MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Nowhere

By now it seems we have all reviewed Waiting for Superman, but what’s surprising is that WFS is just one of four or five movies about education now out. A few weeks ago I reviewed WFS, and now I’ve decided to review the rest of them, beginning with Race to Nowhere, the 2009 film made by first-time director (and angry parent) Vicki Abeles.

Race to Nowhere is a film about how schools and parental pressure are affecting students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. WFS portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite—that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally.

On one level, the title is unfortunate because it seems to be playing off the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” which in itself is playing off a common criticism of George W. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ law that many believe created a “Race to the Bottom.”

However, Race to Nowhere, came first, according to the filmmaker. Sure enough, a young man uses the phrase to describe what high school seems like to him and, by extension, to just about all of the kids in the film. While No Child Left Behind is one of the villains of the film, there’s no mention of “Race to the Top” and the billions of dollars that have just been awarded to the competition’s winners.

Some moments in Race to Nowhere just jump off the screen. One that I found particularly compelling: a young woman speaking on a panel asks her audience to identify the worst question a parent can ask his or her child. Turns out, she says, it’s a one-word question. Just “And?” As in this circumstance:

Child: “I’m taking three honors courses.”
Parent: “And?”
Child: “Well, I have the lead in the school play.”
Parent: “And?”
Child: “I made the volleyball team.”
Parent: “And?”

You get the picture. The parents are never satisfied, and the child can never relax. Life for these students is nothing but stress and unrealistic expectations. The world the film conjures up is all too familiar: students are expected to perform and produce but aren’t given time to play.

In another chilling sequence, a school counselor relates a conversation he says he’s had often: After a child has collapsed from stress, the parent says that he doesn’t understand because “she’s a good kid.” No, the counselor replies, She’s a good performer; you don’t know whether she’s a good kid or not.

Later a teacher relates a family story. His father works at a mental health facility near a university and always knows when exams are approaching—because the place fills up with students!

Stanford’s Deborah Stipek provides eloquent testimony about the effect of grade grubbing on genuine learning. After her own daughter completed her French Advanced Placement exam, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Now I never have to speak French again,” she told her mother.

Race to Nowhere is also Vicki Abeles’ personal story, detailing her realization that her own children were suffering, emotionally and physically. That is the reason, she told me, that she made the film in the first place.

Race to Nowhere is unrelenting, piling on problem after problem. Hours of homework produce unbearable stress; stress produces cheating, cramming to pass tests and then forgetting everything; that false learning then means remediation when they get to college; and, on rare occasions, students kill themselves.

In my 35 years of reporting for NPR and PBS, I have covered these issues more times than I care to remember. In the late 70’s I spent several weeks in mental institutions for children and met kids like those in this movie. In the late 80’s I reported on adolescent suicide for what was then called The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, a segment that still wakes me up in the middle of the night from time to time. And in 1995 we produced “A.D.D: A Dubious Diagnosis?” for PBS and saw some of the same pressures being put on kids. I promise you that this movie is telling the truth.

Race to Nowhere spreads the blame around: No Child Left Behind, bubble tests, too much mind-numbing homework and—yes—parents who are more concerned with their own social status than with the health and well being of their children. One counselor recalls hearing mothers at a mall boasting about how well their children are doing, adding that she knows better because she is treating their kids.

Race to Nowhere conveys important messages with power: Our obsession with test scores is dangerous and counterproductive. When parents and schools treat young people like automatons, they not only kill their childhood, but they are not preparing them to lead healthy adult lives. In what is almost a throwaway moment, one employer says that these young adults make lousy employees because they’re always waiting to be told what to do. Throwaway or not, it’s shockingly effective.

As a movie, Race to Nowhere is—unfortunately–depressingly linear, which means that, at the end of the day, it’s not a great film. When in about the 68th minute of the 85 minute movie we are finally taken to an alternative to the rat race, a joyous school started by Blue Man Group, I wanted to stand up and cheer. A veteran filmmaker would have known to stop and start, and to mix the gloom with some cheer. In more experienced hands, we would have been taken to that happy place early, just so we would understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Ms. Abeles indicated that she’s no longer searching for a commercial distributor for Race to Nowhere, after one promising deal fell through. To quote her directly, “We are proceeding with a hybrid distribution model, screening the film in hundreds of locations including over 70 theaters and schools. There are thousands of requests we are responding to because this film is speaking to millions of parents, educators, and students. This isn’t just a film; it’s a grassroots phenomenon.”  I hope she’s right because her approach is both appropriate and brilliant, in my view, because that’s the central message of the movie: what we are doing to our children, in school and at home, is harmful to their mental and physical health.

