Racing Toward — Where?

Race To Nowhere” — the much-heralded documentary — arrived in Westport last night.  It is not a feel-good film.

The audience of 600 at Bedford Middle School — mostly mothers, with a few dads and students sprinkled in — saw a depressing litany of all that ails education today.  Teaching to the test; too much homework; too many extracurriculars; too much pressure to get into the best college; cheating — it was all there.  Plus the heart-wrenching, math grade-induced suicide of a 13-year-old girl.

It’s not a perfect film.  In trying to cover everything — from high-performing suburban schools to those in inner cities; from kindergarten through high school; from the perspectives of students, parents, administrators and mental health professionals — it felt at times like rocketing from math class to Spanish to social studies.

And, paradoxically, at 85 minutes it was about 20 minutes too long.  If I were in class, I’d have been staring at the clock.

But “Road to Nowhere” is definitely worth seeing.  You may not like the parade of sad, tired, pressured kids — and they may be no more representative of their generation than the images of their demandingly conflicted parents — but all those voices, and messages, are important.

Among the main points:

  • “Everyone expects us to be super-heroes.” — A student
  • “We’re all caught up in this.  We’re all afraid our kids won’t be as successful as we were.” — A parent
  • Students today are told they have to succeed in the classroom, on the playing field, in the community.  “And among all that,” a teenager says, “we have to be unique.  And find ourselves.”
  • “Kids look great on the outside.  But underneath, they’re bleeding.” — A mental health professional
  • Recognizing the rigors of homework, an AP Biology teacher cut his homework assignments in half.  Those students did better on the all-important AP test than his previous classes.
  • “Cheating has become another course.  And the more we do it, the better we get.” — A student
  • “My AP course has become a runaway train.” — A teacher
  • “I’ll never have to speak French again!” — A student, following her AP French test
  • “We’re raising a generation of training wheel kids.  They never learn how to fall.” — A mental health professional
  • “If all you get are A’s, there’s only one way to go:  down.” — A parent
  • “It’s a lot harder being a teenager than it ever was before.”  — A parent
  • “I’m worried about my pre-teenage daughters getting into good schools.  And I write books on this stuff!” — An educator

Half the audience stayed for a discussion afterward.  Topics ranged from poor teachers to peer pressure exerted by parents.

But — as gloomy as the film is — an upbeat note was sounded by Brian Fagan.  The assistant superintendent for curriculum (“and homework,” he joked) said:

“None of these issues are unfamiliar to me as an administrator, or to Westport public schools.  Are we vulnerable to some of the criticisms in the film?  Yes — but in constructive ways.

“We do have conversations about these issues, and we’re actively working to mitigate them.  Our discussions are lengthy, and complex.  None of these problems are easily addressed, or conveniently repackaged.  But we’re definitely talking about them, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”

(A follow-up discussion to “Race to Nowhere” is set for Monday, March 14 [7 p.m.] in the Staples cafeteria.  Like last night’s film, it is sponsored by the PTA Council.  Another showing of the film — sponsored by the Teen Awareness Group — will be held Tuesday, March 8 [7 p.m.], in the Staples auditorium.)

52 responses to “Racing Toward — Where?

  1. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Dan I think all these valid worries on all fronts have been with us for decades. I will be celebrating my 25th from Staples this year. As you might recall the overwhelming pressure to be the best played with two students heads in 85 and they took their own lives. I remember there was discussion of canceling finals for fear of the pressure and it happening again. Reading this days blog made me think back to then and how the pressure cooker of our life can get so distorted.

  2. We are lucky we live is a country with an economy that generates enough economic surplus to make concerns and discusions about stress seem relevant. In countries with agrarian subsitence economies I doubt many citizens can take the time to dwell on such concerns. Of course ,the economic surplus is generated by someone, and we should all hope that those individuals keep up their hard work while we worry about whether or not our children are under too much pressure to achieve. Worrying about stress is not consistent with Obama’s desired “Sputnik moment.” The first Sputnik moment stimulated increased work loads for students and an emphasis on achievement. BTW when will the Tiger Mom come to speak, or when will “Waiting for Superman” be shown?

