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3Qs: ‘No winners’ in education’s ‘Race to Nowhere’

Recently Northeastern University faculty and students and members of the community packed 20 West Village F to view a new documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” described in a New York Times article as “a must-see movie in communities where the kindergarten-to-Harvard steeplechase is most competitive.” The film, made by Vicki Abeles, a middle-aged mother and first-time filmmaker, is a critique of that ultra-competitive culture and the high-stakes testing movement that Abeles says is helping to drive it. The screening was organized by Lori Gardinier, associate academic specialist in Northeastern’s Human Services Department, and cosponsored by Northeastern’s student group Peace for Play and State Rep. Carl Sciortino of Medford. Here Emily Mann, a fellow associate academic specialist in human services, provides context for the event.

What was the impetus for bringing “Race to Nowhere” to campus?

Lori Gardinier came into the office and showed me the New York Times article about the film, and we knew that there would be an audience of students, faculty, and community members who would relate to the topic. We felt the film would spotlight several important issues related to education policy and practice—issues that interest us professionally and personally. And the film certainly sparks a big conversation about the role of educational policy and practice on the daily experience of children and families, and communities and states, and our country.

What was the reaction from the audience?

The film really resonated with audience members. I could see lots of nodding heads. We followed up with a brief, but passionate, discussion led by Louis Kruger (associate professor of counseling and applied psychology at Northeastern), a student from the human services program named Katie Theriault, and Representative Sciortino. We all have our education stories — the horrors, the joys — and this was highlighted in the very personal reflections from the panel and audience. Each speaker talked about their experiences—of being different, being the same, being homeschooled, seeking out alternatives. And each person stood and asked about change, about choice, and about defying expectations that 100 percent of students fit the mold of the highest 2 percent.

Where does this film, and the reaction to it, fit in with the very heated reaction to Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Cry of the Tiger Mom,” which asserts that American kids aren’t pushed hard enough by their parents when it comes to academics?

The human services field considers all the people that make up the world, and not every one of them may be on the Ivy League trajectory. We need to think about creating an educational environment that promotes a passion and a love for lifelong learning. There’s too much pressure on one metric — standardized tests — to measure students’ success. That does not mean that high standards and accurate assessment should be left out of the public-school equation. We need to assess student strengths and weaknesses. We need to assess the teacher performance. But we need to do this in more nuanced and cost-effective ways.

It’s sometimes easy to think that for the best and the brightest in our schools this high-stakes test-taking culture works — that there are sometimes winners. “Race to Nowhere” shows us there really aren’t any winners.

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