Opinion:Two documentaries offer bleak outlook on public education


By Marsha Sutton


This was the week for movies — not thrillers, adventures or light entertainment though. Two documentaries that expose hard lessons about the grim side of public education have just been released and are triggering deep discussions among parents and educators about a system that’s broken from one end of the socio-economic spectrum to the other.

The good that might come from these bleak portrayals is that frustration and outrage may be escalating to a tipping point.

Affluent communities have the schools that families living in poverty long for, yet the problems facing high-performing students are no less challenging than the desperate needs of low-income students who are denied access to quality schools.

The film “Race to Nowhere” — shown earlier this month at La Jolla High School — traces the dark side of over-achieving, hyper-competitive high school students frantically running an impossible race to fulfill all the admissions requirements they and their parents think they need to be accepted to elite universities. (To read about “Waiting for Superman,” see below.)

Students in these schools (La Jolla High, Torrey Pines High School, Canyon Crest Academy to name three) enter this race from Day One, whether they signed up for it or not. Without knowing what hit them, these kids find themselves competing with students around them for courses, grades, sports teams, volunteer opportunities, clubs, school leadership roles, jobs and internships, awards and everything else that makes up a high-performing high school student’s every waking moment.

Free time is nonexistent for these kids, a concept as remote and fantastical as a good night’s sleep. To say the pressure is intense is the height of understatement. Because top colleges now expect students to come armed with loads of Advanced Placement classes and grade point averages that well exceed the 4.0 mark, students are struggling with classes beyond their ability, interest and available time.

The pressure to succeed has led to rampant cheating, mostly because, to be successful, top students cannot possibly juggle the after-school demands of sports, clubs, work and volunteerism — and still keep up with the hours and hours of evening and late-night homework. Squeezing in enough sleep each night to be fully functional the next day is a pipe dream.

Cheating is not the only byproduct. Drug and alcohol abuse, heavy partying, increased incidents of bullying, depression, cutting and, tragically, even suicide have been associated with the competition-fueled environment that defines a high-achieving high school.

In affluent neighborhoods, parents hire private sports coaches to teach their darlings how to improve their athletic skills at ages as young as 5 or 6. Athletic prowess soon becomes more important that academic learning in high school for many students, as they chase that elusive sports scholarship.

High-priced private college counselors, now in abundance, tell kids how to build their resumes and fill in the holes lest any single thing be missing from an overwhelming checklist of activities.

The private tutoring industry has mushroomed, along with the pressure for good grades and excellence in demanding AP classes, and with the emphasis on No Child Left Behind and closing the achievement gap. With society’s recent notion that every child could and should go to college, tutors have been kept busy.

The idea that college is for everyone, combined with rising numbers of high school kids over the years, has resulted in more students vying for a limited number of seats in colleges, which have not grown in proportion to increased demand.

College Board bears some responsibility for creating present conditions, with its push to bring more children into AP coursework. Advanced Placement classes were originally designed exclusively for the highly intellectual student who was passionate about pursuing, say, biology as a career goal in life and craved that extra instructional level to meet an insatiable curiosity about the subject.

This is not what AP is about anymore. Accessibility for all has become the mantra of College Board, which makes a boatload of money every time another AP test is taken. Publications like Newsweek, with its annual list of the country’s top high schools, fuel the frenzy, by basing ratings on how many AP tests are taken at any given high school, regardless of how many students pass or fail the rigorous exam.

This then filters down to school districts, which want their high schools on the lists. So the dual message is adopted — AP classes are good for every student, and the more AP classes each school’s students take, the higher the rating on these lists and the greater the bragging rights.

Meanwhile, the children are stressed to the breaking point, barely able to stay afloat. And it’s not just high school. The pressure and intensity of school has filtered down to middle schools and even elementary schools where nightly homework, never convincingly proven to increase learning, is now routine.

“I feel like a prison guard,” said one parent in the movie, complaining about the need to keep her child on track every day with a homework schedule that sucks all the joy and inquisitiveness out of learning. In a justified criticism of excessive homework policies, another adult in the movie, observing the homework load, said, “It’s no longer about learning.”

Parents see what’s happening, but often not until it’s too late. Even when realization dawns, kids can’t drop out of the race because if they let down their guard for one moment, there’s another kid right behind them about to overtake them. Even though they know there’s something inherently wrong with the system, parents find it nearly impossible to extricate their children from the race.

Kids who could be quite successful in adulthood without taking on all this undue pressure see themselves falling behind because they can’t keep up the pace. So they view themselves as failures, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and serious emotional and physical distress.

Once accepted into college, many students require remedial classes because they only learned in high school how to get the grade they needed for that test the next day, with retention of the material lasting no longer than 48 hours. Some, even those attending challenging, elite universities, find college a relief after four years of a highly competitive high school.

“Race to Nowhere” reveals nothing new that parents who have been through this don’t already know. Although it is a recitation of the facts, the documentary nevertheless brings a sense of urgency to the situation and calls attention to the efforts that must be made to give children back their childhood.

Tips offered at the end of the movie include ideas for students, parents, teachers, administrators and health care professionals to help children navigate this treacherous course. Simply discussing the issues and bringing them to the attention of school boards repeatedly can perhaps make a dent in ossified educational priorities.

But this action-item list is incomplete without involving colleges and universities. An admissions officer at UC Berkeley admitted to the existence and severity of the problem, actually saying in the film that she feels like “a perpetrator of the madness.” Yet those same universities take no responsibility for what they have helped to create.

