The Race to Nowhere

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The film “Race to Nowhere” was originally made because of Vicki Abeles’ concern for her own children after a thirteen year old girl committed suicide because of her schoolwork. The tragedy that was Devon Marvin’s death caused this mother to think more critically about her own children’s experiences in school. It takes a thoughtful and provocative look at the American educational system, why kids are under such stress, and asking the question “is it even paying off?” The answer, according to the movie, is absolutely not. “Race to Nowhere” chronicles the stories of many young people in the school system, some of which have had mental illness as well as physical manifestations of their extreme stress. It also interviews teachers and education reformers, questioning them on their thoughts on the system currently in place and, more importantly, how we can fix this disastrous problem.

The filmmakers of “Race to Nowhere” do not pinpoint one specific problem in the educational system, because every interviewee has a different idea of what that problem is. Some think the problem is too much homework while others believe it is the overemphasis of Advanced Placement courses. Different interviews in the film focus on different ages of children. There are problems in the film that are specific to elementary school children, or middle or high school students. However, the generally agreed upon issue is that there is an overarching theme of extreme pressure placed on students which causes an excessive amount of stress. This stress results in both mental illness and physical illness. One nineteen year old, Natalie, describes her experience with Anorexia Nervosa (Abeles 13:45). She cites the reasoning for the onset of her eating disorder as it giving her insomnia, which translated into having more time for homework. Her eating disorder became so severe that she was asked to leave her school, but decided to get her GED instead of dealing with the process of transferring. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that most negative behaviors, such as eating disorders, are usually caused by stress (Abeles 15:09). These physical manifestations can also be seen in the countless reports of stress induced headaches and stomachaches from children starting at an early age. The second, but less emphasized problem was the fact that despite the pressure placed on children, we are still being outperformed by a number of different countries. The desired goal of the filmmakers is to create an educational system that emphasizes learning and the process of learning rather than just grades and tests. This system would allow students to think creatively and be invested in their own learning. It would also produce happier children that were healthier mentally as well as physically.

By doing things like eliminating homework, the SATs, and even abolishing grading, the hope would be that students would genuinely want to go to school to learn, and that would therefore increase their performance. Jay Chugh, a teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, cut the assigned homework for his Advanced Biology course in half one year. The results of the AP tests were actually higher than any other year (Abeles 26:00.) This shows the necessity to reassess how we think students learn and question the hours and hours of homework assigned to high school kids every night. “Stop Homework,” which was founded by Sara Bennett (also interviewed in the film) makes a very strong case against homework. According to the foundation, countries like Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic assign very small amounts of homework, but are still among the highest scoring countries on performance tests. In addition, a study done at Duke University showed that there was “very little correlation” between the amounts of homework assigned to students and their performance in elementary school and middle school, and in high school it was found that too much homework caused more harm than good.[1]

One critic of the film, Washington Post writer Jay Matthews, argues with Abeles, saying that as opposed to too much homework, students are receiving too little. He also complains that the film focuses “not on data but feelings.” He also disagrees that low-income students face large amounts of academic pressure.[2] This complaint is in response to a scene in “Race to Nowhere” where a character named Isaiah discusses his specialized struggles as a high school student living below the poverty line (Abeles 44:00). Isaiah’s interview pans his apartment, showing how poor his living conditions Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.36.09 PMare. Isaiah describes his massive amounts of homework, as well as the pressure he feels to rise above his neighborhood. He says that his counselor told him he needed to take Advanced level courses if he wanted colleges to even look at giving him scholarships. He took Advanced Environmental Science and received a D (Abeles 44:54). He also sites that he cheated multiple times throughout his college career to cope with his stress (Abeles 45:00). This scene shows that even in urban, impoverished schools, students are still getting a lot of work and are under an incredible amount of pressure.

