Race to Nowhere or “Thematic material involving stress on adolescents”

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What is the main topic ofRace to Nowhere?”

I’ll give you a minute to answer.  If you are like my wife and I, we thought it was about standardized testing and the negative impact it and other school policies are having on kids.

Do know what it was really about?

Parents making poor parenting decisions and teachers making poor classroom decisions.

I know,  I am probably the only one in the theater who walked out thinking that.  If you asked others they probably would have said it was a film about too much homework and the stress kids feel due to having to perform for school.  Either way, during the movie, I was looking for some cheese to go along with the whine from the parents.

The movie talks a lot about the stress kids face when faced with 1,2,3,4,5, or 6 hours of homework each night.  At least the first 30 minutes just seemed to go on about it.  Parents complained about watching their kids crumble, and being destroyed by the homework loads.  Funny how if a bully said a mean word to their kid on the bus they would be in the principal’s office in minutes, but when their kid is brought to the hospital because of stress from homework they don’t say a word and keep their kids in classes and programs that bring more stress…or sign them up for even more.   Then there were the complaints about AP courses, and after school activities.  Last I checked, parents had to sign off on having their kid take 6 AP course, play sports for two different teams, and get involved in other after school activities all during the same quarter.

Teachers were shown giving massive amounts of rote meaningless work.  You could pretty much peek into the kids notebooks, texts, and see the “projects” behind them as they talked.  This was not work worth doing.  It was work for the sake of work.  Each class except one had kids in rows, teacher giving notes or asking questions in the front.  Teachers complained about kids cheating, kids complained about how they had to cheat.  Sorry teachers, it’s you not them.  It’s you, not the superintendent or the “system.”  Teachers…or was it parents…complained about their kids not having thinking skills.  How many “thinking skills” does a teacher who assigns two hours of homework every night have?  Some of the parents mentioned that they informed school staff of the problems, and one answer that I remember was something like “don’t worry, shes just being “13.”  Too many times teachers ignore kids pleas for help, their quests to have fewer burdens in their life, and just excuses.  The teacher answer is nearly always the same, “Just work harder.”

Parents complained about tests and grades all the while they were focusing on tests and grades with their kids.  They have a big hand in bringing their kids to the point of physical breakdown by instilling in them from day one that grades are what mattersand if you do poorly you don’t get into a good college and then you fail in life.  One principal pointed out that after the kids crash the parents will say something along the lines of “but they were a good kid, a good student.”  To which the principal responds, “No, they were a good performer…you never bothered to find out if they were a good kid.”

My wife and I make many, many mistakes in parenting our kids.  But the one thing she has gotten right from day one is making sure that our kids are over-programed with family time, or at least home time.  From early on there were limits to how many activities they could do…want to add a new activity?  First get rid of a current one.   She instilled that family time, downtime, by yourself time was just as important as sports, extracurricular, and academic time.  I am so happy that she did that, I know I am just coming around to appreciate it.  This film really made me appreciate her efforts even more.

After watching Waiting for Superman I walked out energized.  I walked out of Race to Nowhere deflated.  The number one group of people who have the most power in schools, parents, seemed to be the ones pushing us into all the decisions that we ultimately complain about.  These were not the poor inner city schools of Waiting for Superman, many of these kids were well off.  The film maker’s car probably costs as much as my house.  Judging from the uniforms on her daughter I will assume she went to a private school…why not take her out?  I find it hard to believe that a community of such affluent people could not change things for their kids…if they really wanted to.  It seemed that the underlying message was that they did not want to change things, they did not want to relieve the stress, because then their kid might end up at a mid-level college, or worse yet…have a happy four years of high school but end up in a community college.

At parent conferences the other night, nearly every teacher mentioned iParent as a way we could monitor our kids grades.  I felt a little guilty because I honestly heard about it for the first time at conferences.  Most of the teachers mentioned that we could use it as a tool to stay on top of my daughters work…forgot I was getting a stipend to do that.  One of the people in the film mentioned that we are “raising our kids with training wheels.”  It is so true.  Kids are getting raised with training wheels on a Road to Nowhere.  At conferences my daughter’s teacher went on about how her grade was lower than it should be, and how her grade would be higher if she spent more time on homework…this went on for five minutes. At each conference the teachers had print outs with all of her grades, I hope that they didn’t mind that all of my questions had nothing to do with grades.  Another teacher mentioned that she had some missing assignments.  I know…we should have gone home and spoke to her about staying on top of things, how her grades are dropping, she is not being responsible….you know the speech right?  In the end my wife and I said nothing.  If she wants to miss several homework assignments and get a 92.4 instead of a 95 like the teacher wants, that’s probably not ok with Harvard, but it’s ok with us.

