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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 10/ 7/2010

An education film that gets it (No, not 'Superman')

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips
Many schools are largely out of touch with who kids are today. The lives of students, across race and socio-economic class, are very different than they were even 10 or 15 years ago. But in a time when the stress experienced by children has increased markedly, too many schools appear to be adding to it rather than alleviating it. Educators who understand this are far more likely to be successful.

There is presently an estimated 15-year lag between the latest psychological research and the incorporation of this new knowledge into schools. It appears that many of today’s school reformers either don’t know about the research or consider psychology superfluous to quality education and student achievement.

Vicki Abeles’s film, "Race to Nowhere", has been very popular here in the San Francisco Bay area and one of the reasons is that it focuses primarily on the emotional lives of kids, not on scholastic performance. Most importantly, it chronicles the price kids are paying emotionally for the increased emphasis on test scores.

Three other “reform” films released in recent weeks ignore these issues. “The Cartel” (may its retro style and sensationalism be granted forgiveness!), “The Lottery,” and “Waiting for Superman” all fit the present reform zeitgeist.

While each of the filmmakers demonstrates concern for kids, they remain nearly silent on the psychological realities of schooling and the emotional lives of kids.

The implication is that this psychological stuff isn’t important.

My wife is a psychologist and so I’m occasionally privy to the stories of local psychologists who are trying to help kids survive their adolescence. One is Madeleine Levine and her book, The Price of Privilege, captures this very well.

My teaching interns, working in the inner city, report that their non-privileged kids also are experiencing great emotional stress, the sources different but the pain at least as great. Levine and Abeles get it. Our reform-minded filmmakers apparently don’t.

As Vicki Abeles notes: “The film has been well received in urban as well as suburban communities, and urban audiences have responded with appreciation for the recognition that these issues don’t just affect the suburban communities, but ALL communities. Our schools have become unhealthy environments for most young people. The pressure to teach to the test is being seen in schools in suburban AND urban communities. Our culture is embracing an idea of education reform based on a system that is not working for most students.”

To motivate kids you need to reach them emotionally and create emotionally supportive environments. Both kids and psychologists tell us that the best classrooms and schools are those in which there is an easy connection between students and real engagement between teacher and student.

But it’s more difficult to measure the quality of human relationships than it is to record test scores. Our data driven reformers appear to be more focused on achievement scores than on the complexities of motivation and human relationships that are the foundation for achievement.

A group of at-risk kids who are now succeeding in one of the better local public schools visited with my interns last year. They were asked why they were doing so much better now than in their previous schools. The repeated answer was, “because the teachers here really know you, care about you, and help you.”

Of course that condition alone will not suffice to lift ailing schools. But it is a necessary condition for schools to really succeed.

A stanza in one of my favorite poems by William Stafford comes to mind.

Stafford wrote:

“It is important that awake people be awake or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep. The signals we give-yes or no, or maybe—should be clear; the darkness around us is deep.”

So it is as we navigate the tricky road to educational reform.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform, Student Life  | Tags:  madeleine levine, race to nowhere, school reform, the cartel, the lottery, waiting for superman  
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Next: Jon Stewart and Lewis Black blew it on schools


Interesting, because at one teacher meeting last year we were told that research showed that kids did better if they thought that teacher's cared about their learning, not cared about them (as people, I guess). This distinction made an impression on me, because I always thought teachers should care about the students they taught.

The idea was that caring about the learning improved the test scores, while caring about the person was not efficient, not a best practice, the implication was that teacher energy could be better put to use on the caring about the learning part.

I would say there is a big push, or maybe it is subtle pressure to not spend anytime on emotional "caring" type of stuff in the classroom. Emotional caring translates into teaching students how to work effectively in groups and being there to listen when a student needs you, before or after class or during lunch.

I think the pressure is now to be at meetings on time, even if it means shoving the students out of the room at the end of the day or putting off parents until later. Teachers' "professionalism" is evaluated by how "on time to meetings" they are.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 7, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

“It is important that awake people be awake or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep. The signals we give-yes or no, or maybe—should be clear; the darkness around us is deep.”

The issues this article raises are so important - the staff I worked with in special education was fairly used to incorporating emotional considerations because many of our students had multiple traumas to deal with, sometimes the least being their learning difficulties.

Our staff was lucky because, due to the nature of I.E.P.s, we had a team of counselors and psychologists who provided incredible backup. I am pointing out the therapists because, without them, teachers would have barely been able to do their jobs when the emotional concerns became so overwhelming. I can only imagine what it was like for the students experiencing them.

It seems that now the social/family pressures accompanying students in regular schools are reaching the levels of those in special education.

One of the wisest of the counselors I knew put it to me succinctly: "The relationship you have with the student is key." Even knowing that, and having very small classes, I needed those counselors as backup because sometimes students would confide issues that were so sad, difficult or horrific, that I would not be able to focus on my academic duties.

My suggestion from the above experiences would be to 1.) increase counseling staff at schools - in many high schools all they have time for is college testing and advising - and 2.) train teachers to a) increase their awareness of stresses in teen lives and b) to know when to draw their boundaries and call in the pros.

I think we see politicians doing photo ops with children and focusing on test scores because it's far easier than grappling with the murky depths of the 'darkness around us'.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 7, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for your thoughtful and informative posts. This film is obviously a "must see". School reform is not a new topic. Unfortunately the revolving door of bright eyed new reformers who claim their actions are "for the kids" just don't seem to get what kids really need to succeed in school and prepare them for life.

