Race to Nowhere: Illuminating a Problem, Still Searching For Solutions

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In their 2009 Documentary Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon paint a startling image of today’s school system in America.  Rather than helping children to learn and to find themselves, Abeles and Congdon argue that the pressures of school are making our kids unhealthy, teaching them to cut corners, and failing to actually help students learn and grow.  They identify different pressures that children endure at both at home and in school, yet find it harder to point to solutions that are both realistic and effective.  While Abeles and Congdon point accurately to unhealthy pressures that the school system places on children, they have mixed success in proposing solutions, falling short on specificity and practicality.

Abeles and Congdon point to parents and home life as one source of unhealthy stress that school-age children endure.  Rick Simon, principal of the Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY, observes a pressure on children born into wealth to match or exceed the financial success of their parents.  He says, “We’re a New York City suburb, [with] high-powered parents who are very competitive themselves…they want to talk about how their kid is going to Harvard or the equivalent, and I worry about what happens when their kid isn’t going in that direction” (Abeles, et al. 0:06).  Students, intentionally or not, are made to feel as though their happiness later in life rides entirely on their perfection in school.  In the race to our best colleges and universities, the pressure students feel at home goes beyond academics.  Parents insist that achievement requires a range of extracurricular successes, including sports, clubs, the arts, and community service.  In a forum on stress, Jessica, a senior at Carondelet High School in California says that “everyone expects us to be superheroes,” pointing to the unrealistic ideal that students our held to, which ultimately harming their wellbeing (0:09).  When asked about the pressure that they place on their children, the parents interviewed by Abeles and Congdon report that they are simply relaying the stresses that they experience from peers and schools.  Stacy Kadesh, a parent and private college counselor, admits, “Even though we know we shouldn’t be pushing our kids, inadvertently, we are…I’m also feeling the pressure that they need to work really, really hard” (0:10).  In the blog on Race to Nowhere’s companion website, Abeles references an article by clinical psychologist Jeff Mitchell where he refers to this irrational fear and pressure as “Havard or Walmart Syndrome” (Abeles).  In his paper on the subject, Mitchell describes the syndrome by saying, “This is a societal disease, a virus of an idea that has spread through the LinkedIn generation and its children.  It is a conviction, stark and unforgiving, that one’s children will either (1) get into Harvard or (2) spend their lives working for Walmart” (Mitchell).  In proposing means by which to remediate the unhealthy stress children experience at home, Abeles and Congdon implicitly concede that there is little parents can do, other than be loving supporters of their children, without drastic changes to how our schools work.

Students feel tremendous pressure to get into top colleges Race to Nowhere (0:37)
Students feel tremendous pressure to get into top colleges
Race to Nowhere (0:37)

Race to Nowhere illuminates the negatives effects of the overwhelming volume of work children receive, as well as the pressure to achieve, at primary and secondary schools.  Darrick Smith, a teacher in Oakland, CA, views the unforgiving regiment of work and extracurriculars imposed on kids as misguided, saying, “when you have students that have three, four hours of homework, after [sports] practice or work…and their whole future is on the line, at that moment, its no longer about learning” (Abeles, et al. 0:23).  Abeles and Congdon make the argument that our insistence to driving every student to be perfect is leading to a failure on the part of schools to actually educate kids.  Race to Nowhere emphasizes unrealistic expectations as a leading cause of this failure of schools, as well as of student stress.  Stacy Kadesh says, “We are teaching the majority of our kids as if they are in the top 2%” (0:37), and psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD expanded on this by saying, “Every kid is expected to by [going to top colleges] and that’s just not the way it works, there’s a bell curve…smart has many different definitions” (0:39).  Levine makes an important point through her connection between unrealistic expectations and our narrow definition of academic success.  Abeles and Congdon argue that our measures of success do a disservice to a wide range of students.  Carmel, Indiana student Allison told Abeles and Congdon that she is, “very disappointed that there’s no artistic, right-brain kind of measurement of success” (1:02).  Abeles and Congdon make persuasive claims as to how are schools are making our kids unhealthy and unprepared, but find that practical solutions are difficult to achieve.

