The Race to Nowhere and The Role of the Family in Schools

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The film, Race to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles, presented a take on education and the role of the family in schools that I had never been exposed to. Abeles uses her film to highlight the extensive pressures and demands that students are facing in America’s schools. She sets the tone for the film in the opening scene where we see students sharing the troubles they experience in schooling; this culminates with Abeles asking the question, “How come no one is insisting that it change?” This question is imperative to the main premise of this film. Abeles wanted to use this film to challenge the traditional notion of how schools function, the role of the family in education and to show how the emphasis on creating perfect students detracts from creating well-rounded citizens, and strays away from socializing the “whole” child.  Abeles, who was formerly a Wall Street Lawyer, became a filmmaker after she noticed that her own children “began complaining of homework-induced headaches and test anxiety…” [The scenes I felt were the most critical to the film will be discussed in no particular order, but will include time stamps and screenshots.]

Understanding the pressures that students face are important in shaping the pedagogical processes that schools undertake to create good students. When students are constantly being pushed to not only do well in school, but to get straight A’s, look good for college and meet the high expectations set by their families, they are becoming what was described in the film as “little professionals,” that is, children who are performing to meet the high standards of the school but are taking on more than they can necessarily handle. One child described these pressures as the “and” factor. She articulates the idea that students are faced with having to do homework AND do well on that homework AND attend sports practice before doing homework AND volunteer in their community AND pay attention in school AND get good grades. The idea of the “and” factor is startling because of the problems that it presents. Students may constantly feel that they aren’t meeting someone’s standards, whether it is a parent, a coach, or a teacher, etc., because they are so preoccupied.

[Race to Nowhere]

The scene that occurs at [00:15:04] when a young woman is describing her experience as a high-performing student while she was on the private school track was interesting to consider. The young woman, throughout her school career had to try to appease her teachers, parents and others who would constantly reinforce to her that they were placing such pressures on her in her best interest, when in fact, it was not. The young woman experienced bouts of depression, emotional breakdowns and a stint with anorexia that led her to be hospitalized. The pressures of schooling were so great on her that she left the private school track to pursue a GED and a High School equivalency certification. This scene was important to this narrative because of the tremendous pressures that so many students face. They find taking stimulants such as Adderall to be acceptable because it will help them stay awake to finish more work and “keep up with everyone else…” According to Darrick Smith, a teacher in Oakland, for those students who experience the tremendous pressures inside and out of the classroom, the schooling experience is “no longer about learning” and more so about trying to stay afloat.

After reading Diane Ravitch and analyzing her critique on the 1983 Nation at Risk report and NCLB legislation, I was fascinated when the film mentioned these important policies. In a scene where experts were analyzing the effects of homework, and how countries that outperform the U.S. in education give less homework, it was interesting to see where Nation at Risk and NCLB fit in. The filmmakers highlighted that increase in homework in schools began in 1983 and shot up again in 2002. The critique that the film presented was that of the ineffectiveness of said policies, which leads me to believe that Abeles may agree in some ways with Ravitch’s stance. A focus on measures that did not work, less funding for schools and teachers receiving bonuses for higher test scores vilified these policies as a rough time in American Education. The case against homework that the film presented was that homework was often ineffectual as a gauge of students’ understanding. If parents edit or do their child’s homework for them because a child is constantly frustrated by their own misunderstandings or feel that they just can’t do it, then homework is not doing what it is intended to do: reinforce what is learned in the classroom outside of the classroom for a more comprehensive understanding of the material. (Interestingly, the AP teacher who cut his Biology class’s homework in half and saw a rise in AP scores gives credence to the idea of less homework and more intensive and meaningful in-class interactions as an alternative and successful model.)

[Race to Nowhere]
In what I believe to be one of the most important scenes of the film, which starts at [00:30:11] we are introduced to Emma Batten-Bowman, a former English teacher at Mandela High School in Oakland, California. Ms. Batten-Bowman describes her desire to inspire her students in the classroom. She believed in the idea of meritocracy and that by teaching her students to work hard she could use education as a method to move students out of the socio-economic strata which they occupy. Her educational philosophy of “changing kids’ lives” and “learning as power” was combated by competing educational philosophies – the pressures and expectations set by the local school district. She said that the educational philosophy that she was trying to instill into her students was “not what the district wants you to do…” and she resigned. In this scene, and many others, the filmmakers educe a deeply emotional response from the viewers because of the deeply personal and emotional display that the teachers, parents and others display throughout the film. The appeal to emotion is used a method to gain support for the film.