A number of years ago I participated in a state wide educational symposium in Palm Springs CA. Legislators, school superintendents, college and university presidents and top level school administrators came together to discuss "what is wrong with and how to fix" our educational system. At the last minute, a panel of high school students from different schools, different grade levels, different levels of ability and different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds were brought in at lunch time to address questions we might have. After a few awkward moments students were asked what they thought was wrong with the educational system and what ideas they had that might improve the system. All the students eagerly participated. Students answered every question with three very emphatic responses: 1. They wanted teachers to know their name, acknowledge them and address them with respect. 2. They wanted teachers to care - ask them why they were absent, tired, didn't have their homework, needed help with things they did not understand and 3. They wanted teachers to have a knowledge of and passion for what they taught - they stated that subjects they didn't really like they could become interested in if their teachers were knowledgeable of their subject and demonstrated a passion for teaching it. It is important to note that the questions asked did not involve teachers - but to these students, it was all about their relationship with their teachers and their teachers relationship with their students and the subject they taught....

This lunchtime panel discussion turned out to be the most significant part of the symposium - sadly, only a few listen to the students - but a few can start a revolution....

Posted by: highquality4kids | October 7, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

RUPERT MURDOCH is planning to set up
an edu-profiteer, privateer ACADEMY SCHOOL.

"With Tesco selling books and Amazon selling bacon, it was only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch started selling A-levels.
News International is in talks about sponsoring an academy school near its luxurious Wapping offices.

Critics of Mr Murdoch are reported to be “alarmed” at the possibility of him entering the sphere of education, and leading the resistance is the go-to guy for anti-Murdoch quotes at the moment, Labour MP Tom Watson.
“Some people will say they are not telling people what they should think through their newspaper but teaching our children what to think in our schools,” he says. I'm a big fan of Watson. I bought Batman: Arkham Asylum on his recommendation, and it's a cracking game. But I think he's being silly here.

Are we really to imagine some sinister factory, churning out prematurely wizened republicans with A-levels in cross-media plugging and an interest in offshore tax arrangements?

There used to be a thing called the antinomian heresy, which said if you were one of the Elect, pre-selected for heaven, nothing you could do was sinful. An inverted version of this applies to Murdoch. He is seen as such a scoundrel that anything he does is deemed evil.

Faith schools — which are by their nature openly ideological — go through on a nod; yet when Murdoch suggests sponsoring a secular secondary school the assumption is it's in order to spread the abominable creed of Murdochism.

.......Of course there are many things to find unattractive about Murdoch. His companies avoid countless millions in tax and he is a foreign national who exercises a disproportionate amount of power over our political process. The law as it stands makes both these things possible, and elected politicians are reluctant to change things because — chicken-and-eggily — Murdoch is too powerful.

But that power is a means to an end. Some proprietors are in it for the pomp: dinner with Cabinet ministers; swanking around at Buckingham Palace when they get knighted; having their half-baked ideas about the world canvassed with apparent interest by powerful people.

Murdoch doesn't seem all that interested in ideology, though. Inasmuch as he wants to reshape the world, it's to make it a better place for his own businesses. He's personally Right-wing, sure; but if the big bucks for Fox News were in replacing
Glenn Beck with Tariq Ali, he'd probably do it.

The chances are that Murdoch is taking
an interest in running an academy because
he reckons he can make money out of it.
And given what tends to happen when
any private company sees a buck to be made out of
public services, it's that that we ought to be alarmed about."

see source


Posted by: newmanagement2 | October 7, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm so glad that we're in a moment when people seem to be paying attention to these issues. I'm terrified, however, that this concern will be met with pat responses, not deep evaluation of what our kids really need.

The blog author, and the filmmakers of Race To Nowhere, are on exactly the right track. We need to ask the questions - what do our kids need to become lifelong, enthusiastic, creative learners? What to they need to be able to have positive interactions with others throughout their lives? I believe that those who would propose simply an extra few weeks of school, or a different kind of standardized test, are mistaken.

Kids need role models, they need to feel supported, they need to be allowed to stumble and encouraged as they pick themselves up, they need to interact, face to face, with their peers and work out problems.

I admit a bias in this debate. I run a traditional residential summer camp ( I think that kids receive all the things I described above through a quality camp experience. The camp I run is expensive, but 20% of campers receive financial aid, and we have campers from all walks of life. These problems are pervasive across all socioeconomic groups.

As the discussion continues, I would suggest that part of the debate be how we can use summers to augment kids' experience deeply, not just give them more of the same.

When kids are in an environment like a quality summer camp (and it doesn't have to be camp - schools could borrow our techniques if they were freed to and wanted to), they can accomplish amazing things. We see it happen every year here, whether the kids are affluent or not, whether they're successful in school or not, whether they've been labeled good kids or bad kids.

Posted by: PaulOnOrcas | October 7, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

"The implication is that this psychological stuff isn’t important.

To motivate kids you need to reach them emotionally and create emotionally supportive environments. Both kids and psychologists tell us that the best classrooms and schools are those in which there is an easy connection between students and real engagement between teacher and student.

But it’s more difficult to measure the quality of human relationships than it is to record test scores. Our data driven reformers appear to be more focused on achievement scores than on the complexities of motivation and human relationships that are the foundation for achievement."

This is not part of the corporate-sponsored, TFA-inspired "school reform" model. Follow the money.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 7, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

We should call "Waiting for superman" "Waiting for Stupid Man" instead.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 7, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

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