Written for EDU 413 – Contemporary Issues in Education Policy, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester.
“I think success in America is defined by how much money you make not by how happy you are with your life. That’s just not how it is in other countries. They’re like, ‘Oh, okay so they have a modest living: cool!’ But here it’s like, ‘Okay, so if you don’t earn a lot of money, something went wrong.’”
-Student (Abeles et. al., 2010).
“The common force that drives kids toward so many negative behaviors is stress. It’s coming from schools, it’s coming from colleges, and it’s coming from all of the places that it’s always came from during adolescence. Don’t forget: adolescence is a tough time!”
–Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Abeles et. al., 2010).
Vicki Abeles’ 2010 documentary, Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, aggressively cautions against the staggering emotional and psychological effects that have rippled behind contemporary measures of education reform. Positioned within a culture intensely focused on “student achievement” and college admissions, Abeles assembles a defended narrative of stressed and over-pressured kids through interviewing a broad assemblage of students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, and medical personnel. But despite the passionate convictions from interviewees with soppy eyes and the seemingly comprehensive representation of stakeholders in the film, Abeles nonetheless depicts an incomplete explanation of how achievement culture has been manifested in American education.
The message argues that growing measures of accountability, specifically standardized testing and an increased amount of homework, have created additional pressures on children that are resulting in unintended negative effects. Interviewees explain how the pressure to perform has forced teachers to give more homework, decreased the free time students have (including time to sleep), has induced insurmountable stress, and has likewise caused various psychological, emotional, and health concerns from spending less time with friends, to depression, eating disorders, insomnia, self-mutilation, and, in one case, to suicide. John Merrow, reviewing the documentary for the Huffington Post lamented,
“In my thirty-five years of reporting for NPR and PBS, I have covered these issues more times than I care to remember. In the late seventies I spent several weeks in mental institutions for children and met kids like those in this movie. In the late eighties I reported on adolescent suicide…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” (Merrow, 2010).
The problem is aggravated by performance standards for teachers who are increasingly pressured to “teach to the test” and by the enormous pressure placed upon students and their families to get into top tier university programs. Parents arrive at high school orientations and are bombarded with information about college readiness, the college admissions process, Advanced Placement courses, and the necessity of extracurricular activities. One parent concluded, “I guess this is what everyone is going to be doing.” A teacher added that, “We’re all caught up in it, we’re all afraid that our children won’t be as successful as we are. It’s out of love, it’s out of concern, it’s out of fear, it’s out of all of these things that parents normally have.” Echoing the quote preceding this review, role models push students be the best in high school in order to get into a great college so they can land a great job so they can make a lot of money. The connection is sometimes dubious and misguided, but the pressure is very real.
Race to Nowhere warns viewers of the consequences of this phenomenon. Numerous students point out that, “high school is about learning how to pass tests.” With fewer than three percent of students refraining from cheating, it has “become another course,” for many students. The private tutoring industry has boomed in the United States, largely around tests that predict college success such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Notably however, the study in the film referred to students who had never cheated rather than students who regularly cheated and, to be sure, many college admissions offices have in recent years decreased their value of standardized test scores when considering applicants.
Despite these more recent trends, Clinical Psychologist Wendy Mogel regretted that students are trained to always look for the next step, continually focusing on the next level. “We’ve stolen eleventh and twelfth grade from them,” Mogel said. One student, speaking before a forum of peers, commented that the worst question a parent can ask is: “And?” A simple conversation may go:
Student: “I made the honor roll!”
Student: “I’m the President of the Drama Club!”
Student: “I joined the soccer team!”
Conversations like these push successful kids to the brink by continually pressuring them to do more. In the eyes of the student, “Everyone expects us to be superheroes. I think sometimes parents just need to step back and say, ‘you know what, you’re doing a really great job.’”
While Race to Nowhere masterfully layers striking testimonies of students who are increasingly placed under stress, it’s portrayal of homework as a significant factor in the race is perhaps misguided. As Jay Mathews at the Washington Post pointed out, according to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, students age 15-17 spent roughly three and a half hours a day on leisure activities such as watching television while spending only forty-two minutes on homework. When Abeles countered that the study also showed that homework for students aged 6-9 tripled in the 1990s, Mathews replied that the documented increase was (in real terms) only from eight minutes in 1981 to twenty-two minutes in 2003, which is, “less time than watching an episode of Hannah Montana.” The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute similarly found that two-thirds of high school students did less than sixty minutes of homework per night (Mathews, 2011).
Later on in the film, a teacher comments that when teaching a class for the first time, he cut the amount of homework previously assigned in the curriculum in half and saw AP scores increase. Seemingly portraying a causal relationship between decreasing homework and increasing test scores, the film overlooks a much more important variable: the new teacher. Having a higher-quality teacher in the room is far more likely to cause an increase in test scores, regardless of the amount of homework assigned.