Just as there are many different problems brought up in the film, there are also many goals. The main two, however, are the improvement of the well being of children, as well as the increased performance of students. The policy chain in this movie can also be confusing because everyone has a different opinion. Education reformers and teacher bring different ideas to the table on how to improve our educational system. For families, Abeles says that, as a parent, she has begun asking her children less about school work, and creating conversation in other ways (1:13). Dr. Deborah Stipek, Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, tells us that there is no easy fix for our system, but that we need to fundamentally change our culture and our expectations of students (Abeles 1:16.) Reformers like Sara Bennett suggest eliminating homework, or even abolishing grading, because of an ethical responsibility for the well being of our nations children (Abeles 1:16). Dr. Madeline Levine commends schools for eliminating Advanced Placement courses and colleges for changing the way they require SAT scores (Abeles 1:17).  The hope through all of these actions is that students will have less work, and will therefore be less stressed and will enjoy school more. Through this, they would be more invested in their learning and their performance would improve.


[1] Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. The Case against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do about It. New York: Crown, 2006. Print.


[2] Mathews, Jay. “Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ Documentary Is Wrong.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.


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 (  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.” 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.” Reggio Magnet School of the Arts,  Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

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


The Regression of Learning in A Race to Nowhere

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The past decade and a half has seen a wholesale reconstruction within the American education system. Documentary, Race to Nowhere, draws upon this shift to explain the recent decline of critical thinking among students across the United States, and as reasoning for the emotional crisis many are dealing with when attempting to meet the demands of new collegiate expectations.

Overworked students (1:05:31) Race to Nowhere
Overworked students (1:05:31) Race to Nowhere

Filmmaker and speaker, Vicki Abeles, introduces her documentary by explaining her personal ties to the recurrent schooling epidemic in America today. She introduces herself as a mother of three children, one of whom is a thirteen-year old girl named Jamie who is experiencing the psychological brunt of the stressors within the current educational system, primarily in its focus on testing performance. Through interviews and personal accounts, it becomes clear that it isn’t just the pursuit of academic success that produces the anxiety for Jamie, but arises from further expectations of success from a slew of extra-curricular activities as well. Abeles links her child’s emotional turmoil with that of other American teenagers’ by analyzing personal narratives from teenage students across the country. By doing this, she guides the viewers through the post-No Child Left Behind transgression of learning in the American school system.

George Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind (0:28:14) Race to Nowhere
George Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind (0:28:14) Race to Nowhere

Abeles uses one teacher’s account to highlight the primary issue behind her argument. Teacher, Emma Batten-Bowman explains how “things that actually get our students to think are pushed aside” (Abeles et al, 0:00:53), so that the primary focus becomes testing performance. With a legislatively produced financial incentive in the back of the minds of many teachers, it becomes almost impossible to divert from the curriculum revolving around test taking. Teacher, Susan Kaplan, exposes a common trend among educators by commenting, “we’re told either you do it or you don’t have a job…we went along with it because our bonus money was based on test scores”(Abeles et al, 0:29:50). What we see arise from this are teachers who devote less time to outside imaginative learning experiences, like project-based learning, and more to performance-based instruction. The result, as Abeles explains it, is an “education system [that is] a mile wide and an edge deep”(Abeles et al, 0:48:45).

While trying to comply with the rising requirements and expectations among collegiate institutions, many students “push to do more” (Abeles et al, 0:09:50), causing the rise in both depression and anxiety in our children today.  Evidence of this internal “push” can be seen through the recent increases in cheating among students. Denise Pope, Ph.D. refers to one study, which found that “less than three percent of 5,000 students have never cheated”(Abeles, 0:41:50). This means that out of 5,000 students, a whopping 4,850 have cheated at some point during their schooling career. Our students’ recent reliance on cheats helps unveil, not only the tremendous pressure they are under today, but the lengths they will take to evoke the idea that they truly can balance it all. As Pope explains, “the pressure on them is so great that they feel they need to get the grade, by hook or by crook” (Abeles, 0:42:39), and in this way, are willing to compromise their moral standards in order to fulfill collegiate expectations.

