Where are we racing to exactly?

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“An education was something that would help you go very far in life, and something that wouldn’t be taken away from you.”

–  Vicki Abeles, director of Race to Nowhere (2010)

Director Vicki Abeles working with son (Race to Nowhere 4:40).

“Race to Nowhere” is a full-length documentary dedicated to education today. The film took shape when the director Vicki Abeles had learned of her daughters stomach pains being caused by stress. The mother in Abeles took the foreground, and never looked back, as she spoke with students, teachers, and parents coast to coast to try and determine what is to blame for the increase in stress amongst students today, and how our education system could be reconstructed to eliminate such pressures. Through the investigative work of Abeles, it is clear that the outrageous pressures of school, sports, and parents are piling up and invading the childhoods of today’s students, to the point where action is necessary.

In recent years, tests have been the primary measure of educational achievement. Tests are constructed long before lessons are taught, and lessons are therefore often overstuffed with content. This is where teachers feel the need to assign homework, to make up for the content that they are unable to cover in class. Sara Bennett, founder of Stop Homework, believes that the practice of homework can be traced back to the implementation of testing as a measure of success (and the aforementioned cycle) that came as a result of the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk (Race to Nowhere 27:48). Similar to Bennett, author Diane Ravitch seems to trace the derailment of educational reformation to the same instance. Ravitch writes in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “Where did education reform go wrong? …But all roads eventually lead back to a major report released in 1983 called A Nation at Risk” (Ravitch 22). Combined with The No Child Left Behind Act, never before have two documents placed such importance on “proficiency”. This can be seen in its mission, as described by President George W. Bush, “The principle behind the No Child Left Behind act is to set high standards, believe every child could learn, and measure to see if were getting results” (Race to Nowhere 28:10). Abeles believes that the words “high standards” and “measure” are where our country went wrong. That is when the whole “Race to Nowhere” went in motion, and the average student lost their place in society.

School as an institution is depicted within the film as a training facility rather than the learning facility that it is supposed to be. One of the film’s main themes is homework, and its effects, or lack thereof. The filmmaker attempts to get the viewer to truly question the purpose of homework with data as well as the use of her own feelings. It is meant to be shocking when Denise Pope of Stanford University gives evidence that suggests there is no correlation between homework and academic success at the elementary school level. When students do become old enough for a correlation to exist, homework eventually loses its effectiveness after about an hour (24:23). The film also made claims that homework times have doubled and tripled over the years. This may be true, but some critics argue that it is misleading. Some say that the numbers Ableles chose to use were too low (8 minutes a night in 1981 as compared to 22 in 2003, though the number is tripled, 16 minutes is not as provoking as the term tripled), therefore deeming the fact insignificant.  Abeles described her own daughter as “a duck trying to paddle as quickly as she could to keep her head above water” as she continues her educational journey  (24:10). Either way, that is not how I would like my child to appear to me at any time, ever. An AP Biology teacher tells of his recent decision to modify his students workload, “When you cut homework in half and AP scores improve, then what’s the value of the homework” (26:20). It seems that Abeles holds homework partly accountable for the fullness of her daughter’s daily schedule, and homework isn’t nearly as important as it was believed to be.

Another aspect that the filmmaker examines is how sports have grew less innocent. One story told is that of Sam, a high school wrestler. He describes how pressure can come from competition between the sport and the school. “The school is like you’re dedicating your whole life to your grades, and then the sport is like no you’re dedicating you’re whole life to me” (22:30). This is becoming common throughout the country, with athletics and academics fighting for the top spot in teenagers’ lives. For some, athletics have helped obtain an education. It also can be dangerous however, as in Sam’s case, where the pressures eventually grew too large and caused him to drop out. Balance is what our generation is missing, and Abeles makes that clear by including that pressure also comes from things that are thought to relieve it, such as sports.

The same can be said for the role of parents. Traditionally parents are viewed as a source of comfort, care and protection. But today, those qualities seem buried under a long list of achievements that a parent has for their child. Within the film is a clip from a forum on stress in a high school in Concord, CA. A young lady tells how the worst question parents are asking is “And?” The “and”, literally meaning “what else” or “that’s it”, sends a message to the child that what they’re doing isn’t enough in terms of AP Classes, sports teams, clubs and community service. Coming from the mouth of a young student, Abeles wants viewers to become aware of the fact that our generation has set such a high standard for everything, to the point in which everything is a competition. Our lives might as well be a race to nowhere. Darrick Smith, an Oakland teacher, claims that the process is actually “dehumanizing” (7:08). It is sickening to hear of the students who associate the feelings of rejection or failure with death. Furthermore, it is literally deadly, as evident in the disturbing examples of students who chose to escape all of the tumultuous pressures via suicide. Abeles actually dedicated the film to Devon Marvin, a friend of her daughter’s who tragically took her own life. There is no reason a child should ever have to live under such stress, yet it seems to becoming more common.