Another speaker claims that, “Parents need to educate themselves about the fact that homework is not going to make their kids any smarter.” Without distinguishing between specific goals of assigning homework (i.e. for independent practice, to check for understanding, to introduce to new content, for formative assessment, etc.) or citing any evidence for her case, she continues,
“The schools have our kids for seven hours a day. That should be plenty for them to impart the kind of knowledge that they want to and then the kids should go home and there is so much more to a child’s life than what’s going on in school.”
This is a classic characterization of the “banking model” of education, whereby students are merely “‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (Freire, 2003). Possessing all knowledge, the teacher is the hegemonic authority of the classroom. The teacher teaches and the student are taught. The teacher talks and the students listen. The teacher chooses content and the students comply. Freire (2003) writes, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.” The idea that teachers merely impart knowledge to students is irreconcilable with the types of educational philosophies and models Abeles encourages, such as The Blue School in New York City. While it is admirable to encourage students to spend time away from the books, the film seems to support a “learning is only for school” mindset which is grossing outdated for twenty-first century learners. Furthermore, the film fails to acknowledge how contemporary practices in curriculum development, especially flipped classrooms and blended learning, might negate some of the criticism of homework or how assigning homework as a strategy for engaging parental involvement may be a valuable practice at certain grade levels.
Critics have also mentioned the limited scope of participants in the film. “Most of the families in ‘Race to Nowhere’ are suburban and privileged, and the film has found its audience in those communities where parents often move for excellent schools,” wrote Trip Gabriel in the New York Times (Gabriel, 2010). Indeed, a significant portion of the film’s interviewees are from upper-class suburban neighborhoods in southern California. The narrow group of speakers leaves out the many perspectives of oppressed students who already face significant hurdles to high school completion and college readiness, a group whose race to achievement is undoubtedly more complex.
After documenting the effects of the achievement culture, Race to Nowhere finally (belatedly) begins to address possible ways to turn things around. Cautioning that there are no simple solutions and that many small changes can make a significant difference, the film’s interviewees call for a reform of college admissions expectations, a shift in priorities as parents, and a general change in the culture of achievement. Building on previous claims to decrease homework, Race to Nowhere calls for the education community to rethink achievement and learning. Current incentives align multiple layers of schools and their participants against the actual learning process.
While this theme is accurate and well-received by educators, the film seems to leave specific strategies for post-screening discussion sessions. But to the filmmaker’s credit, copies of the documentary come with a thick 246-page facilitation guide filled with handouts, fact-sheets, planned audience activities, sample surveys, and answers to frequently asked questions. If the film falls short of advocating specific policy solutions, it nevertheless provides facilitators at the local level with the necessary guidance to begin brainstorming solutions that would best-fit the needs of their districts, which has been a common theme of education reform policies in recent years.
Advocating changing culture, both in respect to parental and collegial practices, is, as the film notes, a challenging task. Abeles is wise to include such an expansive package of screening materials in order to use the documentary as a vehicle for conversations and reform, but the change process is nonetheless slow. All in all, Race to Nowhere is a striking, though incomplete, critique of achievement culture in America education. The takeaway message is encompassed by Stanford Professor, Denise Pope, who says, “When success is defined as high grades, test scores, and trophies, we know that we end up with unprepared, disengaged, exhausted, and ultimately unhealthy kids. It’s no longer about learning.”
Abeles, V. and Congdon, J (directors) & Attia, M. (writer). (2010). Race to nowhere (DVD). ReelLink Films (producer).
Cataldo, J. (2010, September 6). Film review: race to nowhere. Slant Magazine.
Catsoulis, J. (2010, September 9). The overscheduled child. The New York Times.
Freire, P. (2003). From pedagogy of the oppressed. In A. Darder, M.
Baltodano, & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (pp.57-68). New York: Routledge Falmer.
Gabriel, T. (2010, December 8). Parents embrace documentary on pressures of school. The New York Times.
Linden, S. (2010, September 9). Movie review: ‘race to nowhere’. The Los Angeles Times.
Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J., Lindkvist, H. (2013). “What would make this a successful year for you?” How students define success in college. Liberal Education, 99 (2).
Mathews, J. (2011, April 3). Why ‘race to nowhere’ documentary is wrong. The Washington Post.
Merrow, J. (2010, October 10). ‘Race to nowhere:’ it’s no ‘waiting for superman’, ‘but it’s honest. The Huffington Post.
Rifion-Meisels, G. (2011). Editor’s Review. Harvard Educational Review, 81 (4).
 Some of the sources in the bibliography are not directly cited in the review, although they were referenced while I was researching the film in order to assess what aspects of opinion have already been established and what I could build upon and expand in this paper.