For most driven students, achieving straight As on their report cards is simply not good enough. In this day and age, the pressure for kids to perform well in every aspect of their lives is massive. Students are expected to get amazing grades, be the star of a sports team, have the lead role of the play, and still find time for other hobbies that make them “unique” and set them apart from their peers. Vicki Abeles, a mother with children in elementary and middle school, saw the negative effects that this country’s flawed education system has had on her children and decided to do something about it. Her documentary, “Race to Nowhere”, shows the unbearable stress that takes over the lives of the youth as a result of unrealistic expectations coming from every direction.
“Race to Nowhere” shows the negative consequences of the flaws in schooling and pressure from parents. Hours upon hours of homework cause sleep deprivation, severe stress, and mental and emotional problems. The pressure from parents to achieve perfection leads kids to resort to cheating and cramming for tests. In schools that only value the grades on tests, students merely spit out memorized information and forget it all the second the test is over. One teacher, Darrick Smith, points out that the pressure for students to produce leaves out the processing of the information (Race to Nowhere, 41:10). Students are not truly learning, and teachers are not helping students harness their ability to critically think and be creative. Vicki Abeles addresses all these problems in her documentary by following the experiences of her own children as well as interviewing students, teachers, parents, employers, and psychologists. She features students of all ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses and focuses on the stories of several students that were held back by some of these problems. Her own children have so much homework that they get headaches, lack sleep, and have no free time to play outside or hangout with friends. Other students in the film suffered from eating disorders and emotional breakdowns, had to quit playing sports, and one young girl even went as far as committing suicide. Abele stresses the need for significant change within schools as well as a change in the way parents approach their children.
“Race to Nowhere” is Abele’s attempt at starting an educational revolution. She sends the message that this country needs to wake up and realize that their children are being emotionally and mentally damaged by this faulty school system, and more focus must be put on fostering happiness, creativity, and critical thinking skills within each individual. Some of the most crucial scenes in the film really emphasize this emotional damage. For instance, a 13-year-old girl named Devon commit suicide because of the intolerable internal pressure she placed on herself to excel in her life. Abele interviews Devon’s mother, who chokes up as she blames the suicide on “a stupid math test” that Devon had recently failed. Abele fills the screen with pictures of this vibrant, young girl while a mournful piano is playing the background.
A similar scene occurs when a psychologist gives a testimony about a girl who came into her office wearing a long sleeved shirt and pulls up one of the sleeves to show that she had carved the word “empty” in her arm with a razor (16:10). The psychologist describes how so many adolescents appear happy and put together but they are metaphorically, and sometimes literally, bleeding underneath it all. These scenes shows the vital need to keep children emotionally stable by lightening their load and taking off pressure to perform, because it can have extreme consequences if something doesn’t change. One teacher, Darrick Smith, memorably notes that parents are always confused as to why their child is experiencing emotional problems because he or she is a “good kid”, but he remarks “No, they’re a good performer. You never knew if they were a good kid. You never found out if they were a good solid kid. You knew they were a good student” (Race to Nowhere, 59:30).
At the end of the documentary, Abele lists way for students, parents, and teachers to improve the educational experiences of students. She notes that parents should not add pressure to their children and focus more on their happiness by creating family time and reiterating the importance of play. Instead of piling on hours of homework each night, Abele suggests that teachers should assign less homework to leave room for students’ family time and play, which would significantly improve children’s emotional wellbeing. She also suggests that teachers find alternative methods of evaluating students besides tests and to encourage students to have more of a voice within the classroom (Race to Nowhere, 1:22:50). More schools should be modeled after the Blue School, which institutes those methods of learning and allows children to be creative and think freely without tests and hours of homework. However, Abele does not really offer many more solutions or alternatives to testing. She states that there should be alternatives, but does not pinpoint any strategies. She also does not mention any specific policy actions for viewers to participate in, besides simply attending school board or policy meetings.