    • The Dude Abides

      Good point and see below on the availability of the DVD on “Superman” now. The difference in the 1950-60’s is that very few went on to college and high schools performed very well to such demand. Top in the world. But that has changed and the dilemna now is that, in 20 years, there will be 115 million high paying technical jobs with an expected only 53 million qualified students-employees to fill them.

  3. I don’t see any conflict between concern about stress and having a “Sputnik moment.” The movie doesn’t suggest that we relax our goals to reduce stress, in fact it looks at the adverse impact of stress on our ability to achieve our goals. I’ve been involved with science, technology, engineering & math (STEM) education off and on for over 25 years, and am now the parent of 3 sons in the Westport system at the elementary, middle, and high school level.

    I remember listening to a swim coach a few years ago saying that kids starting out try to reach goals to please their parents, then to please their coaches, and finally to satisfy their own ambitions. It made sense – a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applied to sports. In many ways, meeting academic goals today is a similar problem, but the process is so skewed towards standardization and testing that many kids never reach the third level. It’s always “do this now to open doors later” and the process seems more punitive than self actualizing. I was in elementary, jr high and high school during the “space race” and rarely felt the pressure – and volume of work – our kids face on a regular basis.

    I do believe that Westport schools are exceptional, but I think a little reflection is in order. I hope the film results in some meaningful changes.

    • Adrian: Thank you. I think your comments really address what the movie is trying to say. Without seeing the movie, it should be hard to comment on the issues it is trying to address. Nothing is wrong for striving for success or achievement. However, as parents we are all trying to do the best for our children. And as the Tiger Mom found out, which her PR people fail to mention, is that her system of parenting actually failed. Each child needs to be treated as an individual by both their parents and their educators. Some kids are more obedient, or more resilient, but for the ones that are not we must not mold them into our perceived shape, rather carve a path for their success as well, however it is defined.

  4. Mr Fagen says that the administration talks about the problems. I’ve heard that for years. It’s time to actually do something to help relieve some of the stress on our students that is created right here in our school system, especially at Staples.

  5. The Dude Abides

    I have not seen this movie but did watch “Waiting for Superman” (Red Box DVD) last night. Wow! 35% of Connecticut 8th graders are at an adequate level in reading and math! I know everyone is saying that ain’t Westport but the implications for public schools is devastating. We are spending four times what we did twenty years ago for worse testing results. The Kipp charter schools across the country are showing that even disadvantaged kids can learn when longer days and Saturday classes are utilized. But when Washington D.C. schools attempted to change (actually giving teachers 6 figure salaries with no tenure), they were blocked by the teacher unions. The superintenant’s comments: “It would seem that public education is more about the adults than the children.” A point to ponder when reflecting on “A Race to Nowhere.” Expectations are the bed of disappointment.

    • The per student cost of one year of public school education has risen far faster than the rate of inflation over the last 30 years. By almost any measure, the quality of the output of the public schools has declined over the same period. The cost of a barrel of oil has declined over the last 30 years, and yet the whining about the cost of oil is endless. The percentage of our GDP spent on education is greater than that of most industrialized countries and the output is inferior. Politics? Special interests?

      • The Dude Abides

        Well school systems are top heavy. Big bucks going to the bureaucracy and administrators. Teachers stay the same. Incentive pay to good teachers is banned by many union contracts. As noted above, we are spending a ton more for worse results and demoralized students. But also, let it be remembered that the two largest teacher unions are THE biggest political contributors, mostly to the Democrats.

        • westporter since 1970

          Teachers’ salaries were frozen last year. Many administrators supplement their already high contracts with pensions (double dipping). Westport even pays both retirement pension AND salary of some top administrators.

          • Can you give an example of someone who gets both a pension and salary from Westport? I know some have retired in other systems and come here, but I’m not aware of anyone being able to get both from the same system.

