Race to Nowhere - Questioning Public Schools

Archived Q&A and Reviews

May 2010

Last week I went with a friend to a screening of the movie Race to Nowhere. I thought we were settled in our choice of our local school for our 5-year-old, but now I am having serious doubts. I don't want her to grow up in a pressure cooker that slowly erodes the joy of learning. I want her to be challenged, in a serious way, that encourages her to *think* and not just memorize by rote only to have the information be forgotten the next week as I remember vividly doing in school. Does such a school exist? That fosters serious and deep learning, without an overload of homework and testing? And do we even have hope of getting in at such a late date? We are not rich, but now I am willing to consider alternatives and make our budget stretch just a little further if need be. Hopeful

I also saw the film and was also deeply affected. I have a 5th grader and a 2nd grader in an OUSD school. The district has a policy that homework must be given, but we have found that every teacher (bar one) has been more than reasonable in homework expectations.

I assume your daughter is enrolled for September. Have you spoken with the principal of the school regarding homework requirements? Will they let you talk to one or more of the kindergarten teachers about your concerns? They may have seen the film as well, and although they might be limited in what changes they can make due to district policies, they all have their own style of teaching and expectations. Learn how to work with your child's teacher.

Not every school is the pressure cooker as depicted in the film, especially at the elementary level. I think the filmmaker included her young son as the extreme example. In my own children I realized that even though their teachers may have been relaxed about the homework, *I* wasn't always, and the film provided good examples of how parents can reduce the pressure and help children realize the best ways to measure success.

I do think the real concern is high school - and you have many years ahead of you to ensure your child has a better quality of education.

Follow the guidelines that were at the end of the film and on the website how to Take Action. http://www.racetonowhere.com/get-involved

That's where the real change will come for ALL. Mom of Two

I'd encourage you to visit Prospect Sierra school. We have been at the school now for 5 years and feel very grateful to be a part of it. The teachers and the curriculum are most inspiring and truly engage the children. I feel both my children are learning in an authentic, engaged way...a far cry from the rote learning of my childhood. I feel the school strikes an amazing balance of truly rich academics while still being mindful of engaging the whole child. Veronica

Dear Hopeful, Yes, such a school does exist! Check out Crestmont School , a K-5 cooperative in Richmond (on the Arlington, not far from the El Cerrito border). Our son is in 3rd grade and our whole family is very happy there. There are no grades or tests, though the 4th/5th teacher does help prepare the kids for testing since most of them will experience tests in middle school. I too saw Race to Nowhere and the overwhelming feeling I had while watching it was ''thank God we are at Crestmont!''. It totally confirmed for me all the reasons why we chose the school. Check out the website -- not sure about space for next year but it is certainly worth looking into. http://crestmontschool.org/teaching/philosophy/ Good luck! Happy Crestmont parent

I saw that movie too and I am thankful that YES such a school does exist and my son started there in Kindergarten and he is now finishing 5th grade so he & we have been there 6 years - that school? Crestmont School (www.crestmontschool.org) This is a wonderful school in the Richmond Hills off Arlington Blvd a couple of miles past Moesser. The school is built on experiential learning with no testing and focuses on learning through field trips, art, music, creativity and active learning. Creativity and exploring education in a non-traditional setting. Students sit with teachers and with the whole school and talk about feelings and how to treat others. The school is a cooperative, so the tuition starts at a lower rate than most private schools. Plus the more you volunteer and work at the school = the lower your tuition bill. You can volunteer during the school day, nights & weekends. Each time you volunteer the monthly tuition payment goes down. Academics? My son tested (through an outside agency) two grade levels above the average child of his age after just a few years there. There is a lot of cross grade interaction with academic projects, & creative activities. Please call the enrollment line at (510) 237-9336 - I believe there may still be some openings, but you have to call to be sure. I am now the music teacher there after being a parent there for four years, feel free to email or call me to discuss the school - I can't say enough wonderful things about all the teachers and the school!! Jeffrey

I think it's possible to get in to a private school on short notice in this economic climate. I drive past the Montessori Family School in El Cerrito and have seen a sign up for most of the year advertising space in Kindergarten for 2009-10. If you are looking for something more alternative, check out Wildcat Community Freeschool in Richmond--they take kids based on availability at any time of the year.

That said, if I were you I would send my child to public kindergarten, see how it goes, and keep my options open. I share your concerns about ''teaching to the test'' but I wouldn't worry that your daughter will sour on learning forever based on one year of public school. If you switch out of public school after a year or two, you will know from direct experience, rather than a movie, that it didn't suit your daughter's needs. In the meantime, you will save buckets of money on tuition and be able to do a thorough private school search without feeling rushed.

