I really liked Race to Nowhere

Last September I blogged the trailer for the movie, Race to Nowhere, which focuses on the achievement pressures faced by many of our schoolchildren. Today I had an opportunity to attend a screening of the full movie. Here are 30 quotes from the film. Some of these might not be word-for-word but they’re close; I was paying attention to the movie, not my typing. I’ve highlighted my 8 favorites from the list below…

  1. RacetonowhereI can’t really remember the last time I just went outside and ran around
  2. We do whatever it takes to get an A
  3. When I had kids, I didn’t think that the only time I’d see them was for 20 minutes at dinner
  4. These kids are so overscheduled and tired … I’m afraid that our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods
  5. We want the best for them [so] we put pressure on them to be what we want them to be
  6. [All of this pressure] ends up turning kids into little professionals
  7. I figured out that not eating gave me more energy … but it still wasn’t enough to get everything done
  8. My school principal told me [when I tried to return from a treatment facility for anorexia and anxiety] that she didn’t want the teachers to have to worry about me – I was too much of a distraction for them [and other students]
  9. We lose boys because they tune out and we lose girls to depression
  10. The countries that outperform us on international tests actually give less homework than we do in the United States
  11. At what point did it become okay for schools to dictate how we spend our lives after the bell rings? [regarding homework]
  12. Parents need to educate themselves that homework isn’t going to make their students any smarter
  13. When American kids encounter questions [on international assessments that don’t look like what they’re used to from their rote practice], they fall apart
  14. These tests that they do so horrible on – they don’t test my kids on the curriculum, they test them on their culture and their culture isn’t represented on the tests
  15. I tell my [urban] students that learning is power – to do whatever you want to do in life, you have to be a learner and you have to care – that is not what the district wants from me as a teacher
  16. If we forget this  or do a different one, then we’re going to get in trouble and we’ll lose 5 minutes of recess [4th grader]
  17. Your 6–month-old is supposed to be sucking on his toes and thumbs, not doing flashcards
  18. [Students say] ‘The teacher doesn’t care – it’s just busy work – why CAN’T I just copy my homework?’
  19. The point of education is to learn, not memorize
  20. It’s impossible to cover all of the material for the AP course in one year. Literally impossible.
  21. After my daughter passed her AP French exam, she said, “I never have to speak French again.”
  22. So much of [kids’] time is structured. The only unstructured time they seem to have is the time they spend on the computer.
  23. What’s happening these days is that kids aren’t getting a chance to find out what they love to do.
  24. They’re 4 or 8 [years old] and they’re resume-building
  25. Parents say ‘My child is a good kid.’ No, they were a good performer. You never found out if they were a good kid. You just know they’re a good student, not a good solid kid.
  26. I stopped trying because if you don’t try, you can’t fail.
  27. I think that success in America is measured by how much money you make, not how happy you are in your life
  28. The environment and culture are so competitive that kids don’t feel like they can ever let people see their true selves
  29. If you’ve always had As, there’s only one way to go and that’s down, so that B feels like a failure
  30. We need to redefine success for kids … We have to get off this treadmill together. [We have to discuss] what does it take to create a happy, motivated, creative human being?

Discussion afterward

Here are a few statements afterward from the international educators and others who watched the film:

  1. None of us went into education to inflict harm on children but when you put it all together the net effect is often much different.
  2. At my previous school we eliminated homework and instead gave families a booklet called ‘Supporting Learning’ that gave them ideas of things they could do at home with their kids instead.
  3. How many of you assign homework? How would you handle a parent that asked if their child could opt out of the homework you assign? [this question was mine]
  4. Five to seven hours a day at school are plenty of time to do what we need to do academically with students
  5. Many of your parents have dedicated much of their lives to preparing students for Harvard (a process Alfie Kohn calls ‘Preparation H’). How do you handle it when as educators you’re trying to slow down, reduce workload, stop the ‘race to nowhere,’ etc. for kids but parents aren’t buying what you’re selling? [this question was mine]
  6. We have a responsibility to assuage the collective anxiety that we feel about ‘doing well.’