            And Dude, I think the issue in Wisconsin is more complex than money. The governor is taking away the right to collective bargaining, although not for firemen and police, whose unions supported him. I don’t support the Dems staying away to prevent a vote, but I do think there is a basic principle here that shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

          • The purpose of collective bargaining is to raise wages above where they would be without collective bargaining, so I think the Dude got it right. There are basic principles involved; elections have consequences. The Democrats are trying to avoid the consequences, and the rioters are trying to vacate the will of the electorate.

          • Teachers got a 2.83% increase last year (plus steps) and 2% this year (no steps).

          • Collective bargaining is about more than wages, and has been a fundamental right that has provided safer conditions for workers in many industries. In the case of teachers, there is much more to it than wages, but that is always the focus in these discussions. Referring to tens of thousands of peaceful protesters as rioters is offensive (as is the bussing of counter protesters sponsored by the Koch brothers). I’ll stop posting now, because I don’t particularly care to continue a discussion in which those with opposing views choose to be anonymous.

          • Wages are not the only money issues. Pensions, health insurance, working conditions, are all money issues. The Dude is right. I thought the discussion was about ideas not names.

          • so, no examples of anyone getting a pension and salary both from Westport? I’m not surprised.

            Without names, there is no accountability for accuracy. Is there one “anonymous” here or ten? At least come up with a pseudonym and use it consistently. A reader can’t even tell if one of the “anonymous” folks is the Dude patting himself on the back.

            If you think working conditions are all about money, there’s no point in discussing this further. Historically unions have fought for issues like physical safety and safety from reprisals from unscrupulous supervisors. When I taught as an adjunct at NYU, I earned approximately 4 times as much per class as an adjunct teaching English, and had much better working conditions (office, TA, etc). I supported a union, knowing that it would restrict my ability to bargain as an individual, but it would benefit my colleagues, and provide better instruction to my students (my colleagues had to hold office hours in crowded public spaces, not conducive to learning). That benefitted me, but not financially.

            The quality of discourse on this site is generally great, but I feel like on this issue in particular I’m talking to people who are hiding, while I am out in the open happy to defend my ideas. It’s kind of creepy.

          • Improving working conditions costs money. Private sector unions are working in a very different environment than are public sector unions. Unions are monopolies with the express purpose of earning monopoly rents. As to the thread here, why does it make any diffeence who offers an idea? Certainly you are not in favor of ad hominem arguments.

  6. When I was in high school, one could get over 5 gallons of gas for 1 hour of labor at minimum wage. Today, one can get less than 3 gallons for an hour of minimum wage work, and those jobs are harder to find than ever. In the real world, we don’t buy barrels of oil, we buy gas at the pump and it takes a higher percentage of one’s income to buy it now.

    I’m not arguing for more money spent on education as the answer, but oil vs education is not a useful metric. Our spending on healthcare is also out of whack for what we get.

    • We do buy barrels of oil, and the cost has declined in real terms over the last 30 years. Taxes on a gallon of gas have increased. I don’t know if healthcare spending is “out of whack”. We have a capital intensive healthcare system with excess capacity, that’s seems to be what the market requires. No one wants to wait 5 months for an MRI.

  7. “Students today are told they have to succeed in the classroom, on the playing field, in the community. “And among all that,” a teenager says, “we have to be unique. And find ourselves.” Somehow as the young girl was saying this all so eloquently it made me laugh because of its absurdity yet sad reality. My 13 year old daughter responded on our drive home– “I don’t get what you adults saw was so funny in that movie. I don’t think that movie was funny at all!”

  8. The Dude Abides

    I wouldn’t want to be a kid today but the expectations were present in the 1960’s when I attended Staples. You are gonna find that in any community where there are many overachievers. And I do think such expectations orginate with the parents and are vicariously transferred to the school system and the culturiologically strong peer group. For those who can compete, it may be a good incentive. For those who can’t . . . disappointment. That being said, one of the most successful graduates of my class flunked out of Dean Junior College and became a well known movie director. So who knows? Life is a like a box of chocolates . . .