My son is finishing up kindergarten in public school. I have had a few cringe-worthy moments where I feel that the curriculum is too demanding, and I wish they had more time to play. But, overall, we have been very happy. His teacher is wonderful, the community is friendly and diverse, and my son is happy and learning a lot.

Best of luck to you. Free works for me

Umm... not sure how to respond here, there are so many things I am thinking. I have not seen this movie, but I am a teacher and have heard about it, and I can guess that it talks alot about the pressure of state tests?? Because someone made a movie about it, doesn't mean that's how all public schools are teaching. I work in a small district south of Oakland with a mix of very low to medium on the socioeconomic scale. I do not believe in homework as a rule, (which is good, because with all the recent budget cuts, we don't have money to make copies)- but only believe its effective when used as a way toward responsibility and goal setting. nor do I 'teach to the test'(and yes, next week marks the start of a very high stakes CA test, the STAR test. If your kids are in an engaging classroom all year with a motivated teacher who is teaching the standards, she/he will be prepared for the test anyway.) My entire district's philosophy is a constructivist approach, which means children learn by creating and building their own meaning. A good teacher will encourage children to become problem solvers and critical thinkers, so they can tackle challenges that come their way throughout their lives. A good teacher collaborates with others to keep up on the best practices of teaching and current research (ALL of which point to the things I've already mentioned.) Good teachers are everywhere and in every district. Hopefully, the district you are in promotes collaboration and professional development, which is so important in keeping up to date. Do some research and see if your local school does something called ''writers' workshop'' (out of Columbia college in NY) or readers' workshop. These are programs that intrinsically get kids and teachers motivated and passionate about reading/writing/thinking and sharing ideas. when my district started these programs I found myself focusing much more on having conversations with my students about their learning, rather than let's say, grading for punctuation. Get to know your local school, volunteer, see how the teachers are teaching, you might be surprised. BTW- I teach 2nd grade. support your local school

If you can afford going private, consider montessori learning for your child. Not all montessori schools are equal though. We have had a wonderful experience so far at Montessori Family School (MFS) and are pleased with both the academic and social/emotional learning and growth we see in our child and other children at the school. It is such a balanced, kind environment and we appreciate the community focus. Next year our second child will start in the preschool and our first is moving on to a kindergarten transition classroom. We feel our children are a good fit for montessori and they do not need supplemental external pressure. They get enough of it from us at home. Montessori Family School continues from age three through middle school or eighth grade. I never believed we would stay in montessori past kindergarten. After doing research for awhile and exploring a variety of school options, I came to similar conclusions expressed in Race to Nowhere. I started to relax a little and am grateful for the insights. It's never too late to change your course. A child is a child only once. Happy Parent at MFS

Yes, there is a school that does not stress out children with too much homework and rote learning. That school is Beacon Day School .

As an administrator and parent of a 7th grader, I can tell you that our goal is for every student to be successful and that doens't mean they all need to have straight A's. Our curriculum is designed to have students work in pace groups (these are fluid) until the skill has been mastered.

The Elementary School is year-round with a continuous progress education model and we do NOT assign homework until Upper Elementary. Even then the homework is somehting that the student can do independently. Our Middle School operates on an extended year with block scheduling. Students are not stressed out with hours of homework. They can actually enjoy outside activities such as scout meetings and sports practices without worrying that they are behind with their homework.

I too saw the film last week. Although much of it was hard to watch, I am very thankful that my daughter is being educated in a school that does pay attention to homework load and is more focused on making sure students love to learn. In fact, Beacon is mentioned in Sara Bennett's book ''The Case Against Homework''. Sara was one of the experts interviewed for the film.

Please call me in the Admissions Office at 510-437-2311 if you would like to learn more about Beacon Day School. abaroni [at] beaconday.org

We and our children (grades 5 & 2) have loved Aurora School in Oakland. It is definitely not in the Race to Nowhere! The kids learn lots and lots, but they don't do standardized tests, leaning is fun, deep and meaningful. There is homework beginning in 2nd grade, but it is not very much. One of the things I've loved about Aurora is it respects both children and childhood. Kids are not expected to be little adults. I don't know if there are still K openings. Contact Lisa Piccione the Admissions Director, 428-2606. Much more info is at the website: www.auroraschool.org

I've been thinking about this question a lot, as my BUSD third grader is about to have his week of morning testing. When we began public school, we had the same concerns -- that the testing would be far too emphasized and the teachers might be too focused on that more joyless aspect of teaching. We worried about homework and how it might affect him [and us].

I have to say, now that he's had a bit of it all, he enjoys school as much as ever, he's learning a lot, and he's had bright, imaginative and thoughtful teachers. At least in his school, the test prep hasn't taken as much time as I feared it would. Not in teaching nor testing time. The past week or two, his class has done a few sample tests, but that's clearly more to prepare them for the format than it is an attempt to "teach to the test". The year has already already prepared them for the information they are expected to know.

