It isn’t often that a third of a movie audience sticks around to discuss its message, but that is the effect of “Race to Nowhere,” a look at the downside of childhoods spent on resume-building.
“How do you help your children balance when the whole education system is pushing, pushing, pushing, and you want your kids to be successful?” Alethea Lewis, a mother of two, asked a roomful of concerned parents who had just seen the film, a documentary, last week in Bronxville, N.Y., at a screening co-sponsored by the private Chapel School.
With no advertising and little news media attention, “Race to Nowhere” has become a must-see movie in communities where the kindergarten-to-Harvard steeplechase is most competitive.
More than 1,100 attended a screening last week at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. About 500 saw it at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in November. It has been shown to a roomful of fathers at Pixar during lunch hour and twice to employees at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Google.
All 325 seats in the auditorium of New Canaan Country School in Connecticut were filled during a screening for parents last Thursday night. Francie Irvine, the assistant head of school, said, “Our parents’ association president called me and said, ‘My sister just saw this in California and we have to, have to, have to have it here.”’
The film portrays the pressures when schools pile on hours of homework and coaches turn sports into year-round obligations. Left somewhat unexamined is the role of parents whose high expectations contribute the most pressure of all.
“Everyone expects us to be superheroes,” one high school senior in the film says.
Another tells of borrowing her friends’ prescription for Adderall to juggle her many commitments. “It’s hard to be the vice president of your class, play on the soccer team and do homework,” she says.
The movie introduces boys who drop out of high school from the pressure, girls who suffer stress-induced insomnia and worse, and students for whom “cheating has become another course,” as one puts it.
“When success is defined by high grades, test scores, trophies,”’ a child psychologist says in the film, “we know that we end up with unprepared, disengaged, exhausted and ultimately unhealthy kids.”
Vicki Abeles, the middle-aged mother and first-time filmmaker who made “Race to Nowhere,” picked up a camera when a doctor said that her then-12-year-old daughter’s stomachaches were being caused by stress from school.
“I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place where our family had so little time together,” she explains in the film, which has an unslick, home-video quality, “where our kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under.”
In many ways, the movie is the alter ego to the better-known “Waiting for Superman,” another education documentary playing around the country this fall.
That film has earned $6.3 million at the box office since its release and ranks 20th among the most successful documentaries ever, according to Box Office Mojo, in no small part because of a blast of publicity. The director appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and President Barack Obama greeted its stars at the White House.
“Race to Nowhere” had a one-week run in two theaters, in New York and Los Angeles, but it has primarily been screened by community groups in school auditoriums, churches and temples. Local sponsors like parent-teacher associations sell tickets and split the take with the filmmakers.
Abeles, a corporate lawyer who briefly traded on the gold desk at Goldman Sachs before moving to northern California with her family, said the film cost her and other backers in the “mid-six figures.” It will have been shown at some 700 locations through February.
With her movie’s grass-roots success, Abeles has been approached by major distributors offering to place it in commercial theaters. But she is not convinced that the movie would reach as wide an audience or inspire viewers to stay for the discussions, which are moderated by principals, child psychologists and sometimes Abeles herself. The film’s website encourages viewers to follow up with local activism (and also links to research and studies supporting the film, which pretty much avoids citing any data).
“My passion is around the change this film has the potential to create,” Abeles said.
While “Waiting for Superman” lionizes urban reformers who embrace standardized testing as a necessary yardstick to hold schools and teachers accountable, Abeles believes that the testing movement is what has caused education to go off the tracks.
She talks to students, teachers and experts who say that teaching to tests, including the Advanced Placement tests, narrows education and diminishes creativity and independent thinking. Employers complain that college graduates these days lack initiative. An educator, Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford, says that the University of California requires remedial courses of half its students, even though their high school grades were stellar.
“They’re spitting back but not retaining the information,” Pope said.
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. In addition to New Canaan and Winnetka, there were screenings last week in Los Altos, Calif., Bethesda, Md., and Chappaqua, N.Y. — towns where an Ivy League sticker on the back of a Range Rover is a given.
“You would not believe what reactions you get from other parents when you mention what colleges your children are looking at — you’re so judged,” Tara Vessels, a mother at New Canaan Country School, told about 40 other parents and staff members who discussed the movie last Friday in the school cafeteria.
The school espouses a “whole child” philosophy, and its mission statement, inscribed on the cafeteria walls, includes the sentence: “We value the imagination and curiosity of children and respect childhood as an integral part of life.”
But parents said the larger community imposed its own values, and their children clamored to join an ice hockey league that practices until 10 p.m.
“Imagine if a sign out front of school says ‘Mistakes Are Made Here Often,”’ mused one teacher, echoing a theme in the movie that schools should accept failure as part of learning. “No one would come here! But why not?”
A mother complained that her 13-year-old “had a chapter test, and that night had to study for a quiz” in the same class. “What is the point of all the testing?” she said. “It’s so stressful.”
“Great question,” Irvine, the assistant head of school, replied.
Tim Bazemore, the head of school, acknowledged ruefully that “the whole child in high school is a full resume,” telling the parents that this represented “a failure of education leadership.”
Nonetheless, he wondered how parents would feel if teachers assigned less homework and did not penalize students who did not do it. Would families think the school was failing to prepare their children for high school and beyond?
The school “needs an honest dialogue with you,” Bazemore said.