Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Race to Nowhere

The documentary “Race to Nowhere” was shown in Rhinebeck recently, thanks to The Community Coalition for Rhinebeck Youth ( The film is recommended to anyone with an interest in the current state of public education in the U.S. It revolves around the stories of families across the country struggling in response to the extraordinary demands being placed on students, starting as early as first grade. These demands take many forms, but the driving force is an overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing. The film not only documents the intense pressure placed on students to do mountains of homework, get high grades, and participate in extra-curricular activities, but reveals the terrible toll in physical and mental health that this pressure exerts. The picture painted by parents, teachers, doctors, and mental health professionals is of generations of young people being robbed of their childhoods.

I have taught at every level, from Head Start to college, in private and public institutions, in special education and mainstream classes, and in schools of varying socio-economic status. I wholeheartedly endorse nearly every one of the action points put forward at the end of Race to Nowhere (mostly aimed at lowering stress levels on students by de-emphasizing standardized testing, lightening the homework load, and letting kids have their childhoods back), but I’d like to address some issues that are under-emphasized in the movie.

Once, in a college commencement address, the late radical folk singer and songwriter Utah Phillips began by telling the newly minted graduates what they are always told, that they are the country’s greatest natural resource. Departing from the usual script, however, Phillips became alarmed and asked the assembled students, “Have you seen what this country does to its natural resources?? Escape while you still can!”

The underlying point is that, while we address the deficiencies of our educational institutions and policies, it is necessary to understand that they exist in the context of the larger, broken system that is our democracy. We like to think that our schools provide some escape from commercialism and commodification – and to some degree it does – but for the most part life in our schools mirrors life outside. Whether its Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Obama’s marginally more flexible Race to the Top, the underlying ideology remains the same. The terminology gives away the game: the goals are always about efficiency, productivity, and accountability. These are corporate, economic terms that have next-to-nothing to do with education or any of the other outcomes we want for our children: good health, self-expression, self-actualization, and happiness.

To my way of thinking, the goals of efficiency and productivity aren’t even constructive in the workplace, no less a school. In our society, we don’t expect a factory to consider the well-being of workers and communities. In fact, we demonize those forces (government regulators, non-profits, and unions) that attempt to protect the rights and dignity of employees. Over the past century, we have increasingly applied the factory model, with its worship of the profit motive and markets, to our schools. The question of whether our unfettered free enterprise system is a destructive force altogether will be debated elsewhere, but we know that it is antithetical to learning.

Our culture is dominated by money. For most of us (the 99%), it is a necessary evil; we must take on more jobs and increase our productivity or we will not be able to feed our families and stay in our homes. But for the ruling elite (yes, the 1% that controls 40% of the wealth in this country is a ruling elite), it is a matter of power and greed, a game. It should come as no surprise that a favorite hobby for millionaire hedge fund managers is investing in charter schools; some do it for the tax deduction, others are profiting by outsourcing the education of our young people. The evidence suggests that charter schools do no better than mainstream public schools despite their selectivity and other advantages. But even the best charter schools serve to undermine the connection between school and the public sector. This used to be called civics. If the Wall Street banksters gave a hoot about education, they would be investing in Head Start, which has a decades-long track record of success. But the benefits of early childhood education accrue to society at large over the long term, not to investors in the next fiscal quarter.

The sad part is that, in addition to stealing our money, the 1% also frames the conversation. They own the media, after all. So, instead of rejecting the corporate oligarchs and kleptocrats, U.S. citizens are convinced that the enemy is the government that tries to rein them in, or the unions that try to provide a counterweight to their power, or the protesters, who are increasingly rising in opposition not to particular issues but to the entire system. So, by all means, we should advocate for better teacher pay, reduce standardized testing, and declare weekends homework-free. But while we seek to change policies, we also need to support those who want to change the paradigm. Standardized tests are just what you would expect in a society where efficiency is valued over efficacy, where personal gain is valued over community welfare, and the most important measure of self-worth is the size of your paycheck. We need not only to oppose the drill and test model of learning, but also to challenge the assumptions underlying this regime. Until we can bring about greater systemic change, our kids will continue to be collateral damage in what has become a frontal assault on equity and democracy.

-- Gary Kenton

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