Monday, September 26, 2011

Race To Nowhere

For almost a year, I have received a series of recommendations to see the film Race to Nowhere by filmmaker and parent Vicki Abeles.  Early last week I had that opportunity and I certainly agree that the film presents a powerful message on the state of K-12 education.  The film focuses on the over scheduling and then consequent stress (and possibly worse) we inflict on the current generation of students. Too many classes,   too much memorization, too much homework, too many after school obligations, too little downtime, too little sleep.  And much of what the film shows, I see firsthand in my kids, and in the kids of my friends and neighbors.

But in delivering a powerful and worthwhile message, the film also oversimplifies and distorts the answers to difficult questions and leaves out key facts that would help present a more complete and accurate picture.  For example, on the issue of too much homework, the film includes a relatively young teacher stating that when he reduced the amount of homework, test scores went up.  The inference is clear—if we reduced homework across the board, test scores across the board would rise.  I don’t doubt that this can happen in one case and perhaps in more cases.  But I have yet to see any proof of the strong correlation suggested and that the first happening (the reduction in homework) is the cause of the second happening (increase in test scores). This message from the movie actually gives me the opportunity to utilize the majority of my Latin vocabulary.   First, we have here a classic example (what could be better for Latin) of Post hoc ergo propter hoc.  In other words, it is a logical fallacy of that what comes second is caused by what happens first.  On very hot and sunny summer days, I tend not to open the shades of south facing windows until very late in the day, to cut down in the heat in the house.  Typically, almost immediately after the shades are opened, the sun goes down.  But no one would argue that this is cause and effect and similarly, it is difficult to argue that less homework leads automatically to better test scores.  My second use of Latin in this blog is perhaps the favorite Latin phrase of all economists: ceteris paribus which translates into all other things remaining the same.  Less homework and a more dynamic teacher or a less rigorous test, can lead to higher test scores.  Brighter students or better foundations courses together with less homework will still likely lead to higher test scores.   But because all other things did not remain the same, in no way did we prove that less homework equals higher test scores.

The film also doesn’t really take into account the stress that parents can place on kids.  We all know parents who consider any grade of less than an A to be failing, parents who want their kids to take every advanced placement course offered, as well as parents who want their kids to accomplish – in the classroom and out on the field—what they couldn’t accomplish.  There may be too much stress placed on our kids but in searching out the causes, looking in the mirror helps as well as looking at the schools.

But even with the concerns I have about this film, I consider Race To Nowhere worthwhile viewing for all educators.  To the extent that our kids are overscheduled and overstressed, we need to improve our educational system but at the same time not cut back on the important learning taking place.

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