A new education story

Here’s a piece and a short film about new education narratives from Vicki Abeles, a parent of three and the director of the documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that challenges current thinking about how to prepare students for success.

By Vicki Abeles

“To prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and help restore middle-class security, we have to out-educate the world,” opens the White House’s webpage on education. To accomplish this, it suggests “higher standards and better assessments” as well as “smarter data systems to measure student growth and success.”

Putting the economic security of the middle class on the backs of students is a heavy load. But the White House is not alone in this narrative around education.

From our political and public discourse to parents’ own internal fears that an insufficient number of AP classes will mean fewer opportunities for their children, the idea that competition and evaluation will lead to assured success is pervasive and can be found everywhere: Study more. Achieve more. Be more.

We live in one-size-fits-all educational culture that evaluates the worth of students through their test scores, GPAs, and college acceptance letters.  It is this dominant narrative, and the system it supports, that needs to change.

The realization that we need a new narrative around education is where our work as filmmakers and advocates began six years ago. “Race to Nowhere” gives voice to those closest to the education system and highlights how a narrow focus on high-stakes testing, competition and busyness has led to an epidemic of anxious, disengaged and unprepared young people. It is robbing young people of their well-being and their chances to succeed in the future.

The film has been seen in thousands of schools and community venues and those screenings have inspired parents, educators, students and concerned citizens to share their stories in the community discussion that often follows the film. These stories help us identify where change is most needed and allow each community to discover their collective priorities.  And we’re starting to hear stories of change – stories of courageous individuals and communities reclaiming the health, well-being and love of learning for our youth.

What’s so special about stories? First and foremost, they remind us that we are not alone. We are part of a growing network of parents, families, students, and educators that share the same goal of happy and healthy children. Not only do stories help us connect to one another, they help us learn from one another. We give ourselves permission to be honest and to think critically about how to make change.  Most importantly, stories empower us. They give public value to our experience. One person’s story or actions can have a ripple effect, and our collective stories and actions have the power to change our education system and our culture.

A few months ago, we invited individuals to contribute their stories on how they’ve made positive change in their homes, schools and community. We’ve included these powerful stories in a short film, again employing the power of new stories to challenge the status quo of our educational system. Parents from Oakland to Austin spoke about valuing their children’s emotional and creative development. A college student from the University of Maryland started an organization encouraging students to use social media to communicate with journalists, educators, and even presidential candidates about their concerns. A college admissions officer explained how she is shifting her message to prospective college students.  “What areas are they excited about? That’s where they need to concentrate their involvement.”

But you don’t have to be a filmmaker to get your story out there. Blog, vlog, have a conversation about education among friends at your next dinner date – do whatever it takes to be vocal about what education can be. Telling stories can change our minds and our world. It might even change the White House’s website.

I invite you to visit the “Race to Nowhere” website to share your story today.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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