The film is about an hour long. Although it’s targeting what are in many ways polar opposite issues and demographics compared to Waiting for Superman, the film is well worth a watch. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to finally see it.

Closing thoughts

My children are 13, 10, and 6; so far they have been ‘excellent students.’ They live in a college town community and attend schools in which there is a lot of academic pressure on students – from parents, from other kids’ parents, from educators, from student peer groups, from society in general, etc. How much of that is being internalized by my children despite the messages that we try to send at home? Although my wife and I repeatedly discuss with our kids that learning is supposed to be a joyful experience – that we’d much rather that they love what and how they’re learning and have a chance to pursue their interests than get good grades – I still worry about what messages they’re incorporating into their mental models of success. It’s an ongoing conversation and battle and I’m not completely certain that we’re winning. I’m also uncertain if the fact that I’m a workaholic – albeit on things for which I’m usually interested and passionate – helps or hinders my cause with my kids.

I’ve recommended to my school district leadership team (administrators and school board) that they do a screening of this film for local parents. They’ve shown no interest to date, which is unfortunate because this film is extremely relevant for our community and our families.

I try to remember to ask my kids daily if they have a happy life. I hope they’ll always be honest with me.

30 Responses to “I really liked Race to Nowhere”

  1. I had a similar discussion just yesterday with a parent. I fear that we just keep increasing the pace of the “treadmill” in the name of rigor. Kids’ (and families’) mental health should not take second place to academic accolades.

  2. Scott,

    The Des Moines Education Association is sponsoring a screening in Des Moines on the 25th. It’s open to the public, and they’re planning on a similar panel discussion afterwards.


  3. As an educator and now businessperson who’s worked with students to help them find their “true calling” I find this blog post extremely interesting. On the one hand, students need to pursue a career and life plan best for them. On the other hand, these students need to live in the “real world.” Finding pursuits that live at the intersection of personal fit with “real world” fit seems useful.

    • What was not said in the movie was that so much of this pursuing a career at these young ages is done so thoughtlessly. Most of this work that the students are doing in the film are likely to be busy work or work that teachers think are advancing learning, but do not. One student interview in the film said “I learn it and it goes in one ear and after the test it goes out the other”

      So often, what occurs in the class leads not to learning. Nothing ‘Real World Ready” about that.

  4. I’ve been reading about these two documentaries for a while now and have come across two articles that present an alternative idea to the publicity that our public schools have negatively been receiving.

    The first article titled “Waiting for Superfraud” (http://ksdcitizens.org/2010/12/22/waiting-for-superfraud/) lays out the premise that public schools have to fail so that private businesses can have at the 500-700 billion dollar/year industry that is public education.

    The second is “Got Dough? Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy” (http://www.truth-out.org/got-dough-public-school-reform-age-venture-philanthropy66598) and it puts some harsh criticism towards the major foundations that contribute to public education, such as the Gates Foundation, and their influence on education policy.

    Both of these articles have really had me “down” in a sense on public education and I’ve been unable to find other educators to discuss these issues. I’m unsure what to think and where to go and starting to see why the attrition rate for teachers is 50% at 5 years. Looking for some motivation and inspiration…

    • Justi,

      I read the superfraud and would like to do some fact checking on this before discussing it further, but one thought I had was that the industry could have been a reaction to failed schools, and not the cause, just as if the schools were highly successful, we would have a robust industry to serve that reality.

      Just an idea, but I need to look into this further. Thank you kindly for the article.

  5. Scott,

    Thank you so much for this brief review. I am in the process now of helping to bring a screening of the film to my college, and I was hoping that someone I trusted would provide their thoughts so that I could pass them along to the faculty and staff.

