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Documentary Film Questions High-Stakes Education

“Race to Nowhere,” a movie that hasn’t had wide release in big theaters, might be showing at a community center, church basement or specially rented out cinema near you. The documentary on American education has been out for nearly a year, and while it hasn’t had all the buzz of “Waiting for Superman,” in some ways it might be the more important one to watch.

Whereas “Waiting for Superman” boils down to continued inequality in education — an important and, frankly, embarrassing problem we still face in the U.S. — “Race to Nowhere” dares to ask: just what has education, even top notch education, become? The movie poster says it shows the dark side of America’s achievement culture.

Race to Nowhere” is the project of Vicki Abeles, a mother of three kids, now 16, 14, and 11. She wanted to better understand the stress that her children were facing in school — packets of homework at very young grades, late night studying, and middle-of-the-night complaints of bellyaches. And also the suicide of a girl who failed a math test.

What, exactly, was going on at school? And was all — or any — of this pressure really worth it. What does it lead to? Are kids really learning anything or are they just passing (or flunking) the tests and getting ulcers in the meantime? I wonder what kind of thinkers are coming out of the school systems. Sure, some students may have stellar grades in really, really challenging classes. But what do they know? Is there any context? Can they think on their own. And, most importantly, do they ever take any risks?

I wrote a post a few months ago about how education policy makers in China are giggling at the direction the U.S. is headed in terms of education: testing, testing, testing. China used to do that but can’t get away from it fast enough.

I haven’t see either of these two movies, but look forward to both. Have you seen them? What did you think?

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