“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.)