On a Saturday last winter, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film, “Race to Nowhere” by parent and first-time film maker Vicki Abeles, as part of the Alexandria Film Festival. I wrote a review for AlexandriaNews.org, the majority of which comprises this blog post that for some reason is just now being published. (Um, I birthed a baby on March 7. ;) Race to Nowhere was one of the winners of the festival, receiving the Audience Award. This is one of the most moving, timely and crucial films I have seen. Abeles said in the Letter From the Director, on the film's site: “Race to Nowhere was inspired by a series of wake-up calls that made me look closely at the relentless pressure to perform that children face today. I saw the strain in my children as they navigated days filled with school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities. But it wasn’t until the crisis of my 12-year-old daughter being diagnosed with a stress induced illness that I was determined to do something.” And do something she did.
This film is a great addition to the dialogue in an issue that is a hot topic right now – education reform. Race to Nowhere provides a healthy antidote to many of the current voices on the subject which seem to be missing the point by blaming teachers and still focusing on how to raise test scores. In an era that is still reeling from the effects of No Child Left Behind, what the system really needs is a complete overhaul in not only how we measure success, but the mere definition of the word, as it relates to education and to life. The film echoes my sentiment that what we really need to ask is this – what makes for a successful learning experience? What cultivates a successful – and fulfilled, and happy – human being? Shouldn’t that be the point of educating our loved ones?
One of the experts in the film states, “I’m afraid our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods.” Many children are growing up in a world where every minute of every day is scheduled, and there is little to no down time, time to be bored, time to just be a kid and play. Abeles own daughter Jamey says at one point in the film, “I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to go in the back yard and just run around.”
Countless youth are aware that something is just not right with this formula of get the best grade – participate in as many extracurriculars as possible – so you can get into a good college – so you can get a good job – and make a lot of money. It doesn’t sound so bad, really, as a premise, but at what cost? One of the girls in the film points out that not only do you have to get good grades, but you have to be involved in the arts and play sports, join clubs, and find something unique about yourself so that you stand out when applying for colleges; and that among all of that, you have to figure out who you are, because if you don’t, you’ll lose yourself. At the end of the day, what matters more – how much money you have, or whether you’re truly happy and fulfilled? Abeles herself admits in the film, “Sometimes, parents just need to step back and say, ‘You know what, you’re doing a really good job.’”
Abeles received inspiration for the title of the film when interviewing one of the high school students who commented that students “get caught up in a race to nowhere”. Many students either get caught up in the drive to succeed, and sacrifice everything they can, including their mental, emotional, and physical health, or they tune out, and just decide they don’t care. It’s a Either road often leads to trouble. It’s a widely-known fact, also highlighted in the film, that among the students who do appear to be succeeding, cheating runs rampant. I remember this from my own high school days, 20 years ago.
The film shows that pressure comes from both ends of the spectrum – from highly successful parents who worry that their children won’t be as successful as they are, perhaps higher income parents who want to be able to brag to others about all of the things their child is accomplishing, and from lower-income parents who perhaps never even graduated high school, or never attended college, who not only want better for their children, but demand that the only possible route to college for their kids is to get the best grades so they can get scholarships to attend school. “The pressure comes from the colleges, from the parents, from the government, but it has to stop.”
In the film, the young people who were interviewed were experiencing such pressure to perform and “succeed” that they experienced stress-induced health problems and depression, engaged in food and sleep deprivation so they could stay up well into the night, sometimes all night, to complete their work, used pharmaceuticals to enhance their performance, and in some cases, found themselves institutionalized or hospitalized for eating disorders or mental breakdowns. Parents expressed that the little family time they had to share in the evenings were often filled with conflict and strife, both with their children and their spouses, over homework and grades. And then there is the very serious increasing epidemic of teen suicide. The film was dedicated to a beautiful 13-year-old girl from Abeles’ community (not involved in the movie) who had always been a straight-A student and very successful at all of her endeavors – and several months into the making of the film, committed suicide one weekend, because she was devastated after receiving an F on a math test.
The system at large does not allow for innovation. There is so much pressure on everyone to “succeed”, including the teachers, that they are forced to “teach to the test” because that is the main method by which everyone’s success is being measured. Creativity and individuality, in teachers and students, are sacrificed to protocol. One of the important points of the film is that these rote methods of learning are not promoting problem-solving, not producing critical thinkers. “Our students are pressured to perform; they’re not necessarily pressured to learn conceptually and deeply.” “And what is that going to mean, when we have a whole population of dentists and doctors who have been trained from the script?” One of the teachers in the film, who winds up making the very difficult decision to resign from her job out of frustration with the system, says tearfully, “Things that actually get our students to think are pushed aside.” Matt Goldman, Founder and CEO of the Blue Man Group, and Co-Founder of the Blue School in Manhattan, says, “These kids come to the table with this creativity and this love of learning…. Let’s just not take it out of them!”
The problem is not going to be solved by more rigorous testing, by more drilling of facts that lead to high test scores, by firing teachers in schools that fail to “perform”, by cutting funding in “under-performing” schools, by making teachers feel the pressure of losing their jobs if their students don’t test well, by giving bonuses to those who out-perform others. One of the main messages of the film comes through loud and clear: what we need is a re-definition of success.
As a side note: unfortunately, Obama’s Race to the Top (not directly mentioned in the film), while well-intentioned, is only another piece of the puzzle that is serving to perpetuate the problem. The state of Virginia chose not to participate.
If this is an issue that concerns you, please try to attend, or even host, a screening of this film. Register on the Race to Nowhere website to receive their action points and find out what else you can do, in your life and in your community, to be a part of this movement. There you can also see when & where the next screenings of this film are playing.
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