In our conversation a few days ago, Ms Abeles, a Californian and a lawyer, opined that the title for some raises concerns. “Some people seem to assume that we are attacking Race to the Top, but we came first.” I asked her if she’d consider changing the name, just to make it easier to find an audience? “We have been talking about that,” she said, but added that they were reluctant because the movie was finding an audience based on word-to-mouth. When I spoke to Abeles last week, she indicated it has been challenging to get the kind of coverage supporters of the film are hoping for because “big media, corporate interests and money are driving the current discourse around education in this country.”

I wish Race to Nowhere were as good a movie as Waiting for Superman. It’s not, unfortunately, but Race to Nowhere is honest, and that counts for a lot in my book. The film is screening at select locations nationally–I urge you to see it if it’s playing near you–or you can request and schedule a screening in your area. This film’s message should be taken to heart.

Race to Nowhere [Official website]

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15 Responses to “MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Nowhere

  1. Joe Nathan 05. Oct, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    Thanks for this info, John. One of the important roles you play is helping to share information about valuable, exciting things that other folks are doing.

    Parenting is a problem. Too many middle and upper income parents don’t know how to do it well. Sounds like that is one of the themes of the movie. And if the movie presents positive examples of parenting, that’s helpful.

    We’ve tried a few times to promote a state law providing funding to help parents of teenagers get together to discuss how they can be more effective with their youngsters. So far, no luck although the idea was popular with legislators.

    Anyway, sounds like a valuable film. I hope lots of people see it.

    • Gj 19. Nov, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

      You want to promote better parenting? How about doing more to create a society that doesn’t require two working parents to just get by? Or returning to and 8 hour work day? Lunch included so that parents leave work by five each day instead of six? I am sick of pundits talking about families are failing their kids while simultaneously saying working class families are lazy and need to work more in order to compete with foriegn workers You can’t have it both ways! You want stronger families? Then return to a society that values workers and families and structure work hours to allow parents more time with their kids.

  2. KitchenSink 05. Oct, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    I think we are talking about two different races here.

    The Race to the Top likely celebrated by WFS supporters is aimed at the students who are currently not being challenged, the at-risk families at the bottom of the educational totem pole. Those kids are dropping out in droves and are not feeling pressure from anyone to pad their college resume with vollyball captainship, let alone getting through high school.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have the hyper-competitive future ruling class, being groomed for the next rat race…to nowhere since we all (should) know that money and power do not in fact buy happiness.

    The central fact is that our current state of public education, along with the attendant socioeconomic/meritocratic factors, is driving the extremes of our class divide farther apart rather than closer together. Dare I say (without having yet seen either film) that both are correct in their analysis?

  3. Anne Petersen 06. Oct, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    Thanks John! Very interesting and useful! Your work continues to be so thoughtful and important. Congratulations!!

  4. jay featherstone 06. Oct, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Haven’s seen this film yet, but it certainly is an important topic. Why is it so hard to keep several ideas in mind at the same time? Schools need improving academically, but too many are also unhealthy environments for kids. Testism and the metaphor of education as a “race” with big winners and big losers are symptoms of something awry with the estate of US childhood. jf

  5. John Merrow 06. Oct, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    At Learning Matters we are now developing a series for the NewsHour about successful schools that don’t fit WFS’s very limited category. Suggestion welcome!!
    In my head I am wrestling with two adjectives that I think may be appropriate for what’s going on now: “marginal” and “meaningful.” Seems to me that the powers in public education are fighting the last war, pushing hard for what really is marginal education–higher scores on tests that may not measure much that is important. ‘Meaningful education’ may be like pornography–you know it when you see it.
    I write about this in Below C Level, which I hope many of you will go to Amazon and at least sample–and maybe even buy!

  6. Joe Nathan 07. Oct, 2010 at 5:50 am #

    John, I am glad you are interested in finding schools that are succeeding. But there are schools like YES PRep that do a lot with youth/community service and have steadiliy improving est scores. Some of the best KIPP schools have great music programs and high test scores. It is not one or the other.
    Again, I’m glad you are lo
    oking for a broader variety of successful schools. But I don’t think traditional tests are one, not the only, but one useful way to measure what students are learning. I would not totally reject them.

  7. Kerry Dickinson 18. Oct, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Thanks for reviewing Race to Nowhere. I write a blog about education and parenting called East Bay Homework Blog and I am also on the Advisory Board for Race To Nowhere. I recently blogged about both Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman in case you or any of your readers are interested. I agree that folks should see as many educational documentaries as possible if they have school age children or are educators.