  6. Thank you for sharing. I had not heard of this film, but I plan find it and watch it. Based on your review, I feel like it should be required viewing for all educators, legislators, and especially parents. The pressure seems to come from all sides, but I find myself most discouraged after meeting a parent who is too concerned with having a straight A student to see a student’s true self or understand that a B is ok too.

  7. J. The countries that outperform us on international tests actually give less homework than we do in the United States.

    I’m not sure that’s true, but I think we can give less homework than we do. But targeted, timely and purposeful homework makes our youth smarter. But how much of us are doing that.

    Check out “Rethinking Homework” Excellent book.

    @Scott and @Melissa: I was in the same room as you and at the same time Scott, and I must say that I fell vulnerable to the cinematic trappings of a dramatic documentary and I must admit that I left that very same room sick to my stomach.

    While what we watched did a very good jog describing the top percent of families in income and education and how they are often raising their kids, I don’t know that their blanket statements fit the majority. I worked in subcultures within the US where I was desperate to get the community to buy into the idea of education. If I was still working in those same areas, I’d think that the movie was fiction.

    Alas, I do now work in these top tier communities (American Schools in Europe) and I know all to well that there is a real problem. So now I am sick to my stomach…

    • …I don’t know that their blanket statements fit the majority. I worked in subcultures within the US where I was desperate to get the community to buy into the idea of education. If I was still working in those same areas, I’d think that the movie was fiction.

      My wife has taught in some of those schools, both rural and urban. My wife once asked a student what she was going to do when she grew up. The student said, “Have lots of babies and get a check from the government.” That was a fifth-grader.

  8. As with politics, these arguments tend to come from the extremes, not the middle where most of us live.

    Some things are skills that must be learned and do in fact require practice (and homework). You do not get better at sports, art, or solving algebraic equations without practice. To limit that practice to “in class” is to deny that students learn at different speeds (both faster and slower) and to doom some to boredom and others to being lost. In addition to skills, homework is required to use class time effectively for higher order activities. It’s hard to have discussions about History, or an author’s intent if you require all of the background reading to be in class. Not all homework is useful, but much of it is far from “busywork.”

    The same applies to “Helicopter Parents.” Counting on teenagers (or younger) to have good judgment about what they need for the future is foolish, but so is keeping them from making any decisions on their own.

    I also encourage my students to go into fields that they enjoy, and study what they love, but that also raises issues. About 2/3 of college students have 3 majors or more before they graduate. Obviously either their interests have changed, or abilities and motivation have not matched interest in many of our students. If you are not exposed to a topic (or have a bad experience) how would you even know that it interests you? Then throw in the limited job market for many areas, and the question becomes how how would they be to be unemployed in the area that they studied? Working for years on something that you love, then having to put it aside to take a job to try to pay off your education can be soul-crushing.

    • From Bill, “Not all homework is useful, but much of it is far from “busywork.”

      OK Bill, I have to admit you are right. I do wonder how effective many of the assignments we give are. Are they the exact piece of work that a particular child needs? It’s so hard to get it right.

      I do see tons of higher order activities only given as homework and lecture and procedure as the norm in many of the classes at my school. I’d like to see that turn on it’s head.

  9. Oh, and as far as pushing students to succeed, especially in today’s environment, this is a huge factor as well.

  10. Scott,

    I’m going to see the film this Sunday. The Sudbury school that I helped to start in South Florida is helping to bring it here. I’m looking forward to the experience first-hand and I’m grateful for your post.

    I’m looking forward to seeing for myself and reflecting on the impact of the issues raised as belonging solely to people in middle / upper middle class groups.

  11. Scott,

    I am going with colleagues in our National School Leadership Group on Tuesday night in Chapel Hill, NC. Your comments are very relevant to what I see at many of the schools with comparable demographics (affluent suburban) in my district. Most parents are supportive of what you call the joy of learning and reducing homework to a reasonable level. However, There are many parents of the opposite paradigm that wonder why we don’t teach with the same “sage on the stage” process that they grew up with. More homework is equated with rigor.