In a similar type of scene in the film, when the parents of Devon, a bright young woman who took her own life because of the tremendous pressures she felt, viewers are forced to sympathize with the loss of the parents and to reflect on whether the models of education that are currently in place are actually worth the pressures that they inflict on children. [00:71:00]

[Race to Nowhere]
Devon’s parents described her as a bright young girl who was facing great internal pressure from an algebra class that she was enrolled in. She went from having a 100% average to failing a math test and could not cope with the consequences of performing below what she considered for her entire life to be “normal.” Parents who are watching the film will begin to seriously question their own children’s academic success and the pressures they are under. They may side with the filmmaker’s views about these pressures, and believe that the schools are “robbing children of their childhood…” because of the deep personal and emotional response that the film evokes from its viewers. I began to wonder about how families who have viewed the film reflected on the pressures that they impose on their children.

Another important scene in this film was at [00:42:00] when the shift focused from pressures of schooling to implications of those pressures – specifically, cheating in school. Danielle, a twelfth grader at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California describes her experience, “Cheating has become another course. You learn how to do it from 9th-12thgrade and you just get better at it…” The film goes on to describe cheating as a result of too much work, greater pressures and/or teachers who do not care. Another student described her own cheating as a result of having “no room to make mistakes” in the classroom.

[Race to Nowhere]
The film’s focus on the pressures experienced by high performing students and the problems they face provides an inherent critique of the traditional school model.  The idea of students spending more time on homework is not held in high regard, albeit levels of homework increase, should they move along in their educational careers. Furthermore, the emphasis on play and “kids not being allowed to find what they love to do” seems to be exaggerated. It is unlikely that children in public schools and elsewhere have absolutely no downtime and are constantly engaged in some sort of academic endeavor; school districts in the country are constantly trying to implement new and non-traditional methods in schools that create an experience that children find exciting, new and interesting. The pressures that students face are real, but it seems that the sample that Abeles surveys for the film is smaller and not representative of the problems and successes of many communities of educators and students across the nation. The film vilifies teachers and school administrators as not being able to relate to the families that they service. The film provides important insight into the changing role of the family but does not touch on the impact that the families have on schools. If parents see that a child is having a problem with homework for example and would rather blame the school or teachers (and advocate for less homework) than work in collaboration with the school to find a solution (such as supplementary or enrichment activities or special help), then the model of families as integral to the school community is null.

The companion website for Race to Nowhere encourages supporters to speak up and share opinions about policy decisions and to write to policy makers about them. Below is a sample template for a letter that parents can send to the superintendent of their district (that I downloaded directly from the companion website under the tab: advocacy tools) about their concerns:

Dear Superintendent:

I want to thank the district for making a showing of the movie “Race to Nowhere” available to our community. This is an important reflection of our education system and one worth considering in our school district. While our school district has many innovative education practices that represent best practices in the field of education, the movie made quite obvious one way we fall short is in our homework policies.

It is so frustrating for me as a parent of a [fourth] grader to realize that, according to most available research, all the time my child has spent doing homework has most likely not benefited her. This seems like a tragic waste of her time, her teacher’s time and our family time. After seeing the film, I looked at some of the research available about the value of homework. Harris Cooper, the researcher who suggested the 10 min. per grade policy, actually found that homework is of no benefit to grade schooler’s learning but, in fact, recommends this policy with no data to back it up. He simply states this policy in his conclusion as an opinion and adds that it might help children’s independent study habits. It doesn’t. No available research has found this. In fact, the only kind of learning that homework seems to be good for is short-term fact-cramming like spelling tests. This benefit is lost over time though, because after a few weeks children test at the same level as before studying. There does, however, seem to be a benefit to children reading at home. Tragically, this is the one thing children do not get to do because the homework takes up too much of their time.

All of my daughter’s teachers took and take great pains to make sure the homework they assign is for the most part relevant and of high quality. The sad truth is that their time and attention are wasted. Quality in elementary school has nothing to do with it. Elementary school children simply do not benefit from homework.

I was particularly disheartened to see how the middle school is assessing its homework load by asking parents’ opinions. Why can’t we look at what is actually beneficial for students? Research suggests it’s about 1 hour a night. Beyond that, the benefit falls off rapidly and we run the risk of sleep deprivation, burnout and lack of engagement for our students.

Children spend a long time in school every day and they need their time outside of school to benefit from the opportunities that unstructured time allows their development. This cannot be overstated. Earlier this year, I attended a PTSA meeting at _______________________________________ where students spoke about the academic climate in response to a speaker.

The speaker’s message was not popular among the students present at the meeting and one student stated that she didn’t want or need any free time. If she wasn’t doing homework, she said, she would just waste her time or get into trouble. Is this really what we want? Children who don’t know what to do with themselves with free time? Children who claim they are not feeling the stress but when asked about their friends, described depression, anxiety, stimulant use and coming to school sick having gotten no sleep?

Achievement takes tenacity and sometimes sacrifice but in the case of our elementary school’s and our middle school’s homework policies, we are asking for the sacrifice of children’s, teacher’s, and families’ time for no benefit. And, 
I would suggest, to the great harm of children. We as a district must take this research seriously and create expectations for our children’s education that are results-oriented, not opinion-oriented, and homework is not part of that picture in elementary school.

