By Ellen Bari
Race to Nowhere is directed by a mom, Vicki H. Abeles, who was so upset by watching the children in her family, and in her community, implode from external pressure to perform and unrealistic expectations, that she decided to make her first feature documentary. Her call to action is directed to specific audiences: parents, teachers, administrators, students. In the director’s words, “childhood has become indentured to test scores, performance and competition. We face an epidemic of unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared kids trying to manage as best they can.”
In Waiting for Superman, the exquisite graphics that are the hallmark of Academy Award-winning director and producer Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), make clear that the responsibility comes down to one person…you. Waiting for Superman attempts to spell out the trajectory that has led our public education system into its current state of decline. The film condemns policies that insure tenure for teachers, no matter how ineffectual they are, as well as the polar disparity between schools in good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods where the children continue to be grossly under-served by the system. The film also highlights a number of successful educational institutions led by a small number of visionaries in the U.S. today, and implies that if these people were able to make miracles happen, salvation can come from any one of us.
Each film has a set of heroes, and, surprisingly, there were times when it felt like the heroes of one were the villains in the other. In both films, I was brought to tears. In Race to Nowhere, the first interview that put me over the edge was watching an extremely dedicated, Ivy-League educated teacher break down as she described a system that was so intractable, she finally abandoned the very thing she cared most about. After experts, educators, parents and students from across the country describe a broken system that pushes children to the brink with no promise of anything at the end of the road, the film ends with a real dagger to the heart. The viewer is confronted with the sad reality of a beautiful, 13 year-old girl full of promise, who took her own life after succumbing to the pressure.
One would think that the pressures and increased expectations placed on our children is a middle-to-upper -class issue, but the pressure is actually quite intense at every part of the socioeconomic spectrum. Watching the lottery scenes in Waiting for Superman, was like watching a thriller. The audience was literally at the edge of its seats. These were not the kinds of lotteries that offer piles of prize money. These lotteries were for students hoping to score a precious spot in a prized school that would give them a chance by insuring access to a good education, that would lead to college, and ultimately a better life.
We’ve created a society that fully acknowledges the importance of a good education to get ahead in life, but stops there, without creating a system that actually supports and delivers. I watched Race to Nowhere at the very beginning of the school year, and have since been careful not to emphasize ‘grade’ success at school, and to be wary of over-scheduling. Waiting for Superman touched me in other ways. In addition to the despair I felt learning about the thousands of failing schools in this country, I gained a sense of hope seeing visionary educators who are creating successful educational models. I am also encouraged by the fact that this very important discussion is being brought to the fore through a medium that usually gets the attention of the masses. Above all, once again, I walked away touched by the mothers- women who against all odds and adversity, are fighting to find a way to give their children the kind of education they believe they deserve and need in order to succeed.
The movies’ websites are filled with additional information and resources. Waiting for Superman is still playing in local theatres. Race to Nowhere had a very short run in New York. Stay tuned for details on when Momasphere will be screening Race to Nowhere for our local community.