    I look forward to seeing the movie and thank you for your impressions. Will get back to you after the movie.

    Kevin Biles, Principal
    Pleasant Union Year-Round Elementary
    Raleigh, NC

  12. Scott – What I’m relieved to hear, in a sad way, is your admission of being a workaholic for these causes and your passions. I find that to be my largest struggle as an educator and father and I produce, it seems, a fraction of the output I see from you.

    However, we do what we love, which can sometimes interrupt our other major priorities…I’m hoping my children and students also recognize this as a model of what learning can be rather than just “work”. It seldom feels like work when your beliefs and heart are into something, but most importantly if those things are making a positive difference for humanity. This discussion is.

  13. Scott,

    We are having a showing in our district (suburban, high-performing) in February. Our school board just decided to NOT support the efforts of the high school admin and staff who were trying to lengthen class periods in an effort to allow time for more meaningful learning. The loud and persistent objections of some parents (and not necessarily majority) stemmed from the desire to have their kids take as many courses as possible to pad their resumes. The community is a competitive, achievement- at-all-costs for the “good” kids from the “right” families. It is so discouraging as an educator. I work in the middle school and we are endlessly trying to convince parents to focus on the learning and the development of the WHOLE child and NOT the grade and being in the right class with the “right” kids.

  14. As the parent of a high school junior who is attending a large, very competitive and high achieving high school, I can attest to the intense pressure kids in that environment are put under. My child’s high school “strongly encourages” all kids to enroll in as many Advanced Placement, PSEO and honor classes as they can fit into their schedule. It’s seen as the norm to take a full load of AP classes, and if you don’t, well…then you are considered one of the “slow”

    AP and honors classes are weighted on a 5.0 scale in order to entice kids to take them for the grade bump. Next year, students enrolling in AP classes will be required to sit for (and parents will have to pay for) the AP exam. If they don’t take the exam, their grade will be determined on the regular 4.0 scale and their transcript won’t reflect the AP designation. Parents who can afford to pay for multiple AP exams ($86 per exam) will be able to buy a higher GPA and class rank for their child than those parents who can’t afford to compete financially.

    The homework load for AP and honors classes is insane. My child is a pretty good student, learns easily, and works quickly, but he spends on average 4+ hours every night on homework. On the weekends, he spends an additional 4-5 hours studying.

    He has no time for extra curricular activities, no time to read for pleasure, and very little time to spend with us. The majority of his homework is spent completing worksheets, filling out packets by copying from the textbook, and doing enough math problems to choke a horse. I see no original thought, no creative writing, and very few higher level skills in the homework he’s assigned. Our weekend activities and school breaks are often driven by the amount of homework he has.

    Class rank and GPA are the most valued things at our high school, not learning, and our high school administrators and kids track those numbers very closely. Our high school gives kids a copy of their transcript every semester during homeroom and their class rank and GPA are prominently displayed. Obviously, kids compare their position and it is intense and uncomfortable for not only the top kids, but for the kids near the bottom as well.

    Many of his friends who participate in sports sleep very little. Most function on 4-5 hours of sleep every night and stay awake at school by chugging Red Bull. Cheating is common, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are everywhere, binge drinking occurs regularly, and kids do whatever it takes to struggle through.

    I’m glad he only has one year left and can finally get out of this high school pressure cooker. He keeps asking me if college is like high school and I keep telling him it isn’t. It’s been a long time since I graduated from college so I can only hope I’m right.

  15. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve been thinking of using technology to assign one homework assignment a week, using technology and creativity. Like Julie, I teach at a school where many students are strongly encouraged to take AP classes. (I have to point out that my school is an inner-city, low income school). I teach AP Biology and AP Environmental Science and majority of my students are enrolled in 3 or more other AP classes. The students constantly feel like they have work continually piled on them and they are seriously stressed out. I can’t wait until the movie is released in stores so I can watch.