According to an interview with Abele conducted by John Merrow, the documentary was intended to be viewed by all parents, students, and educators in order to spread the word and create a new atmosphere of learning. This film has been widely recognized by its targeted audience, and these viewers have made the film popular by word of mouth, as the film has no commercial distributor. Abele claims that “this isn’t just a film; it’s a grassroots phenomenon” (Merrow).
Merrow, John. “‘Race to Nowhere:’ It’s No ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’, ‘ but It’s Honest.”The Huffington Post. N.p., 10 June 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2010. Web.
The 2009 documentary, A Race to Nowhere, was the brainchild of movie director/protective parent/concerned citizen, Vicki Abeles. The film contains a powerful combination of “expert” interviews and emotional vignettes to convince viewers of the dangers of putting students under too much scholastic pressure. We meet a high school girl who starves herself to stay up and do homework, ultimately resulting in her admittance to a psychiatric hospital for anorexia. Depression, stomach pains, and headaches are the tip of the iceberg for the students depicted in Race to Nowhere. In the beginning of the film, the director discusses her own children’s struggle with anxiety induced illness. According to the film’s website, “[Race to Nowhere] reveals an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired”. Throughout the film, the audience is shown one tragic case after another to expose the harmful side effects of America’s obsession with achievement and performance.
The film makers of Race to Nowhere pulled out all the stops to ensure that this documentary tugged at the heart strings. Anxious about their future’s dependence upon their academic performance, the desperate students in the film took prescription drugs, starved themselves, and stayed up all night to make the grade. The film portrayed students as victims of the system and framed parents as helpless bystanders. The selected interviews and imagery in the film were incredibly emotional. There were several scenes that showed the poor overworked students in emotional distress.
Ten year old Zachary and his mother were the most difficult for me to watch. In one scene, Zach is sitting at the kitchen table slaving away and obviously stressed. He twirls the pencil through his red curly hair as he tells his mother about the consequences of giving an incorrect response to his homework [00:38:23]. Zachary fearfully warns his mother, “If we forget this mom or if I do a different one, then we are going to get in trouble. Then we lose five minutes of recess.” The way this scene is structured makes taking recess away from a child facing adult-like pressure to perform seem like a crime. The film paints a clear picture of victims and villains.
To go a step farther in the fight against homework, Race to Nowhere had several experts whom stated that homework is detrimental to the long term mental, social, and intellectual success of students. An AP science teacher says that when he cut student’s homework load in half they scored better on the AP test. If that doesn’t move you to ban homework everywhere, watch as an incredibly passionate English teacher cries on camera as she talks about how the pressure of performance is making it impossible for her to teach her students valuable critical thinking skills [00:34:19].
The most critical point of the film was the final scene. In the closing frames, viewers learn that the film is dedicated to young Devon Martin who took her own life, because of a poor math grade. The film closes with her picture and several frames containing advice for everyone from parents to students to teacher to school administrators. This is definitely a call to community action on behalf of children who the films claims are being robbed of their childhoods.
One thing that troubled me was the omission of the driving force behind the culture of competition and achievement. Teachers are not giving ridiculous amounts of homework, because they love grading papers. They are facing the same pressure to perform that their students are facing. A variety of teacher interviews would have made the arguments presented in the film more credible.
If ending homework is the way to improve student’s experiences in education, it would have been nice to hear from the principal in Wyoming that chose to do away with homework altogether. Education reformers are constantly discussing a lack of challenging curriculum for students. In this documentary, we did not hear any thoughts from those responsible for creating school curriculum. No current school administrators were consulted to shed some light on why they feel homework is an important part of school education. I also find it odd that of all the families featured in the film, there was not one that was grateful for the extra time, effort, and attention teachers were putting into creating such challenging coursework. There is obviously some benefit to a rigorous academic curriculum. This documentary only presents information that will garner support for the filmmakers’ mission to change the way student success in education is evaluated.
 “About the Film.” Race to Nowhere:Leveraging the Power of Community to Transform Education. Reel Link Films, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
 Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2010. Web.
“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)
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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]
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.
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:
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.
* 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.