    • When I was a kid (18), I got a letter from Uncle Sap, how about you? Something to do with a draft and a War in Vietnam. I would much rather be a kid today. The pressure is no greater, the whining is just louder.

      • The Dude Abides

        Too many options today. Got the kids’ heads spinning e.g. we had five television channels, rabbit ears and some aluminum foil. Now they have 80o or more and “nothing on television.” Spoil? You betcha but their parents bought into “more is better” from Corporate America.

        • At least they have options. How about Fort Benning vs. Fort Hood? You are talking about self-inflicted wounds. If you want the pain to stop, then change your behavior; enjoy the benefits but don’t whine about the adverse consequences.

          • The Dude Abides

            We had options. Get married or go to college and get a deferment. I wish I had gone to Canada. I concur about the whining as compared with the poor kid in the inner city whose life is predetermined by the crappy schools they must attend. Sperm lottery at its finest.

          • You might want to pick up the latest issue of City Journal. There is an article written by a teacher in a Connecticut inner city school. His real time observations will confirm your thoughts about just how dismal are those urban schools.

          • The Dude Abides

            Yeah, well the Wisconsin teachers confirmed my belief that it is all about money and not the kids. Speaking of which, how is your bond portfolio? Possible government March 4th shut down and deficit quarreling may make the market nervous. “Boner” may have overplayed his hand.

          • My bond portfolio is just fine. It would be better if QE2 were shut down and the deficit were about $1 trillion smaller. If the govt. shuts down, who cares. It happened before and the sky did not fall.

          • The Dude Abides

            I didn’t get paid in the 90’s when Newt did his thing. Never forgot it either. Bummer. Hey, what do you think about the theory that the GOP is attempting to quash the collective bargaining power of the unions in Wisconsin to undermine the power of the Democrats???? The deficit squabble might make the bond market queasy in the spring.

          • I think the issue is more a matter of economic realities than politics. There is no more money. The choice is layoffs or cuts in compensation.

          • The Dude Abides

            What was Kubrick’s great script line: If you ask 100 questions, the answer to 99 of them will be money.

  9. My godson lives outside Albany and his over-zealous parents already have
    told him that he will go to Harvard and play Division I soccer. He is six.
    Thanks for your article. I forwarded it to his folks.

    • A wise man once said: “If you want soccer to pay for college, it’s easy. Every time you take your child to practice, or he or she plays a game, put $10 in a special bank account.”

  10. Try living on $2.00 a day.
    They do in the Far East.
    That is pressure.
    Reality check needed here.

  11. a concerned parent

    The 8th grade science curriculum is on steriods — why to earn a Blue Ribbon School nod, or because of state mandates? The recent health test for 8th graders was like a high school biology exam! And, we don’t want to pressure the teachers, but shouldn’t kids be focused on math, LA before science?! There has definitely been a change over the past few years in this department. We test our kids to death at school and then the parents are just supposed to sit back? Of course we are involved with our kids, the curriculum demands we are — I am not saying that we should not challenge our kids, but a review of the amount of time on certain subjects is warranted.

    • The Dude Abides

      35% of Connecticut 8th grade students are below average in math/science skills. The schools are getting heat from the big boys in Hartford and Washington. Take a look at what is happening in Wisconsin. I know you will say, “Well this is Westport” but we don’t live in a bubble here. The pressure to excel and be tested is going to continue. Put on your seat belt and maybe take a walk with your kid every day.

  12. Thanks for the laughs, anonymous. (what’s the plural of anonymous?) I wonder if everyone who is “anonymous” here shares the same opinion? Do you all assume that everything is about money? Is there a price on human dignity? Can you really imagine no scenario where working conditions can be improved without long term costs? A child with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, and if you seriously believe every interaction between labor and management is solely based on money, I do believe that your world view is badly skewed and you’ll end up hammering and contributing to the problem rather than the solution.

    I asked one “anonymous” to back up the statement that there are people in Westport collecting pensions and salaries from the town and none of you responded. In my humble opinion, undifferentiated anonymity is lame. I never knew people in Westport to be afraid to be associated with their comments. It’s sad.

