After a long day of teaching 7th graders, and then attending a union meeting in preparation for contract negotiations, I attended my school’s screening of the film, The Race to Nowhere. I had heard mixed reviews about this film from other teachers, but some of what I had heard about its critique of the entitlement of many private school families about their children who “deserve” to attend the Ivies sparked my interest.
I was uncomfortable from the start. The film employed an emotional appeal to parents, with careful editing that worked hard to draw the audience into complete buy-in to its rhetoric. The film was manipulative and so focused on its agenda, that whatever small bits of insight it might impart were lost. On the surface, the film may raise a few worthwhile questions about why students seem to be exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety, and sadness. However, the overly simplistic answer — that schools and teachers are to blame not only for boring kids, but also for stressing them too much, and for stealing their childhoods, while at the same time encouraging them to cheat — left no room for an honest or less than surface inquiry into the complex and multiple factors that create some very real and observable problems for families, schools, students and society.
The film far too easily conflated No Child Left Behind and the students who are impacted most by NCLB (poor/working class, underfunded schools and communities) with affluent private school children who, presumably, are attending schools not affected by this legislation. The problems of students in underfunded schools are wildly different than those of affluent students in private schools, but the film did not investigate this distinction. Rather, the solution proposed for all of these students — ending homework in order to end stress — is unrealistic on many fronts. For students who are coming from working class/struggling families, many factors other than homework impact the stress level of students. Families that are under economic pressure can’t always provide structure for homework time, help for school age children, or even supervision. In addition, many high school students in such families and communities have jobs — jobs that significantly impact their ability to keep up in school. These students, in fact, need to work even harder than their affluent counterparts in order to make it out of the underfunded schools. Doing homework, for some of these kids, is the vehicle that give them success, hope, and a chance.
In affluent communities where many students attend private schools, kids are not working after school. They are doing something even more “important” — they are taking music lessons, playing on various sports teams, going to ACT/SAT prep classes (fully 80% of the students in my husband’s college prep school take them). From an early age, these kids are “resume building” for college. The film showcases weeping parents who are “worried” about the stress that their children suffer when they get anything less than As, when they have to work hard to earn good grades, or when they find some of the tasks of learning to be hard or demanding. These same parents never own up to the fact of their own expectations for their children, nor do they seem to see the impact that two parents with highly successful professional careers has when it comes to creating and promoting undue stress about life expectations among their children.
The principal of my high school, who spoke after the film was shown, told a story of meeting with two upset parents his first year on the job. They were angry about the stress the school was putting on their daughter, and wanted to know what the school intended to do to diminish her stress. The principal looked at her schedule and noted that she was taking eight classes in our nine block schedule. He suggested that she did not need to be taking so many (graduation requires five classes per year). The parents said that she needed and wanted to take those classes. During the course of the discussion, the principal learned that both parents had each attended two different Ivy league schools (as undergrads and graduate students), and that the four diplomas of these institutions were hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Every day, their daughter looked at those diplomas, and watched her parents lead their very busy and high-powered lives, and then went off to school, presumably to prepare herself for the same
I perused the Race to Nowhere website and searched their helpful links, resources and research pages, and found not a single article that studied the influences of this culture of affluence, the role of parents, or the impact of technology and media on the current state of teen depression and suicide rates. The filmmaker’s insistence upon homework as the culprit that lies behind all teen suffering is reductive and simplistic and fails to take into account the role that competing values of success, affluence, competition, and media play in the lives of students.
If anything, I see schools and teachers as attempting to balance the demands placed on students by the culture, parents, and peers. It is at school, according to some of my 7th graders, that they feel connected to something larger than themselves. A very non-scientific (sort of like what the filmmakers claim as scientific research about homework) poll of my 7th graders revealed that it wasn’t homework that was stressing them out. It was two hours of clarinet and piano lessons, plus Hebrew school, plus travel team soccer practice, plus mom and dad working until 11 pm while the kids eat dinner with the babysitter that was stressing them out. One of my brightest students said, “I can handle homework, no problem. It is just all of the other stuff that eats up my time.”
In the current culture of demonizing teachers, this film only heightens my antennae about pointing fingers at easy targets in order to avoid assessing the real problems, in all of their complexity. The Race to Nowhere seems to be looking for a simple band-aid solution to a problem that requires major surgery. I don’t mean to suggest that educators and schools play no role in this, but from my perspective, my colleagues and I attempt to deal with the issues of student overload and stress by managing, solving and supporting. As is often the case with deeply troubling social problems, those who have the biggest role in creating the problem often are the first to point fingers at the ones attempting to ameliorate.