February 14, 2011

Society and Culture

Chipping Away at Education Reform

Dan Cloer

Whether calling it a race to the top, to the bottom, or to nowhere, advocates of school reform often lose sight of the most important need of modern society: balanced individuals.

Has the school system ever been successful in meeting the needs of students? While the goal may have been individuation in the abstract, the modern educational system has from the beginning been based on the fundamentally flawed concept of age-based, grade-level proficiency. It has unfortunately become a kind of one-size-fits-all batch processing institution. Unlike chickens, bred and raised under highly controlled conditions to make mass processing simple and efficient, a nation’s children do not fit within such strict quality controls. Because children enter school at a certain age and move through as a cohort, some will necessarily excel and some will fail. 

A poet once commented on the vastness of the universe and its great unknown possibilities. Paraphrasing his thought, we can add: What a waste of our children’s precious potential when we cast them so callously, with such lack of dignity, into a system we know does not work. 

Academics and filmmakers continue to train their focus on the shortcomings of modern school. Unlike recent documentaries that have addressed the failure of schools to help impoverished children, Race to Nowhere laments the stresses placed on the college-bound. One is left wondering if the system, designed more than a century ago for the needs of industrialization, is up to the task of meeting the needs of any of our 21st-century students.

Classroom Procedures

Race to Nowhere is not the first time the discrepancy between “have” and “have not” students has been investigated. Thirty years ago, for example, one study compared the classroom procedures in a local collection of schools: high end “executive” elite schools to low end “working class” schools. The findings, reported by education researcher Jean Anyon in her paper “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” compared the teaching methods and procedures extant in five 5th-grade classrooms within five different schools in New Jersey. 

Each school served a different student clientele along the spectrum beginning with what she called working class (blue collar, low income, high unemployment, 15 percent at or below the federal poverty line) at one end and executive elite (high income, CEO-type parents, socially active) at the other. In the middle of the spectrum were schools she categorized as middle class (a wide range from skilled blue collar to professional parents) as well as affluent professional (a slim step down from executive elite). 

Classroom observations found that it is often children from the most socially deprived environments and poor economic backgrounds who are lodged in what one might call rote-learning or “solution-teaching” classroom structures. “In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure,” Anyon wrote. “The procedure is usually mechanical, involving rote behavior and very little decision making or choice. The teachers rarely explain why the work is being assigned, how it might connect to other assignments, or what the idea is that lies behind the procedure or gives it coherence and perhaps meaning or significance.” 

In the middle class school, Anyon continues, “Work tasks do not usually request creativity. Serious attention is rarely given in school work on how the children develop or express their own feelings and ideas, either linguistically or in graphic form. On the occasions when creativity or self-expression is requested, it is peripheral to the main activity or it is ‘enriched’ or ‘for fun.’”

Then and Now

These observations, even 30 years after the fact, remain shocking. Such sad discoveries inspired American reform efforts over the last three decades many of which have filtered out across the globe. In the 1980s, the report A Nation at Risk; the 1990s Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA); and the more recent No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top initiatives, suggested changes to create greater equity among schools. Such changes emphasized standardized curricula and school evaluations and comparisons based on the resulting “high stakes” tests. 

While some are disturbed by these reforms in general, especially the curriculum contraction around math and language education and the resulting reduction of art, physical education and other non-tested subjects, the focus on academic standards and the sheer mass of the material that must be taught (or “covered”) have changed how they are taught as well. Most disturbing, however, is how often the lowest, least-expectant “working class” procedures remain in use today. Rather than being outmoded, discarded as debilitating and, as Anyon argued, conducive to keeping low students low, they have instead become more widespread. 

What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the human soul.
The philosopher, the saint, the hero, the wise, and the good, or the great,
very often lie hid and concealed in a plebeian,
which a proper education might have disinterred and brought to light. 


James Addison, English essayist, 1672-1719

One would expect that between 1980 and today, the “executive elite” methods—methods that Anyon found engaged students in thinking, puzzling, and defending their work—would have taken hold, for these are methods that kindle the student’s innate curiosity and desire to engage. Ironically, reform has taken the U.S. public system back toward rote-learning, the form of schooling imposed in the past upon those children deemed incapable of critical thinking—children who were being shunted toward manual labor or underclass jobs. The push of what one could call checklist learning—where students may test well but retain very little of the information—has increased dramatically. This is the message of Race to Nowhere.


