I have worked for Parentella for about a year now. Prior to that, I spent two years traveling the world. While I was traveling, I realized that every culture has its pros and cons. Being an outsider, I could objectively evaluate the good and bad of other cultures, and by the time I returned, was able to see the pros and cons of American culture the same way a foreigner does.
I have to admit that in my year at Parentella, I have been frustrated. Pretty much everyone agrees the education system is broken. Teachers blame parents. Parents blame teachers. Everyone blames “No Child Left Behind.” No one can agree on how to fix it and the issue is creating more and more divisions within the country.
My personal opinion is that the root of the problem is as obvious as the nose is on a face, yet no one seems to see it. And the fact that no one sees it is what frustrates me: our problem is cultural. I guess it is like not being able to see the forest through the trees.
As I watched Race to Nowhere, I thought it was an interesting movie that made some good points. But I fell in love with it at the end when they affirmed what I have long believed to be true: many of the problems in education today stem from society at large. I loved that the film didn’t bash teachers or parents; it simply analyzed where the system was failing our children and at the end concluded why.
Americans are productive people; we pride ourselves on being hard workers. We are obsessed with the “best.” We like to measure things quantitatively, tend to prefer quantity over quality, and often think quality and quantity are one and the same.
We place a lot of value on appearances, especially appearances of money. We believe money and consumer goods make us happy, and tend to judge others based on how much money they appear to have. We tend to base our own sense of identity on our careers, and all too often are guilty of putting our careers before our families and/or personal well being.
In the movie someone says that other countries criticize the US educational system as being a mile wide and an inch deep. I think that statement accurately reflects our culture at large.
Here is the American formula for happiness: you must have a successful career that earns a lot of money. The only way to get this career is to go to the “best” college. The only way to get into the “best” college is to get good grades, partake in many extra-curricular activities, and do well on standardized tests during your youth. The only way to get good grades and good test scores is to “work hard” and do a lot of homework instead of spending time with your family and playing. “Quality” of each student’s education is measured quantitatively on standardized tests.
Children are taught from birth that they must conform to this formula or they will never be happy as an adult.
Race to Nowhere opens with the story of a beautiful, talented 13 year old girl committing suicide because she got her first F. Using moving interviews with students of varying ages, parents and teachers, it explores the different facets of the educational system and why it is failing our children.
- How kids face tremendous pressure that if they don’t do well now, their lives will be forever ruined.
- How kids are given more work than they can handle, so they do whatever they have to do to give the appearance they have learned the curriculum.
- How kids mental and physical health are being compromised from too much work load.
- How children are not being taught qualitative skills like critical thinking or the arts.
- How children who are talented in areas other than math or English are being molded into something they aren’t.
- How the last couple generations of high school graduates are having issues in the work world.
The proverbial formula of success is refuted with interesting facts and studies. One person made the claim that if Americans spent more money on the education system, we wouldn’t have to spend as much on welfare and prisons twenty years later.
At the close of the movie, it says that educational reform will indeed require more money be spent on schooling, but that the changes need to go beyond money, beyond the schools even. It gave helpful pointers to improving quality of overall life. When kids enjoy life more, it will in turn make school a more positive experience.
Christi Grab is Parentella’s Editorial Director and author of The Unexpected Circumnavigation: Unusual Boat, Unusual People Part 1 – San Diego to Australia. She is currently working on book two of the series.