Parents and a diverse panel of educators took part in a discussion about the controversial education documentary Race To Nowhere after a free screening of the film at the Signal Hill Park Community Center on Friday, April 19.
The 2009 documentary, produced and co-directed by filmmaker Vicki Abeles, includes various stories from teenage students, including her own, pressured by high standards, while educators are frustrated with the culture of the education system and parents struggle to help their children do well in school.
In the film, students are said to be “overscheduled and tired,” staying up hours into the night after attending school and participating in extracurricular activities to finish heaps of homework for advanced placement (AP) classes. At the same time, teachers say the essence of learning is lost in standardized testing and students’ knowledge of subject matter don’t go past the test. Some students are even resorting to cheating or taking stimulants.
Race To Nowhere also takes aim at the No Child Left Behind Act, an aid program for disadvantaged students signed in 2001 by then President George W. Bush that was developed as a way to support education reform through setting standards and establishing measurable goals to improve education outcomes.
Though the film has been praised for challenging the competitive nature of today’s public-education institutions and posing questions about the meaning of “success,” the documentary also received criticism from some publications for making a narrow narrative out of such a large issue.
Still, the film continues to be viewed by communities around the country as a way to spark conversations between students, parents, teachers and school officials about education practices and possible reforms.
The screening in Signal Hill, presented by the Signal Hill Community Foundation and the Signal Hill Public Library, was followed by a question-and-answer discussion involving a panel of educators from a wide range of education structures that include private, public and charter schools, as well as homeschooling. The event was moderated by Aly Mancini, Signal Hill community services manager, and Gail Ashbrooke, Signal Hill librarian.
“I think the film addressed many of the issues regarding student burn-out and learning by rote rather than learning for the love of learning or really acquiring information to be able to make sense of it,” said Sabrina Bow, executive director of New City School, a charter school, which she said does not require homework but rather extends learning “into the home and into the community” and is focused on encouraging reading.
Lauren Price, principal of Signal Hill Elementary School and a mother of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, however, said homework helps students learn but only when there is a purpose for it.
“Purposeful homework, I do believe, has a place,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t be doing four to five to six hours [of homework]. That’s another work day… In a lot of cases we see teachers sending home homework and they say it’s because you have to practice this life skill of responsibility by taking this home or bringing this back, but then nothing happens with it and it ends up in the round file… I think everyone really needs to adjust their conceptualization of homework.”
Chris Rodenhizer, head of Westerly School, an independent school in Long Beach that provides K–8th-grade education, said the school reformed its homework policy about three years ago after realizing that learning isn’t based on the amount of homework given to students.
“If a student can prove that they can handle a math concept in five problems, why are we giving them 25 problems?” he asked, adding that it’s up to parents to suggest changes during PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences. “It allows you as family members to say school is important, but when your child’s in tears on the dining-room table for four hours a night, it’s wrong. It’s a bigger conversation than we can have tonight.”
Christina Sbarra, administrator for Maple Village Waldorf School, said the private school in Long Beach requires no standardized testing.
Signal Hill City Councilmember Lori Woods, who has homeschooled her four children, said her 20-year-old son is now taking classes at Long Beach City College and her 18-year-old daughter is studying to be a dental assistant, even though none of them ever attended a traditional classroom.
“I think the purpose of education is that we have a well operating society,” she said. “I don’t think that the purpose of education is to make everybody happy, but it’s about being fulfilled in your life and finding what you want to do… There’s always been a challenge in education of finding out what’s best, so it’s an ongoing challenge. It needs to change as culture changes. It needs to change as technology changes.”
Brett Geithman, principal of Alvarado Elementary School in Signal Hill, however, criticized the film for using high-profile, billionaire “outliers,” such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who were noted in the film as having little to no college education. “I do look at success as having an education,” Geithman said, adding that statistics show that having a college education equates to a higher income and better chance of being employed.
Price noted, however, that there are many paths to a career, whether it be through the trades, such as plumbing, or academia. “Why are we telling kids that the only way you can be successful is if you go to this four-year college to learn all of these things and maybe not learn them and that’s what’s going to make you successful?” she asked. “Especially when there’s so many college graduates right now without jobs.”
Irma Molina, who has an 18-year-old daughter graduating from Wilson High School, said her daughter is stressed about what profession to go into and she’s not pressuring her to apply right away.
“I think we’re all trapped in a system,” Molina said. “Parents all have high standards because we’re always watching the TV and the media. What is a success: to be a lawyer, a doctor or to have a mansion or a big house? This is not success…Everybody learns at a different pace. Everybody has a different job with a different amount of money to spend.”