On a funny last note,  I was surprised to learn that the film was rated PG-13 for…ready…”Thematic Material Involving Stress on Adolescents.”  So my students could live it every day and that’s ok, but they can’t watch it.  I searched, and I am pretty sure the ratings board just made up that rating for the film.  I can’t find another film that has that as a reason for being PG-13.
Race to Nowhere movie review critique opinion  Vicki Abeles


  1. I want to see this movie. It’s been an interesting year for me. The first year my kids have letter grades. They seem to struggle to stay on top of the homework. Forgetting a book here forgetting to study for a quiz there and on and on. I want them to do well but at the same time I find I don’t really care their grades. I care more about who they are and how they treat those around them. I’m pretty pleased in this area and it makes me tolerate with a smile a D in fourth grade social studies because they can’t seem to memorize meaningless data.

    I’ll have to see this movie.

    1. I think we also “tolerated” low grades without worry for a long time..but now that she is getting close to high school it is hard to fight what would be considered “being normal” around here and not tolerating anything below an “A.”

  2. I like you wife.  I have the same take on kids’ scheduled lives…home time and down time are priorities.  When my son was doing karate as an eight year old, the sensei requested that he show up 3 times a week.  We said “Thank you, but once is fine”.  When my daughter wanted to take an extra AP course in school, I urged her to take the sewing and design class instead (an interest of hers).  Did this hurt her?  I think not…she is working as an architect intern and requested her own sewing machine for her 21st birthday.  It is all about maintaining a work – play balance.  As an school-based occupational therapist, I am constantly promoting this concept.  As parents, this is our charge.

    I saw the film earlier in the year with several of our Educon buddies.  Alfie Kohn lead a discussion with Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer from the Harvard Graduate School of Education after the showing.  I left there reconfirming my belief in considering the whole child, not just their role as “student”.  Yes, what your wife said.

  3. I have to see this film. I just pulled my daughter out of an AP class due to stress and unrealistic homework expectations by the teacher (2 – 3 hours a night was fine with him). He didn’t understand anything I was saying. When she was signed up for 3 AP classes and an honors class, I was a proud parent, and foolishly assumed the teachers who recommended her knew what they were doing. They didn’t. I pulled her out when her grade dropped to an A- and she almost had a nervous breakdown (not kidding). She’s much happier. Won’t get into Harvard but much happier.

  4. “From early on there were limits to how many activities they could do…want to add a new activity? First get rid of a current one.” Your point here is significant but often overlooked. We as parents need to do a better job of teaching our children about the importance of prioritizing their lives based upon what their goals are. Once they become proficient at that, life becomes much more manageable for them.

  5. I heartily agree with your wife’s philosophy. “She instilled that family time, downtime, by yourself time was just as important as sports, extracurricular, and academic time.”
    I taught English in a junior high school for ten years before my first son was born. I then stayed home with them for the next ten years, knowing that I would neglect them to meet the demands of my teaching. Hence, I made my sons my job. There was a lot of pressure to get them involved in multiple activities, but participation in Scouts and church activities seemed quite enough. I have seen a number of my friends stressed out by the demands of getting their kids to sporting events, ballet, etc. My husband and I spent a lot of time with our kids reading, crafting, playing games – all done at our own pace without having to be at a certain place at a certain time. The boys are now adults, and they tell me they are glad they were not overscheduled. Also, although I would have loved for them to be all “A” students (as I was), we didn’t stress out at a grade of B or C. We always tried to have them strive for more, but pushing and stressing had more negative than positive effects. Thankfully, they have both matured into responsible young men. I have followed some of the family activities on Amy’s blog, and they bring a smile to my heart. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks for saying it like it is. Like you wife, I limited my kids activities and stressed home time with the family. But with my oldest child I was too concerned with academic achievement. He was under a lot of stress with AP classes and really suffered. Luckily with my younger two I began to realize my high expectations for them stemmed from my own fear, and my own experiences of in high school grades.

  7. Hey Paul,

    It’s funny because I had an almost opposite reaction to yours. I left Waiting for Superman feeling yucky. The only good thing I had to say about Waiting for Superman is that at least it was as bad I had expected. While on the other hand I left Race to Nowhere totally jazzed. Why, do you ask? Because it raises the questions that I was hoping parents, community members and teachers would ask. Why do we hold test scores as the most important measure of learning? Why is homework so important? Why is success dependent on getting into a good college? Why can’t our children just be kids and play? Why are we being so hard on our kids? Do we want to send kids to college who are only prepared to take tests? Are grades necessary? Do grades even help students learn? I can keep going. The point is this movie brought those questions and questions like it to life. Our after movie discussion was great! And I’m working to keep that discussion going! Let’s reform education right.

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