“Waiting For Superman (WFS) portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite—that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally,” observes John Merrow of PBS. “Hours of homework produce unbearable stress; stress produces cheating, cramming to pass tests and then forgetting everything; that false learning then means remediation when they get to college; and, on rare occasions, students kill themselves.”
Filmmaker Vicki Abeles is no propagandist, so the film isn’t as slick as the glib, dishonest work of Davis Guggenheim. It spends too much time on the issues of wealthy children competing for college admission and occasionally conflates those issues with those of other students, especially the much larger group of young people for whom “overscheduling” means wage labor pulling lattes and serving pizzas to her own children. It fails to fully capture the ways that lawmakers and for-profit education-management corporations drive education policy. She pushes too hard on one (good) thesis—that students have too much homework from an early age—and the big picture into which it fits isn’t always crisp.
Nonetheless you should see this film, and anyone who sees WFS should be required to watch it. With just one e-mail you can arrange to have it shown on your campus. Why not talk to your students about the film and the issues it raises? Just for starters: ritalin abuse, stress and cheating; cynical community service (and service as hyper-exploitation); the failure of content-driven pedagogy associated with high-stakes testing (and the reliably documented “memory dump” two weeks later).
I saw the film in Cupertino, a community infamous for cramming, with tutorial services on every block, and talked with parents who, like the Oakland filmmaker, worried about their own children (up to two hours of homework a night in kindergarten).
Then I talked to someone I’ll call Terri N., one of our babysitters, who we pay $15 to $17 dollars an hour. She’s a pre-med biology student attending a local private university and works three jobs during the school year and as many hours she can get summers. She works at a sports bar, averaging $12 an hour or less including her tips. She works as a science tutor and peer health educator for $11 an hour. Summers she’ll work sixty hours a week; “more if I can get it.” There’s no time for partying, dating, seeing movies.
What is she spending the money on, besides tuition? To pay for what she sees as gilt-edged service learning, an immersion trip with a self-titled “global medical brigade.”
“I’m actually working to pay for volunteering,” she says. “It’s definitely good experience and probably a fun trip. But the truth is you have to do it. Everyone does it now. These are the things you have to do to get in. If you’re the one that doesn’t, you’re the one who’s not getting in.”
Turns out Terri went through the same thing in high school. Not from a wealthy family, she worked 25 hours a week in order to pay for her clothes, books, and a similar immersion trip, gilding her college application.
And here’s the thing. Terri’s one of the “winners” in this crazy system. She’s not burned out. Her family is supportive, stable and just well enough off to pay a lot of her bills. She’ll make it in to a decent school, come close enough to the employment she imagines for herself, make a good salary, pay off her loans, probably manage to have kids if she wants them.
Most people don’t have Terri’s abilities, support, and emotional stability. A system that with tremendous sacrifice barely works for someone like Terri is failing most other young people—not because it demands too little of them, but because it demands way, way too much.
Fixing this problem is not rocket science. It just requires some honesty. We are exploiting and super-exploiting young people. We herd them into a system that manufactures desperation and then hand them hamster wheels with sickly hypocritical grins on our faces. The best of them tell us to piss off, find a better path, or destroy themselves in the searching. The next best run in circles just to make our shopping, our research leaves, and our foreign policy as cheap as possible. Only a handful ever stop pacing the wheel.
Many things may get more expensive, from education to fast food. But we need to stop displacing adult wage labor with students and volunteers, especially volunteerism of the extorted variety.