The film delivers a powerful message to parents to be their children’s advocates in the fight to bring some measure of normalcy to the system. If united, parents, especially involved parents with the know-how and resources to be effective leaders, can lobby school boards, petition educators, write letters and organize coalitions to propose viable ideas.

Later start times is an easy one. It costs nothing and has been proven in study after study to be a simple way to improve the health, mood and academic performance of high schoolers struggling with teenage circadian rhythms.

Reducing the amount of homework — or offering one day a month as a “no homework day” — would be a welcome respite from the stress for kids at all grade levels.

And eliminating the extra point for grades in Advanced Placement classes (students are graded in AP classes on a 5.0 scale rather than a 4.0 scale) would go a long way toward relieving the pressure on kids to take classes they don’t particularly like and aren’t intellectually prepared for. Then, only the kids truly passionate about the subject would enroll, and others would have the freedom to take classes, including electives, that they loved rather than a class they felt forced to take for the competitive advantage it might offer.

The provocative “Race to Nowhere” may serve to ignite parents into action at last. It’s a tangled web that’s been woven over the years; it wasn’t easy to create this problem and it took many years to get to this point. But the list of possibilities for relief is long, and the momentum will be unstoppable when parents decide they’ve had enough.

‘Waiting for Superman’ — Education at the other end of the spectrum

By suggesting that kids should have longer school days, school on Saturdays and only one summer month off a year, the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman” seems to offer an opposing viewpoint from “Race to Nowhere” which argues in favor of lessening high-pressure demands on over-stressed students. But the two films focus on the needs of two completely different cohorts of children who are at opposite ends of the economic continuum.

“Waiting for Superman” has garnered national attention, focused as it is on schools in urban centers where kids living in poverty don’t have access to schools and teachers of quality.

The film follows individual children anxious for admittance to charter schools that would allow them to opt out of their poor-performing neighborhood schools. Private school is not an option for these low-income families, and this movie shows the heart-breaking desperation of parents who long to give their kids the education they never received. And it all comes down to a lottery, to chance with long odds, to names pulled out of a hat.

Viewers are left to wonder: Is this any way to run public education?

Teachers’ unions were bashed; charter schools were idealized. The message was simplistic. Choice was presented as the answer and teacher tenure the obstacle that blocks improvement in public education.

The movie explained how tenure began, initially, for college professors, and was difficult to attain. Tenure soon became an entitlement for all public school teachers, most receiving a guaranteed job for life after only a few years of work.

New York’s Rubber Room, as shown in the film, houses hundreds of New York’s worst teachers who have been suspended for a variety of reasons. But because of tenure and union protection, each teacher accused of misconduct receives full salary and benefits and sits all day in this room, doing nothing, awaiting adjudication. This reportedly costs the country’s largest school system over $35 million annually.

The film, by Davis Guggenheim who also directed “An Inconvenient Truth,” has become a catalyst for a national conversation about inequity in public education.

During a panel discussion after an Oct. 14 showing of the film presented by San Diego’s Economic Development Corp., La Jollan Larry Rosenstock, founder and chief executive officer of the High Tech High charter schools in Point Loma, called tenure the Achilles heel of teachers’ unions. For public schools, he said, if you fail, “you’re there forever.”

Although 80 to 85 percent of teachers “have passion and compassion,” Rosenstock said that unions need to “shift the focus away from protecting bad teachers.”

Yet he also said that, by the same token, those who favor more charter schools shouldn’t protect all charters just because they’re charters, acknowledging that some are not worth preserving.

Rosenstock said that organized teachers’ unions exist to benefit their members, and “because children don’t have advocates, employee interests are going to prevail.”

Panel member, businessman and Del Mar parent Michael Robertson said nothing will change until parents can vote with their wallets and take their money away from bad public schools.

“I know you are sitting there with a bitter taste in your mouth,” said Bill Freeman, head of the teachers’ union for the San Diego Unified School District. But the issue is much bigger than just teachers, he said.

Freeman blasted accountability measures that tie test scores to teacher performance, saying there are many excellent teachers instructing students who can’t speak English and consequently do poorly on standardized tests. “Teacher evaluations by test scores would mean getting rid of good teachers,” he said.

He said teachers don’t mind accountability but didn’t specify what measures would be acceptable. Drawing groans from the audience, he also said, “We don’t have tenure,” and that teachers can be fired at any time if there is cause.

Rosenstock, whose High Tech High draws 10 times the number of student and teacher applicants for available spaces and offers no tenure, said it is important to avoid “teacher bashing.” What’s needed to begin to chip away at the structural impediments to improved public education, he said, is more agility and a sense of urgency.

Also on the panel, which was moderated by the University of San Diego’s Scott Himelstein, was Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified’s school board president. Barrera applauded the beginnings of a fruitful dialogue and collaboration among all community groups and not just educators, and said everyone should be asking themselves what each person can do to “move this forward.”

What the film leaves viewers with, he said, is the notion that “as long as the teachers’ union does something different, then we’re all off the hook.” But this is the wrong message to take away, he said.

Business leader and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, another La Jollan in the audience, addressed the panel, saying that High Tech High spends fewer dollars per student and gets quite different results than other SDUSD schools. “Why not go and find out what’s working?” he said to Barrera.

Barrera replied that there are many schools that work well in the district. “We can learn from all of them,” he said.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at