  8. Shan Burton 04. Nov, 2010 at 6:31 am #

    The stories in this movie make me profoundly grateful to have found unschooling for our children. They are insatiably curious, have diverse passions, and learn as naturally as they breathe. Best of all, they are emotionally secure, with a close family and a wide network of friends of all ages, They are happy and intrinsically motivated to challenge themselves. Today alone, there was, in no particular order: measuring themselves; working on a frog drawing for a cousin’s birthday gift; several shows and portions of shows on PBS Kids (favorites are Word Girl, Fetch!, Dinosaur Train, The Electric Company, Martha Speaks!, Word World, and Sid the Science Kid); a National Geographic Kids documentary about dinosaurs; walking on the road; biking; blowing milkweed seeds; playing mahjonng and squares; practicing writing letters, numbers and words on a magnetic board for my 6yo daughter; a trip through the fifth grade curriculum (math, science, geography, US and World History, English) for my 9yo son, via Cluefinders 5th Grade; changing the desktop picture on their computer and moving icons; more measuring; The Simpsons and Family Guy; watching animated cut paper art on YouTube; free play throughout the house; making animations and sound effects on Scratch. a program developed by MIT students; preparing food; snuggling; hugging; fighting (a little); laughing together (a lot); looking through old photos and art; planning their cousins’ gifts; walking the dog; searching for books with pictures of frogs to use as drawing models; more writing “rain forest”; watching the parent-oriented tutorial for the fifth grade games; researching things they’d like for Christmas; much conversation about items as diverse as clogged toilets and Catholicism; watching Star Trek: The Next Generation,as a family; and more that slips my mind, at the moment.

    All of these activities were at their own initiation. No pressure, no pushing, no expectation from their parents other than that they not infringe upon others’ rights or jeopardize safety.

    Children don’t need to be coerced to explore their world; they need to be given the freedom to do so in the manner that most appeals to them – and if they are, they can astonish with what they will attempt!

  9. Adrian 08. Nov, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    I disagree with – what I understand to be – the message of the movie. All too often the education system does _not_ challenge students. I have yet to see serious homework, or serious demands on kids. Let them be kids? Duh, but when will they become productive members of society? Oh, we don’t need to produce those, because we have immigration from China and India, right? Schools should educate kids. Challenge them, demand performance from them. That’s why they are schools. They are not social clubs. If we allow the schools to ‘not stress’ the kids, we as a nation will always be underachievers. Yeah, some kids fail in a rigorous environment. Some kids need to go into therapy, others kill themselves. Obviously those are not made for school. I’m fine with dropping them out or losing them however it happens. For the majority rest, let the school be school!

  10. Kevin 16. Dec, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    Thank you for the review of this movie. This is so timely, but I suspect that we are dancing around the more critical and uncomfortable issues related to the false values and decay of our larger culture. I know teachers who are incredibly committed and gifted and work every day with students who come to school woefully unprepared to learn. When our families send ill-prepared kids to school, it is no wonder that chaotic conditions result. I am hoping that the “blame the teacher” mindset (they make such easy targets because we avoid the real issues which include personal responsibility) will get derailed by a willingness by our country to face up to the dead-end values of consumerism, the worship of celebrity, and the reality that we are destined to become to China what Mexico is now to us.

  11. Carl Bergemann 10. Feb, 2011 at 4:26 am #

    As a community college instructor in Colorado, I view Race to Nowhere as a wakeup call. For the past 20 years, students have been pushed into “Gifted/Honors” or AP classes in the hopes that such activity would provide them an edge when applying for prestigeous colleges and universities. Recently, the Community College of Colorado System has introduced a College Ready program, awarding college credit to students in high school. These courses are taught by their regular high school teachers with limited oversight from the colleges.

    Now, it will no longer be adequate to be “Gifted/Honors”, or to have taken AP classes. The new standard will soon be that graduating high schoolers must also have earned college credits during their high school experience. Where will this madness stop?

    College Ready, as structured in Colorado, does not require a competency exam upon completing the college course in the high schools. The high school instructors teaching these college courses often have no real-world experience in the discipline being taught, and in at least one instance that I have seen, barely passed the single college course in the subject that they are now teaching.

    Yes, this is a runaway train and administrators continue to pour fuel into the mix. It will truly take Superman to reform this new standard, but I have yet to see any hopeful candidate make the necessary difference.

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