    I’m for openness in government, and in conversation. I really fail to see why so many people – or a few really chatty ones – are worried about being identified on a small town discussion board. I’ve taken more than my fair share of abuse for my opinions in Westport, including the threat of a lawsuit and character assassination from RTM members. However, by continuing to post using my real name and not hiding, I have built a relationship of trust and respect with people who were my vocal critics in the past, which never would have happened had we been anonymous. Sure, there are still some I dismiss based on past interactions, but the benefits outweigh the risks.

    • Perhaps you could give us an example of an interaction between a union and an employer that does not entail economic issues. Many human interactions are not economic in nature, and no one is claiming otherwise. A union is organized expressly to achieve economic ends. Certainly, the issues in Wisconsin are economic. BTW is seems that someone did answer your question about double dipping.

    • I completely agree with Adrian Bowles. It is useless to have such a discussion with some people being anonymous. If we are to discuss real issues that are happening in our town, we need all our elected officials to be held accountable. For all I know “anonymous” or “dude abides” or anyone else that has a pseudonym could be my RTM member, and as a taxpayer I would want to know that before I received a chance to vote again. I believe blogs are interesting, and raise important issues, but anonymous conversation afterwards is completely useless. Thank you Mr. Bowles for so clearly stating that.

      • What makes a discussion useless are those who prefer ad hominem arguments. If someone named Bush posted 2+2=5, would your assessment of the accuracy of the post change if it were posted by someone named Obama? BTW the Federalist Papers were published anonymously.

      • The Dude Abides

        This blog is for an interaction of ideas. If you follow the dialogue above, you will see that is what is happening. If you find it is useless that is your prerogative. Further, if you followed this blog for any length of time, you would know why anonymous and myself utilize peudonyms. And trust me, neither of us will ever be your RTM member. I always find it amusing that the self-rightous advocates of personal transperancy are the same who rarely comment here. People love to label and categorize in this town enabling them some kind of false ego trip of superiority. I suspect Misters Aronow and Bowles are of such kind. Just flapping their wings like some roosters in a barn yard.

  13. Sorry to come late to the party, but I understand that the Board of Education’s attorney Tom Mooney worked out a way for the present principal of Staples to collect retirement and salary. Across the state teachers and administrators are allowed to do this in shortage areas (collect a state pension and still be employed full time) for two years. Several teachers, guidance counselors and administrators have done this in Westport. The SHS principal has been retired and working full time for more than two years, therefor he can no longer collect a state pension (until he stops working). I have been told that Westport covers both salary and lost pension for him. This is a pretty common belief among educators, but maybe it’s not so?

    • I have been informed that I do not have the information about the principal’s salary and pension correct. I apologize for getting the facts wrong.

  14. Well, I guess anonymous – or one of them – is right. An ad hominem attack, and it’s against me. Dude, I’ve posted here enough that I don’t deserve that. I’ve seen the references to why some are afraid of retribution – Enron, etc – but I don’t believe there is only one “anonymous” here and I never called you out, I believe I made a point respectfully.

    You’re all entitled to be anonymous, but let’s face it, comparisons to the authors of the Federalist Papers are laughable in this context, and certainly smack more of self-important puffery than anything I have said. Each of the authors of the Federalist Papers had a pen name. At least let us know which “anonymous” is making which comment, or I might as well be speaking with the “anonymous” group that terrorized Visa and Mastercard after the Wikileaks fiasco. They wear masks when they go after the scientologists, too. I’ll continue to comment about transparency unless Dan asks me to stop. I think the comments tonight – Federalist Papers and wing flapping – make my point. Hide behind your anonymity and take a cheap shot at me. Very mature. Proud of yourself?