Race To Nowhere is a film that focuses on the student of today, and how he/she is pressured for success inside the classroom, as well as outside of it. It has captivated many Americans, and Abeles continues show the film off as well as host discussions afterwards for those interested (I found this pretty cool, that she comes to most of the screenings for discussion). It examines how the education policy of meeting proficiencies has actually had a negative affect, how students feel pressured to cheat just in order to pass, and how teachers fix scores in order to secure their job. Abeles tells of places that are trying to find that balance, like her son’s school that encourages days of no homework, and the success that has come of it. But she is careful to remind us, “There is no best anything, it is a match between children” (55:20). A film worth watching, it attempts to bring attention to the issue of stress among students in a numbers driven society, what the filmmakers believe to be primarily responsible for said stress, and how to combat the stress for many reasons, most importantly the health and futures of today’s students. Director Vicki Abeles seems to be urging parents to become involved before its too late.



Works Cited

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

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing

          and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.


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I chose this topic because I’m interested to see how Margaret Haley's vision of teachers unions in 1904 compare and contrast with the ideas of unionists today, because many of her concerns seem to still resonate. It’s amazing that its veracity transcends a time-span of well over 100 years.

3 thoughts on “Where are we racing to exactly?”

  1. RJ,

    Pressure among young school-aged children is unfortunate. Because although there are good pressures (determination, self and external sources of motivation, etc.), physical manifestations of stress in young people point to excessive pressures.

    Your analysis caused me to question the purpose of homework in a way I never had. It has been ingrained in the minds of students that homework is necessary to reinforce the information learned in class, but is that the truth? Is homework simply a way to cram young minds with information that there is no time to learn in class? And, if so, is it fair that students are expected to teach themselves information outside the classroom?

    I could not agree more with your comment, “balance is what our generation is missing.” Whatever our priorities, students often do not have the opportunity to establish equilibrium in life. It seems like a race against the clock to complete all of the tasks we are assigned in a given day amidst classes, meetings, homework, practices, rehearsals, shifts at work, and sleep. It is often true that young people are expected to be superhuman by being involved in a wide variety of activities at the highest level possible. This is unrealistic and the standards need to be more achievable.

    I found this film analysis to be very informative and I feel like I understand the point of the documentary. I also think it would be something I’d like to watch because it reflects many of my personal ideas on the education system.


  2. “Race to Nowhere” seems to question the purpose of school and its discrepancy with the structure of school. The opening narrative of the director is compelling; the emotional pull on heartstrings of hearing about or witnessing first hand the stress of schoolchildren is an effective method on the part of the director. The effectiveness of homework is an interesting approach. I would even push to look at the effectiveness of testing in future social science studies. I would agree with critics about the distortion of “tripled” versus “16 minute” increases.

    “The Lottery” similarly used qualitative examples without strong tangible evidence for their case. This film sounds surprisingly similar in its use of testimony over research. I agree that school children are more and more stressed and pushed to decide between athletics and academics. This point could be more clearly made, however, using some determinants of stress or disconnect between coaches and teachers in terms of curriculum.

    “The Lottery” questions the structure of the school system in terms of lack of funding and space. This film also focuses on the success of charters as evidence that the traditional system is not working. “Race to Nowhere” seems to question the value different agents of education press. Parental, teacher, and societal pressure on children to overextend themselves into extracurriculars while maintaining good grades seems to be the norm. These causes of stress relate to testing after legislative changes and reforms. This film critics reform movements that emphasis testing.

    These films differ completely in scope and their recommendations for reform, but both seem to agree that the educational system in this country is not working.

  3. Overall, this video analysis captures some key ingredients behind emotionally powerful scenes in Race To Nowhere, as well as its adroit use of expert testimony to make the case. But a stronger essay would have credited the external source behind its questioning of homework data. For example, the essay states that “some critics argue that it is misleading,” and points to specific instances of doubling vs. tripling, but readers never learn the source of these criticisms. In future writing, grant credit where it is due.

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