Says Ankur Singh, the writer and director of Listen: The Movie, "They never ask us students what we want from our own education. And since we are the primary stakeholders, that is not OK."
The 106-minute documentary begins, Michael Moore-style, with pensive writer-director, Ankur Singh, 19, trudging across a city bridge: "I don't like talking about myself, but here I go . . . " To Singh, the corporatization of public schooling is personal. His advanced placement classes in high school were dominated by rote memorization. "I hated it. I felt stifled by all the test prep." Soon he stopped studying and his grades dropped. "Nobody asked me what I wanted to learn." Dozens of children, teachers and parents across the country are featured in Listen. They tell the same exasperated story of students enduring ridiculous amounts of test-prep.
Who is to Blame?
Singh points to President George W. Bush for introducing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and shows the courses that were subsequently gutted at high schools across the country to make way for test prep in core subjects. Also implicated is President Barack Obama for linking teacher salaries to test scores.
The documentary argues that public education has allowed corporations (Pearson), billionaires (Gates) and non-educators (Michele Rhee) to determine what teachers cover, thereby conflating test preparation with high standards. Rock music crescendos over footage of Singh as a 14-year-old, shooting a scene from one of the many extra-curricular movies that he made with friends. "Rigor," he says, "is when you have two scenes to shoot and your lead actress has to leave in seven minutes."
When Singh found himself memorizing textbooks for college classes filled with 400 other students, he dropped out to travel the country and interview students who have been burned by testing hysteria. Describing their Kafka-esque confrontations with the school systems from their homes and cars, the subjects are cool and rational.
- Aubrey and Levi Bishop from Colorado Springs have learning disabilities which make testing literally painful. "They want to standardize everybody," says Levi, who has Asperger symptoms, "but you can't. We're not all the same."
- Louise Schmitz, now a college math major in Florida, dropped out of high school because of the overemphasis on testing. Singh cites a 2011 National Research Council Report: "End-of-grade tests don’t improve achievement, but they do increase dropout rates."
- Gage Park High School students refused to take an optional test. "Why should we give them data? They don't care how teachers feel in the workplace or how students feel. And they don't let teachers decide their own curriculum."
Other interviewees include non-English speaker Salvador Bustamante, forced to take standardized tests in his non-native language, and 20-year teaching veteran Robin Kautz who quit because of federal education policy.
Raising Hard Questions
The documentary suggests that a growing number of people are asking similar questions of K-12 education:
- Why are teachers handcuffed to curriculum that they didn't create?
- By emphasizing so much test preparation, what have we lost?
- Why are we spending 1.7 billion dollars a year on testing when poor schools don't have toilet paper?
- How can the same narrow test (the ACT and SAT) predict the success of future chemists, artists and farmers?
- How long will America continue down the restrictive path of test-prep?
Ankur Singh's film doesn't discuss alternatives to test-prep hysteria. Instead, he shows them -- a homeschooled girl learns about mammals from her mother as they tour a zoo; students at Tallgrass Sudbury School determine what they will learn and how; and a consortium of 28 high schools in New York replace the state's Regents exam with performance-based assessment.
Youths Advocating to Change Public Education
Many of the teenagers Singh interviews in the last part of his documentary refuse to silently watch while adults botch the American education system.
Nikhil Goyal, the 18-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All, calls schools "some of the most autocratic and undemocratic institutions in the country." Zak Malamed, 19, founded StuVoice.org so that students could help determine education policy. Rutgers student Stephanie Rivera started the national Students United for Public Education (SUPE) to make college students wary of Teach for America and "other groups funded by super PACs and funded by billionaires who want to recruit the next generation of 'education reform' leaders."
Listen: The Movie hints that another solution to endless test preparation is rebellion by showing footage of 30 students from the Portland Public Schools boycotting an Oregon exam, calling it an unfair measure of students' and teachers' performance. Although the state still requires public school students to take the exam (exemptions are made for reasons of religion or disabilities), more teachers and even administrators have openly expressed sympathy for the boycott's rationale. Singh also shows 300,000 students in Quebec boycotting their classes because of college tuition raises in 2012. The protests ultimately forced Premier Pauline Marois to repeal the fee hike. Singh's message is implicit: with coordinated efforts, 50 million K-12 students in the U.S. can shape education policy.
The director credits his high school French instructor as the inspiration for his documentary. After he wrote an angry letter to the College Board on a high school French AP test, Singh was called to the office. When he saw his French teacher waiting for him, he figured he was about to be in trouble. Instead, his instructor listened to him vent about the exams. To his surprise, the teacher shared her own frustrations, explaining that she would rather watch French films or travel to a French bakery than have students sit and do test prep.
"And then my French teacher said something that I won't forget for a long time. 'Maybe if the students themselves spoke out against [standardized testing], it could all change.' So that’s what I did."