  15. The Dude Abides

    I don’t think we are talking maturity, pride or calling one out. I did miss your earlier comments and for that, I will apologize. But as you will note that the dialogue earlier dealt with serious issues relating to Professor Woog’s article and the movie. Your tone, in labeling “lame,” “sad,” “badly skewed,” etc. changed that tone to one, for me, of personal ego. And you got a taste of your own verbiage. You are certainly entitled to your own opinion regarding anonymity but I gotta tell you, I used to put people in prison for a living and there are enough wack jobs out there that I don’t want my name anywhere near a computer where Google can get a hold of it. Tuscon should have been a lesson to us all about that.

  16. By moving the discussion from the arguments being presented to the identity of those presenting them, you made the switch to an ad hominem argument. You have made no coherent argument of your own to support your assertion that the identity of those making an argument changes the substance of an argument or its validity.

  17. I apologize to anyone I may have offended here. I intended my words – lame, etc – to be directed at the arguments rather than the individuals, but if it struck anyone as offensive I regret that. In debates with friends my arguments have been challenged as I have challenged those of others, but it takes on a different tone when one doesn’t know who is speaking.

    I understand the desire of some to remain anonymous. As someone who has been active in local issues, however, I tend to think of local sites as being great forums for discussion among neighbors. It also feels a little “clubby” here from time to time when it is obvious that some anonymous posters know each other. Just as I wouldn’t go to Town Hall if half the members of the audience wore masks, I’ll note my objection here and move on.

    As for the issue of whether it is better to listen to arguments without knowing the speaker, I can only say that when I disagree with someone, if I have any reason to respect their opinion based on my knowledge of their experience, I will research my position more than if I know them to be narrow minded or biased in some way. We don’t have that luxury with anonymity, so I believe it takes more than repetition of a position to validate it.

    I hope everyone enjoys the snow, and that the debate can get back to the issue of education, and perhaps the role of unions in education. I gave an example of myself acting against my economic self-interest in supporting a union, and I would submit that a nostalgic viewing of Norma Rae is in order for those who have forgotten that unions have fought for more than money. I believe that while one can put a price on almost anything, that doesn’t mean that it’s always about money. If you can show that collective bargaining somehow weakens the educational experience for students, I would like to hear about it. I’m just saddened that there is such a feeling of entitlement at the top of the income chain and in Wisconsin the budget gap is being perpetuated by more tax breaks to corporations while the teachers are the focus of making up the difference. I’ll bet everyone here can remember the name of an elementary school teacher who shaped their life for the better. How many of you remember your broker from 25 years ago, or who made your first toaster?

    I’m an idealist, and perhaps that’s naive, but I’m happy to share that I am a first generation immigrant, the first in my family to go to college, and that my PhD was earned largely on a research fellowship paid by the USAF and Navy, although I am not a veteran. I believe that my research paid for itself, and I support that ongoing interaction between government and academia. I believe that we can give back and create a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious one. I also believe that none of us, particularly those with higher incomes, are completely self-made (we all rely on shared infrastructure) and therefore we have an obligation to provide the same opportunities for future generations.

    In terms of the movie that started this thread, I don’t think a comparison with cold war/Viet Nam era stress is really sufficient to dismiss the problems of our own kids by telling them or us to stop whining. I grew up with the duck-under-the-desk drills, and had to face the draft lottery for Viet Nam. Those were serious, to be sure, but our kids today face different pressures that are no less serious to their well-being. How do we make this a better place for them?

  18. Thank you, Dan, for providing this forum, and for all you do for Westport.

  19. The Dude Abides

    Indeed, thank you for your comments, Mr. Bowles. It is not a club here. Every one is welcome. Anonymous and I do tend to banter back and forth, often times tangentially. I am very much a union person (I was a union steward for Treasury Department “professionals”) but I don’t like teachers calling in sick to prove their point. I did run into a gentleman who lived in Dubai for a time and he is dumbfounded how much the schools here are behind what his second grader learned in a year overseas. We need to do something. I think this new generation is wonderful. They know exactly what they “don’t” want to do. That is a greater step than my boomer generation who is still trying to find out what they want to do. But I think many are pampered and don’t realize just how tough it can be here and in other countries. The movie is a good step in that direction. “Waiting for Superman” is also an eye opener.