Please do the right thing by the children of our community.



[your name]

* Contributed by a San Francisco Bay Area parent following a screening of the film, “Race to Nowhere

This letter was fascinating because it implies that policymakers in school districts are simply wrong and that they do not know what they are doing. From an administrative perspective, it would be of greater concern to me that parents are trying to influence policy instead of working with the district to achieve the set of goals of the school that they have decided to enroll their children in.

It shows a lack of faith in the district and suggests that parents know more about what works in education policy than those running the school district, which sets a dangerous precedent for parents who watch this film – the filmmakers are suggesting for parents to go against the grain and  challenge the schools rather than cooperate with them to find a solution to the problems they are faced with. The filmmakers seem to stress the “I know what’s best for my child” model of education reform which does not take into account the continuous research that districts undertake as they try to make their schools better for students; rather, it places an emphasis on schools as the problem and encourages parents to go above the heads of the schools administration and teachers by advocating for policy changes – which seems to be a grandiose solution to a local problem. The schools are thus put on the backburner and disregarded as sites of reform. The emphasis is placed on administrative control rather than local control and makes schools out to be incapable of handling student issues and parent concerns.



Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki H. Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2010. DVD



Published by

Carlos Velazquez

Trinity College Class of 2014. Educational Studies Major. Concentration: Race, Social Class and Social Relations in Urban Education.

3 thoughts on “The Race to Nowhere and The Role of the Family in Schools”

  1. I really enjoyed this perspective on education reform and the emphasis placed on creating a « whole child » as opposed to « little professionals. » As opposed to « American Teacher, » which stressed the importance of good and qualified teachers in public schools, this film stressed the importance of the roles of the students and that there are so many components that go into making a good education. This filmmaker stressed the repercussions that the « AND factor » has, while « American Teacher » really strayed away from the students and their respective roles in making the best of education and merely focused on the teachers. I also was surprised by the facts presented in this film compared to that of « American Teacher. » Your film included facts that showed nations that outperformed the United States actually give less homework. « American Teacher » also cited different models of education from countries such as Singapore and Finland, which emphasized that their school system work, because of the better working conditions for teachers. Additionally, « American Teacher » and « Race to Nowhere » both have characters that resemble one another. Your description of Emma Batten-Bowman reminded me a lot of a teacher featured in « American Teacher, » Jonathan Dearman. Both teachers speak of their desire to inspire their students and change their lives. Ironically, both teachers resigned. However, your teacher seemed to have resigned for moral reasons, while Mr. Dearman retired due to the insufficient salary he was making as a teacher (he ultimately joined his family’s real estate business).
    Overall, the message this film was trying to convey to its viewers was entirely different than the message of « American Teacher.» While « American Teacher » made it seem as though public schools in urban districts were far too easy and suffering, because of the lack of qualified teachers, your film emphasized that schools put far too much stress on students—so much stress that one young girl actually had taken her own life. Moreover, I do enjoy your critique of the film—arguing that it was a bit exaggerated and that there is no possible way that children have absolutely no downtime or time to « enjoy the things they love to do. » « American Teacher » I felt also was a bit overdramatic, because there is no way that the insufficient working wages of teachers is the only thing plaguing educational dysfunction.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of this film, which I’ve never seen before. It seems like it has an interesting perspective on the public school system and I, too, was reminded of Diane Ravitch’s book, specifically her chapters on NCLB and the Nation at Risk report. From what I got from your response, it seems like the director of this documentary approached the issues in education reform from a very different angle. I agree with your criticism when you said, “It is unlikely that children in public schools and elsewhere have absolutely no downtime and are constantly engaged in some sort of academic endeavor,” mainly because I was comparing this idea to what I saw in my film, The Lottery.

    The Lottery emphasized how little students learn in public schools and emphasize the importance of charter schools because of their extended days and school year. In this documentary, I got the sense that the problem comes from not enough time or work in the classroom, and more dedicated teachers were needed to improve public school quality. The Lottery argues this to emphasize the importance of charter schools. The point your film makes about the AP bio teacher is interesting and seems to contradict this idea, but how do we guarantee that all teachers in the public school system are of the same calibre as him? Ensuring that all classrooms are filled with teachers of the highest quality seems like the best solution in a perfect world, but realistically, is difficult (and right now it seems to be impossible) to guarantee. I also saw similarities between Race to Nowhere and my film in how families are the focus of both narratives. I think it’s an important feature in films surrounding education reform because it helps make a specific argument and allow the message to seem clearer and more applicable to real, American families.

  3. This video analysis successfully conveys the director’s message as captured in key scenes in Race To Nowhere, but it also challenges this reform vision . Interestingly the essay questions whether the families shown are representative of the nation as a whole (which might have been more effective by comparing the racial and socioeconomic composition of families in the typical pro-charter school movies). Good linkage to Ravitch’s book, but unfortunately, it was not cited as an external source, as required by this assignment.

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