Alex, my daughter, is 2 ½ years old. Even though she is just a tot learning to talk, stack Legos® together and figure out which shoe goes on the left and right foot, her future education is never really far from the backs of our minds. My husband and I already have had far too many conversations that focus on the topics of soccer, homework, standardized tests (like the California Writing Standards test in 4th grade). Our talks may seem premature, but we are in a very real position of not knowing what to do, since we can’t afford private schools that focus on the actual process of learning and fear that the overcrowded and underfunded public schools will stifle Alex’s creativity.
We are often alone among the other parents in our area who send their pre-school age kids to prep schools or off to the library for long sessions wrangling with grade 2-level math problems before they’ve even set foot in Kindergarten.
Race to Nowhere is a documentary that fluently articulates this fear. The parents in the documentary wish, as we do, to give the best to their kids. But many of them have already paid an awesome price in terms of the health, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of their children. This is a film that powerfully addresses the issue of education in the States, of the labels we ascribe to ‘success’ and how we, as parents, etch those labels into our children’s psyche early on. The problem is not just with our children, it’s more complex than that. It’s with the lofty aspirations we have for them in a system that is broken and dysfunctional.
Ironically, it is this competitive push that enabled the filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, to achieve personal success. As a child, Abeles was brought up by a single-mom. Working hard, aiming high was how one ‘made it’ – the very definition of accomplishment. It was only when she noticed that her middle child, Jamey, was showing signs of depression and had to be rushed to the hospital for stress-induced stomach ulcers that she took a step back and noticed that the problems her child was experiencing were ubiquitous and was also able to redefine her own view of success. Abeles and her co-director, Jessica Congdon, created this film as a call to arms, a way for parents to see the global ramifications of an educational model based on achievement testing.
The film begins with a title sequence of clips of kids at school in various situations looking haggard, worn-down. Interspersed with the tales of the kids are interviews with authors, educators, physicians and teachers, many of whom grapple with the same issues they are railing against. Perhaps the most compelling interviews are those with an inner city school teacher who is resigning because of a state-imposed standards-based curriculum and the mother of thirteen-year-old girl, Devon, who, after receiving a low grade on a math test, killed herself.
The main culprit in all of this is, on the surface, simple — the amount of homework the students have in school. Teachers have to sacrifice their precious classroom time in order to meet state-mandated standards. As a result, a large amount of content gets assigned as homework. Added to that is the push to be involved in sports, clubs, and other after-school activities. From this very basic problem then, stems other more serious ones ranging from cheating to eating disorders, drug abuse and, finally, teen suicide.
Race to Nowhere is not the sort of exposé that will entertain you like popular documentarians Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Rather this film’s power lies in the stories of the kids and educators themselves. The pieces of the puzzle are deftly interwoven together beginning with Abele’s own story about homework in her house; following through to the larger impact this has on society as a whole; and finally coming back to rest, quietly, respectfully and emotionally on Devon’s family, whose lives have been forever altered by their loss. It is a series of stories and data that tug at the very essence of the labels we as a society use to define ourselves. And, while these problems are really nothing new, in our effort to succeed, we are pushing our children harder and farther than in previous generations and in the process, losing them.
Ultimately this film is about how we as a society are robbing our kids of something precious that can never be regained — their childhoods. It challenges us to take a step back and determine what is really important for ourselves and our children.
Before it is too late.
We’re lucky that we have a few years yet before we have to really face these issues. The question remains whether or not things will change for the better. Films like Race to Nowhere are an integral part of that process, enjoining us to take action, to be in charge of our children’s education, for that is where our future lies.
Race to Nowhere opens today in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide beginning September 30, 2010.