours of homework, tutoring, sports, music lessons, and extracurricular activities. Children have so much on their plates that stress, anxiety and even physical sickness are skyrocketing. All because of this ludicrous expectation that they will be letting people down if they don’t push themselves to these extremes. And while young people are busy putting together their college resumes at 11, they are staying up that late to try and finish everything. While they are running around from activity to activity, we never stop to ask them, “Are you happy”? We are dehumanizing our young people, so based on the movie I would like to make this plea (Some of these are things I need to work on myself).
Teachers: High expectations do not mean pushing more and more pointless, robotic, mind-numbing worksheets and review questions on to children especially as homework. Research shows that homework is unsuccessful as a learning tool and as a gauge for understanding. Think about it. If a student does not get the concept he or she is simply practicing it incorrectly at home. If they get it, they get it and it is worthless repetition. More homework does not mean higher-achieving kids. If homework is necessary, look for ways to give students choice and make it brief, but though provoking. As one parent says in the movie, “Since when did schools dictate how my family spends its time?"
Show students that learning is more important than grading. Do this by de-emphasizing the amount of mega-tests you give. Move toward a more authentic assessment plan where students display mastery and higher-level thinking skills in a myriad of ways. Try letting students do things just for the experience of learning: for example, non-graded blogs. Don’t be afraid to let students “grade” themselves. This produces a remarkable amount of reflection and students tend to discover what mistakes they made, rather than throwing out the graded paper you gave them. Encourage students to be creative, to think differently and ask questions. One way I have started to do this is by implementing Project Based Learning. When I actually have a successful project (much tweaking in the future), teamwork and engagement replace the grading trap. Make it your personal mission to find “success” for all students and model that “success” can only be defined by one person: yourself. Teach them that “outside the box” is a good thing.
Finally, ask them “Are you happy?”