The documentary Race to Nowhere is an unusual movie about education. The film’s director, Vicki Abeles, focuses not on stripped education budgets, inferior test scores, or substandard teachers.
Instead she spotlights the most significant aspect in education: the students and how the pressures of schools and parents are producing children who are physically and emotionally ill, disengaged, depressed and burned-out, and who are entering the workplace unprepared and apathetic.
Last Thursday, Aveson Charter School in Altadena hosted a screening of the film for approximately 125 members of the community, the majority of them Aveson parents.
I had eagerly anticipated seeing this film, and while I was not disappointed, I found that the film fell a bit flat towards the end, however, I think it may be due to the complexity of the subject matter and the attempt to streamline it into a comprehensive arrangement. Abeles does an excellent job of presenting the complex variability of stressors our children experience daily.
Driven by the physical ailments her daughter was experiencing due to stress, as diagnosed by her doctor, Abeles interviews children, their parents, educators, medical experts, and policy makers in an effort to understand how our children got this way and how we, the adults, can implement positive change.
Along the way, she discovers children are becoming so overscheduled with hours of homework on top of after-school activities, that they are losing sleep, resorting to stimulants to stay awake, developing eating disorders, becoming depressed, and checking out one way or the other.
Cheating is becoming commonplace and obsession with test scores leaves kids relying on rote memorization, a lack of conceptualization and much of what is learned vacating after testing. When the kids get to college, they need remedial courses in language and math, and we’re talking about UCLA undergrads who have been prepped to test well, but again, lose that knowledge as soon as the testing is completed.
Blame is spread around from parents whose expectations are more than great, to educators whose jobs rely on performance, to administrators who implement the policy.
A very compelling moment in the film was when a woman speaking on a panel asks the audience what the worst word a parent can ask his or her child. She states that it is the one word question, “And?” as in:
Child: “I’m taking three honors courses”
Child: “Well, I have the lead in the school play”
Child: “I made the volleyball team”
Following the film, it was obvious that it had a strong impact on the Aveson viewers, because the entire auditorium burst into chatter.
Kate Bean, Executive Director of Aveson, led the viewers who were able to stay in a discussion about what they had seen in the film.
I was also able to speak with several viewers to get their reaction to the film. One Aveson parent expressed obvious pain at the thought of a child committing suicide over a test, an incident which occurred in the film, and wondered aloud if she would be able to spot something so insidious in her own daughter. Several parents questioned how to know whether they are pressuring or ensuring follow-through.
Heather Varnell, an Aveson parent who attended the screening, said the film should be an “eye opener” for parents across the nation.
“There's a quote from the film that seems to have really stuck with me and encapsulates what I am left feeling, ‘We all have to get off of the treadmill together,’” Varnell said. “As a nation we have to find a way to change the current state of the educational experience for our children. More parents need to see that what has become the norm in schools is NOT normal. The unrealistic as well as developmentally inappropriate expectations of children and the pressure they feel to ‘produce’ rather than truly learn will not leave us with the healthy, motivated, or happy adults all parents hope to raise.”
Another Avenson parent who identified himself as William said that he feels a happy child will learn more, and said that parents need to realize that not every child can be in the top 2 percent of learners.
“It’s unfair for the top 2 percent as well as the other kids when you’re enforcing unobtainable goals,” he said.
He added that the directors were also not pushing a singular solution to the problem, which he approved of.
“What I liked about it more than anything else was that the professionals, including the filmmaker, expressed the same uncertainty as to whether they are pushing too much or not enough [with their own children],” William said. “It’s not a black or white concept, and just getting the dialogue started can help parents assess what they are doing.”
Suzy Goodwine, an Altadena resident who is currently touring elementary schools for her preschooler was not as pleased with the film.
“I really wanted to like this film. I went into the screening convinced that I would be convinced,” Goodwine said. “ I was annoyed enough by the one-note diatribe against the American education system.”
Goodwine went on to say she was “disgusted” by how anorexia and suicide were presented as proof of homework stress and not some other possible problem. She felt the biggest problem was one of narration, that the same point was being repeated and that it could have been “better edited down to 50 minutes for a Frontline episode”
The feelings I had from the film were a bit different. I have read in other reviews that Abeles should have left us feeling uplifted and that the film was too linear and morose. While she presents current move to change, and perhaps she doesn’t follow the typical script for inspirational change, I believe that we should be left with a feeling of discomfort.
We need to know that change doesn’t happen when we wait for others do it, change happens when we become part of the solution. Abeles provides us with ideas to institute that change, whether or not we listen, is to be seen.
In my opinion, schools have no true incentive to change their current policies. It will be up to parental insistence and influence and that handful of exceptional educators that our schools be held accountable for creating these children who are on a race to nowhere.