Recently North­eastern Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty and stu­dents and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity packed 20 West Vil­lage F to view a new doc­u­men­tary, “Race to Nowhere,” described in a New York Times article as “a must-​​see movie in com­mu­ni­ties where the kindergarten-​​to-​​Harvard steeple­chase is most com­pet­i­tive.” The film, made by Vicki Abeles, a middle-​​aged mother and first-​​time film­maker, is a cri­tique of that ultra-​​competitive cul­ture and the high-​​stakes testing move­ment that Abeles says is helping to drive it. The screening was orga­nized by Lori Gar­dinier, asso­ciate aca­d­emic spe­cialist in Northeastern’s Human Ser­vices Depart­ment, and cospon­sored by Northeastern’s stu­dent group Peace for Play and State Rep. Carl Sciortino of Med­ford. Here Emily Mann, a fellow asso­ciate aca­d­emic spe­cialist in human ser­vices, pro­vides con­text for the event.

What was the impetus for bringing “Race to Nowhere” to campus?

Lori Gar­dinier came into the office and showed me the New York Times article about the film, and we knew that there would be an audi­ence of stu­dents, fac­ulty, and com­mu­nity mem­bers who would relate to the topic. We felt the film would spot­light sev­eral impor­tant issues related to edu­ca­tion policy and practice—issues that interest us pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally. And the film cer­tainly sparks a big con­ver­sa­tion about the role of edu­ca­tional policy and prac­tice on the daily expe­ri­ence of chil­dren and fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties and states, and our country.

What was the reac­tion from the audi­ence?

The film really res­onated with audi­ence mem­bers. I could see lots of nod­ding heads. We fol­lowed up with a brief, but pas­sionate, dis­cus­sion led by Louis Kruger (asso­ciate pro­fessor of coun­seling and applied psy­chology at North­eastern), a stu­dent from the human ser­vices pro­gram named Katie The­ri­ault, and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Sciortino. We all have our edu­ca­tion sto­ries — the hor­rors, the joys — and this was high­lighted in the very per­sonal reflec­tions from the panel and audi­ence. Each speaker talked about their experiences—of being dif­ferent, being the same, being home­schooled, seeking out alter­na­tives. And each person stood and asked about change, about choice, and about defying expec­ta­tions that 100 per­cent of stu­dents fit the mold of the highest 2 percent.

Where does this film, and the reac­tion to it, fit in with the very heated reac­tion to Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Cry of the Tiger Mom,” which asserts that Amer­ican kids aren’t pushed hard enough by their par­ents when it comes to aca­d­e­mics?

The human ser­vices field con­siders all the people that make up the world, and not every one of them may be on the Ivy League tra­jec­tory. We need to think about cre­ating an edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ment that pro­motes a pas­sion and a love for life­long learning. There’s too much pres­sure on one metric — stan­dard­ized tests — to mea­sure stu­dents’ suc­cess. That does not mean that high stan­dards and accu­rate assess­ment should be left out of the public-​​school equa­tion. We need to assess stu­dent strengths and weak­nesses. We need to assess the teacher per­for­mance. But we need to do this in more nuanced and cost-​​effective ways.

It’s some­times easy to think that for the best and the brightest in our schools this high-​​stakes test-​​taking cul­ture works — that there are some­times win­ners. “Race to Nowhere” shows us there really aren’t any winners.