The homework issues were at their worst in the beginning, in first and second grade, but it wasn't that the homework was hard or time-consuming. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was the fact that it had to be done which angered him and it took a long time because of his reluctance to do it. This year, in third grade, he's much more accepting of it as a part of his daily responsibilities, and for the most part, he does it quickly and it's over. It's still not that much, nor is it very hard. I get to see what he's doing in class and how well he understands, and he really seems to enjoy sharing with me the things he's so proud of knowing. And little by little, he is learning strong work habits.

Would I prefer he not have homework or state testing? I guess it would have been nice to hold off on the homework until 3rd or 4th. Maybe he'd have had a better homework attitude by 3rd grade even without any of it to do in 1st or 2nd, I don't know. But maybe I'd be having 3rd grade homework battles instead. I know that it doesn't teach him anything new, but is certainly has reinforced what he's learned in class. He's a great student, in part because he has learned to take it seriously. And the tests are no big deal to him. I work in his class a fair amount, and it's been hard to see much negative impact.

For us, it just hasn't been as big a deal as we had feared.

Race to Nowhere is such a thought provoking movie and I can completely understand why you now have doubts. My husband and I struggled with the same issues just 2 years ago when we were trying to decide what school our 5 year old would attend for kindergarten. We were similarly worried about being able to afford private school but we decided that our children's education was top priority.

We chose Prospect Sierra , a fantastic independent school in El Cerrito and we could not be happier. Our now 1st grader is thriving and becoming not only a confident learner but a thoughtful and mindful person. Prospect Sierra focuses on the whole child. Kids are engaged in activities from a school garden, to service learning in the community to CSA boxes. The art studio and the science lab that all graders go to weekly are places where the passion of the teachers are shared with the kids and the creativity and imagination of the kids just blossom.

My son plays in the elementary school orchestra, plays capture the flag at lunch and plays with his friends after school. He loves doing his homework because he gets to write stories and illustrate them. He is definitely encouraged to think and be an active participant in the learning process. My younger child will hopefully start kindergarten in a year and he can't wait. He sees how much fun his older brother is having and how great it is to be able to read, to write and to do math. To him, learning these skills is just part of the fun. I would definitely contact the school if you are interested in touring the campus and checking out their program. As I said, we also were concerned about the financial impact private school would make on our family and the school has been able to ease those worries with its financial aid program.

Basically, we think Prospect Sierra is the whole package and we couldn't be happier about our decision. Best of luck with yours and please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Kelly

I have not seen the movie but I have several kids' worth of experience with both private and public schools, mainly public. So I wanted to comment on the effects of testing and heavy homework loads throughout public school. Don't use K-3 as a basis for how your kid is doing in public school. We managed just fine up to about the 3rd grade - not too much complaining, not too much strain on the family, kids were in the GATE program, spelling bee winners, blah blah blah. And then around the 4th grade, the bottom dropped out. My kids completely lost all interest in school, stopped doing homework, or just stopped turning it in. Grades plummeted. They had stress stomachaches, didn't want to go to school. For the next NINE years (grades 4 - 12) I dreaded afternoons and evenings, with their hours and hours of prodding kids to do homework. Family time was on hold until the summer.  By middle school my kids had become so cynical about testing that one of them told me he just marked answers randomly because "it doesn't affect my grades." One kid barely scraped through high school, another kid dropped out at 17, as did many of his friends. Yes, they had friends who successfully navigated public school, but too many of them didn't. You would be surprised by all the 20-somethings in Berkeley who never finished high school. My opinion is that the school system is broken. We are scraping together the $$$ for private school for the youngest.

I've forgotten the nature of your original post, so I apologize if you were asking for recommendations for a particular public school in a district that may or may not be riddled with test taking. If you were asking, what is to be done about the current state of ''accountability'' and ''testing'' that is insensibly killing education, then, please continue to educate yourself by reading ''The Death and Life of the Great American School System'' by Diane Ravitch. She goes into the history of ''choice'', vouchers, charter schools, attempts at a national curriculum, NCLB, Race to the Top (Bottom/Nowhere), and explains in depth why our current policies are so detrimental to our children's education. I wish I knew of a group that is advocating right now to abolish NCLB/Race to the Top. I gather the group that put together The Race to Nowhere are trying to organize people, but are there any other groups?

Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and anyone who cares about education needs to get informed on this issue and we need to change things. Oh, and there's also the older documentary, First to Worst which tells the story of California's public funding demise. Diane Ravitch's book covers the US at large. Want a Sensible Educational Policy and the Funds to Make it Happen