  16. Adding to this problem, the Kentucky legislature has a bill that would pay teachers for students who take, and pass, AP classes. I’m not sure if this will achieve what the legislature thinks it will.

  17. To tell you honestly, this movie really felt like a slap to my face at how horrible I am treating my children without even knowing it, we lived in a much carefree time and since the world has changed, we also changed how we rear them. The fact is, no matter what day or age, they are still children and they have the right to live a happy and FUN life!

  18. The University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center also feeds into the high school Advanced Placement competition with their annual AP Index. Belin-Blank publishes an annual ist of the top 50 high schools in Iowa by ranking them according to the number of AP exams students take.


    Our district wants to up their ranking on this list so they are requiring kids to take the AP exams – they don’t care if they pass the exams or what score they get – they just want them to pay for the exam on take it.

    Mandatory stress for the kids in exchange for high school bragging rights. What a deal.

  19. In the private educational sector (where I reside), teachers constantly have to justify grades. If you put a B- on a report card you had better be prepared to defend it as if you’re on trial.

    My kids (ages 8 and 5) are in this system and I worry that at some point that grades will crush their passion for learning.

  20. What else besides grades can ‘crush’ a student’s passion for learning? Cathy Berger Kaye talks about the ‘bounce’ (an eagerness and excitement about learning) that students lose as they make their way through elementary school. We must find ways to combat this…..and keep ’em bouncing!

  21. It makes me very sad and angry that this is happening to our children.They are placed on computers to skill and drill topics that are far above their age-appropriate developmental abilities, just to raise test scores. We have just thrown out all that knowledge of Piaget and Erickson and their theories of brain development saying “we don’t care that in general that these skills are above what the normal brain can do at this age – we are going to take away their playtime and force them to do it over and over until they can repeat it back to us” – never mind that they really aren’t learning it – as long as the test scores are high is all that matters.


  22. We showed this film in my school’s theater, as an event which was very specifically billed as “this is not endorsed by the school, but we do want to have a conversation about it.”

    Our discussions afterward concentrated on the awareness that something was terribly wrong, partly as a result of our emotional heartstrings having been tugged at and yanked so effectively, but also how much time we’d spent trying to solve the underlying issues discussed in the film and not getting anywhere.

    The parents who work in higher education felt that students were arriving for freshman year of college completely unprepared, with no ability to learn for the sake of learning. It was all, “Will this be on the test?” or “How long does the paper have to be?” And the higher ed. parents were deeply discouraged and skeptical that high schools and middle schools were going to change any time soon. The parents in professional tracks were upset at this, but, in essence, demanded that the school continue to give homework and grades and run extracurricular programs; without that kind of rigorous education program, their kids wouldn’t get accepted to the colleges. So we discovered the catch-22 at the heart of this race to nowhere — the elementary schools and high schools can’t change their programs without buy-in from the colleges, but the colleges can’t figure out how to modify their admissions processes to look for the skills they want college freshmen to have, so that the high schools have the courage to modify their program to fit the new demands from the colleges. And the push-back from the parents demonstrates that until the colleges show that they want something other than good grades and lots of extracurriculars, the high schools will not be free to alter their programs. At all.

    Behold, a caucus, as Lewis Carroll would say. A race to nowhere.

  23. There is an Indian family in my town that recently moved back to India because they didn’t want their children raised in our schools and our social environment. That struck a cord with me as I spent several years in India, and know exactly that part of our culture in which they are rejecting.

    It would be great if we could loose our ambitiousness collectively, so that our work could come out of our hearts and dreams, rather than our fears. America feels full of tension, as compared with most countries. We are habituated to it. Stress is like the flu- it gets passed around. And the only vaccine for it, that I know of, is mindfulness, relaxation, and meditation. Those in power positions, such as our administration, need these activities the most and are thus least likely to integrate them into our schooling.

    It all saddens me.

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