Through filming student accounts, Abeles furthers her argument when explaining the emotional toll many experience in an effort to juggle it all. One student, Jacqueline explains that “now it is all about preparing yourself to look good for colleges” (Abeles et al, 0:08:05) and is much less about an interest in the actual experience of learning. Another student builds upon this by explaining, “I’m not thinking about the meaning of any of this. I’m just thinking about how to get it done” (Abeles et al, 0:48:30). Abeles explains that these stressors, associated with rising collegiate admission requirements, goes beyond the student and effects the emotional sanity of the parents as well. One parent expresses it as; “we want the best for [our children], but in the end were just putting pressure on them to be whatever we think they ought to be”(Abeles et al, 0:11:20). Abeles says that it is this focus on the need to do it all, especially in testing performance, that creates anxiety and pressure among our youth, and is reason for the rise in depression, cheating, and decline in critical thinking among students.

When focusing on the personal accounts of the students interviewed in this film, a great deal is revealed about the conditions of their mental state. One student, Ally, is

Ally remembers the pressure and struggle (1:01:05) Race to Nowhere
Ally remembers the pressure and struggle. (1:01:05) Race to Nowhere

concentrated on in particular during a scene that exemplifies the effect that academic pressure can cause adolescents. During this scene, filmmakers shot both Ally’s personal recollection of the events, in addition to flashback scenes, which helped guide the viewer and allow them to further connect to Ally’s experience. During her narrative, Ally recounts both her athletic and academic strength as a younger student during her developmental years, something that was going to win her an academic honors diploma by the time she graduated high school. With her honors diploma on the line, Ally spoke of the intensity with which she focused on her grades, something that eventually led to an emotional collapse. Ally retold the story of the bad test grade she received in her math class. With little help from her teacher, the grade could not be redeemed, and she ended up failing the class, loosing her candidacy for the academic honors diploma. This loss overwhelmed her to the point that she stopped trying, her reasoning being “if you don’t try, you can never fail” (Abeles et al, 1:00:50). She said that it became “hard for [her] to get up in the morning” (Abeles et al, 1:01:00), and when she stopped attending school, her mother checked her into a stress center. Ally, once a successfully thriving academic, became so entranced by performance, that one poor grade led her to a personal breakdown. The severity to Ally’s experience speaks volumes to the extremities children are facing today when trying to cope with all that is expected of them in their quest for success.

Abeles recommends that one resolution to the problems associated with mass knowledge-based testing (and its link to a decline in critical thinking) is a reduction in assigned homework. On the website for the campaign, entitled Race to Nowhere, Abeles furthers her stress on the limited “relationship between homework and school achievement.” In the film, Abeles expands on this idea when interviewing Sara Bennett, author of “The Case Against Homework”, who asserts that “homework is not going to make our kids any smarter”(Abeles et al, 0:26:55). This policy chain, however, is one that is difficult for many to get on board with. One critic of the film expressed his discontent with Abeles suggestion during one Washington Post newspaper review. Here, critic Jay Mathews responded to the no-homework proposal by stating “Abeles says she wants more authentic learning and imaginative teaching. That is the approach taken by imaginative urban educators like Deborah Meier, but it still requires significant homework”(Mathews). Here, Mathews brings up a crucial flaw in Abeles’ argument by explaining that even the most engaging of learning requires outside schoolwork as well.

Through use of direct narratives from students, parents, and education professionals alike, Abeles asserts the presence of an overpowering desire to succumb to the government-generated definition of intellect. This intellect, she explains, is measured through national standardized testing, a gauge that isn’t fully representative of the potential of an individual. Still though, we put so much emphasis on these types of tests that we become obsessive in our preparation for them. The result, she explains, is not only the deterioration of our student’s ability to think critically, but their emotional stability as well.

Works Cited:

““A Call to Mobilize Families, Educators and Policymakers to Help Disprove the Notion That the Educational System Is ‘one-size-fits-all.’”Race to Nowhere.Web. <>.

Mathews, Jay. “Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ Documentary Is Wrong.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <>.

Race to Nowhere. Dir. Jessica Congdon. Prod. Dir. Vicki Abeles. 2009. Documentary.