Specialist in adolescent medicine Kenneth Ginsburg notes in the film, “The common force that drives kids toward so many negative behaviors is stress. . . . [The student] is trying to answer this fundamental question of adolescence which is: Who am I?” But, as the title suggests, school has become a rat race that leads nowhere. Rote-learning and cramming for one test and then another provides very little satisfaction. Nevertheless, it has become the status quo for all students.

Essayist Jennifer Moses concurs and notes that helping students find the right niche where they will find happiness is most important. Writing in the Wall Street Journal regarding her own children’s frustrations and trials with college preparation and admission (from the viewpoint of an affluent parent), Moses laments in an online interview the “successaholism” that creates the false necessity of getting into the “right” university. But never mind, she says, “You gotta go to college because that is just the way the system works.”

 But as one California teacher notes in Race to Nowhere, it is this resume-creating pressure that destroys both the joy of learning as well as its purpose. “You have a system that is trying to further robotize students—mechanize them, if you will—to be these academic competitors, these producers. The very nature in itself is dehumanizing.” The film amply reveals that the school experience for our best and most ambitious students has become anything but a process of self-discovery. “It’s all about preparing yourself to look good to colleges,” report many students spotlighted in the film.

 Co-director Vicki Abeles says, “I decided to make a film that drew attention to what I believe is a national crisis: Our current educational system is stressing our kids to the point that many are developing physical or mental illnesses. . . . [In the film] we hear from kids who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burnt out and worried students aren’t learning anything substantive, and college professors and business leaders concerned the incoming young people lack skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.”

A Better Mind-set

Race to Nowhere takes a unique path in looking at the struggles of our best students. It provides a window into the variety of burdens faced by the high-end student. Although insisting on ever-higher levels of achievement in all realms—academic, social, artistic/musical/athletic—may be what the student striving for elite college admission has always experienced, Race to Nowhere makes it clear that something unsavory is happening in the secondary school. Test-driven standardization that leads to merely teacher transmission and student regurgitation of factoids is not going to help children become competent, skillful adults.

Contributing to the book, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society notes that typical school structure is not producing what is needed. “Clearly, many students are at risk of being unprepared for the demands and opportunities of this global age, especially disadvantaged youth for whom U.S. schools have historically fallen short.” But, Stewart continues, “Even if that gap is successfully closed, standardized tests of basic skills do not measure the thinking and complex communication skills that spell success in college or the global skills needed for the knowledge-driven global economy.”

Emeritus professor of education Arthur Costa with Bena Kallick, also in Curriculum 21, suggest a refocusing of classroom efforts that include more attention to thinking skills rather than rote learning. Referred to as mind shifting, they summarize the new curriculum in three statements: 1) a shift in emphasis from students “knowing right answers” to “knowing how to behave when answers are not readily apparent;” 2) a revamping of the teacher’s role as transmitter of information to an aide in helping students construct meaning; and 3) developing student skills of self-evaluation and moving away from dependence on external metrics.

If we accept that we need to prepare students for a vastly different future than we have known, then our understanding of the focus of education also needs to shift,” they insist. The positive result would be students ready to engage with the problems of the 21st century in what the writers call a “journey of continuous learning” based on the concept of constant self-modification.

Mind shifts do not come easily, as they require letting go of old habits, old beliefs, and old traditions. There is a necessary disruption when we shift mental models. If there is not, we are probably not shifting.” As Addison wrote long ago, the process remains one of removing the immobilizing shell to release the hidden potential within. Part of what impedes our progress is not knowing what the point of the race is in the first place.

If Race to Nowhere spurs us to investigate and embrace systemic changes that would help the next generation to become both more engaged and more skilled, then the documentary will have made a positive contribution to the education debate. In emphasizing “the importance of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach,” co-director Abeles concludes: “My hope is that viewers will be inspired to express their own stories. Raising awareness and dialogue is the first step in addressing them.”