MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Nowhere

By now it seems we have all reviewed Waiting for Superman, but what’s surprising is that WFS is just one of four or five movies about education now out. A few weeks ago I reviewed WFS, and now I’ve decided to review the rest of them, beginning with Race to Nowhere, the 2009 film made by first-time director (and angry parent) Vicki Abeles.

Race to Nowhere is a film about how schools and parental pressure are affecting students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. WFS portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite—that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally.

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Public Schools Need a Wake Up Call!

“Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer.”

President Obama’s speech to students, September 9, 2009

Those lines imply support for a progressive, child-centered view of schooling: educate through the strengths a child possesses.

President Obama gives education speechBut the President went on, “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

And when and if a child discovers those interests and abilities, what happens? Are classrooms set up to work with individual kids and nurture their talents, or do other pressures force teachers into cookie-cutter behavior?

Kids want to believe. Visit any elementary school on a morning of the first few weeks of school, and you will see joyful youngsters cavorting, laughing and shouting with glee. Their giddy anticipation is palpable and infectious, because they are actually happy to be back in school. “This year will be different,” their behavior screams. “This year I will be a great student, I will learn everything, and teachers will help me whenever I need help.”

However, this celebration, a child’s version of the triumph of hope over experience, is generally short-lived, and for most children school soon becomes humdrum, or worse.

What goes wrong, and what can be done about it? Continue reading

Re-evaluating Teacher Evaluations

What prompted this post was my discovery that only 15 of the 714 Chinese drug factories get inspected every year. On average, foreign medical factories that bring products to the US are inspected once every 13 years. Our 300+ ports receive 18.2 million shipments of drugs, cosmetics, food and devices a year, and the Food and Drug Administration has only about 450 inspectors. Do the math!!

Teacher EvaluationThat got me thinking about teachers and how they are ‘inspected.’ For a few months now I have been corresponding with teachers I know. Here’s what they told me, with a few of my own thoughts stuck in here and there.

In the old days, teachers closed their doors and did their thing, for better or for worse. As long as things were quiet, administrators rather bothered to open the door to see what was going on, and teachers never watched each other at work. That’s changing, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. In some schools today, teachers are actually expected to watch their peers teach, after which they share their analysis. In other schools, however, principals armed with lists sit in the back of the class checking off ‘behaviors’ and later give the teacher a ‘scorecard’ with her ‘batting average.’

No Child Left Behind was supposed to close what is called ‘the achievement gap’ by forcing schools to pay attention to all children. Unfortunately, the gaps persist: Only 14% of Blacks and 17% of Latino 4th graders are proficient in reading, compared to their Asian American (45%) and White (42%) counterparts on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. NCLB’s critics claim that the law has narrowed the curriculum to a single-minded focus on reading and math, eliminated programs for the gifted, and turned schools into ‘drill and kill’ factories, and those claims are, in some places, supported by facts.

NCLB’s biggest change may be in teaching itself. For better and sometimes for worse, what teachers used to do behind closed doors is now scrutinized, often on a daily basis. That is, someone, often the principal, drops in regularly to watch the teacher at work. Whether these observations are diagnostic in nature and therefore designed to help teachers improve or a ‘gotcha’ game is the essential question. The answer seems to vary from school to school.

What were ‘the good old days’ like? Continue reading