Race to Nowhere provides recommendations to administrators Race to Nowhere (1:23)
Race to Nowhere provides recommendations to administrators
Race to Nowhere (1:23)

While some of their solutions are effective, many of the proposals made by Abeles and Congdon fall short in terms of practicality.  In the end of the film, they use the Blue School in New York City as a model of effective schooling.  While the Blue School makes effective use of pedagogical theories such as Reggio Emilia and Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1:14), the school’s annual tuition of over $34,000 demonstrates that this sort of learning environment is often unattainable for many students (blueschool.org).  While tuition-free schools that use the Reggio Emilia model of alternative learning and student respect are emerging (for example, CREC has a Reggio Magnet elementary school in Avon, CT) (Smith), sweeping reforms to education such as Reggio Emilia have historically tended to create more problems then they solve if they are misguided in their implementation.  In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch conveys her wariness of reform movements, writing, “The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers…we will, in time, see them as distractions, wrong turns, and lost opportunities” (Ravitch 225).  If a widespread implementation of the Reggio Emilia philosophy in the United States falls into the same traps as countless other reform movements have, I fear that we will end up with a continuation of our current educational failings.

In Race to Nowhere, Abeles and Congdon shed light on the alarming realities of how primary and secondary schools are failing American students.  The cumulative stress students experience from home and school leave them overly stressed and underprepared.  However, Abeles and Congdon’s proposals prove that practical solutions are hard to find.  They promote the Italian Reggio Emilia philosophy of pedagogy, yet this reform is not only difficult to afford, but is at risk of falling into the same failures as past reforms.  What our students need and deserve is a society that recognizes that financial success isn’t the only route to happiness, and a society that doesn’t rob children of their formative years through stress and homework.

Works Cited:

Abeles, Vicki. “Harvard or Walmart Syndrome.” Web log post. End the Race Blog. Race to Nowhere, 22 May 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Jeff. “Harvard-or-Walmart Syndrome.” Jeffmitchellassociates.com. Jeff Mitchell Associates, Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon. Prod. Vicki Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2009. Online.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Smith, Josephine D. “Principal’s Message.” CRECschools.org. Reggio Magnet School of the Arts,  Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

“Tuition and Tuition Assistance.” Blueschool.org. Blue School, Web. 22 Feb. 2014.


2 thoughts on “Race to Nowhere: Illuminating a Problem, Still Searching For Solutions”

  1. This outlook on the movie Race to Nowhere was quite enlightening in regard to the failing of american students but was also very helpful in the sense of connecting movie theme to class. The connection to Ravitch actually helped me further understand her outlook.

  2. Dear Evan,

    Thank you for your interesting essay! As someone who has not had much exposure to education reform films, it made me want to see “Race to Nowhere” and further explore the genre. I thought that your essay did a good job of summarizing the film so that someone such as myself, who has not seen it, was able to follow. I thought you did a good job outlining the ways in which parental pressure and high workload negatively impact students, but I thought you could have been more analytical and less summarizing in describing the way in which Abeles and Congdon make their argument. You close your first two paragraphs by saying that they “implicitly concede that there is little parents can do,” and that they “make persuasive claims as to how our schools are making our kids unhealthy,” but after reading your paragraphs I was unsure as to how they were being ‘implicit’ or ‘persuasive.’ The evidence you pull from the film is strong, but I think that you should tie it together in a way that is more analytic and less descriptive.

    I thought that it was good that you brought in the Reggio Emilia method, but I wish you had defined it (keeping in mind that some of your readers – like myself – may have never heard of it), and talked about why you fear it will fall into the same trap as other reform movements. I also wish that you would spend some time thinking about an alternative, both to the schools in the film and the Reggio Emilia method. Your concluding sentence is strong, but it brings up a relatively new idea, and I think that it would strengthen your essay if you had suggested some ideas as to how to accomplish this.

    Thank you for your essay, and I look forward to watching the film!


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