REVIEW: Race to Nowhere 
“Our children are going to sue us for taking their childhood”
I’ve been seeing the state of education in this country and its stringent control over academic achievement being the end all be all for personal success, destroying the youth of our nation with unwarranted stress and pressures, for awhile now. My age group graduated college right at the time “No Child Left Behind” was enacted, hoping to make students accountable and lift our international ranking to where our egos believe it should be. Unfortunately, watching a friend teach at our old high school and my cousins working in Pennsylvania, all this program has done is lower the curve so grades remain high across the board despite not one student actually learning. Greed for funds and accolades has usurped the real meaning of school. Rather than ready our kids for college or the real world, we tell our educators to teach towards the lowest common denominator, watering down marks while bombarding classes with Regents qualifications they can barely attempt to memorize let alone absorb and comprehend. When you’re handed jackets for students telling you their disabilities, you handcuff their social and emotional growth before class even begins—in effect telling them they aren’t good enough, so why bother trying?
The new documentary Race to Nowhere, written by Maimone Attia and directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, looks to enlighten everyone in America to the prevalent problem spreading like a virus across the nation. It comes down to educating parents, teachers, administrators, and students that they aren’t alone when it comes to the drive to be the best. Whereas our parent’s generation looked upon college as one option towards their future (the film shows us a litany of CEO’s running the country right now with little to no college experience at all), today’s kids see not getting into a university as abject failure. Parents want us to be all they didn’t have the possibility to be, adults push for children to reach their maximum potential … but at what cost? We start kids on flash cards before pre-school, we ready them for four to five hours of homework a night, punishing if it’s not done, and look the other way when they begin drinking coffee, staying up all hours of the night, and complaining of stomach and headaches. We watch our children literally kill themselves thinking everything is normal, “He/She looks fine to us.” This is the world we live in; they’ll make it out okay.
This just is not the case—a fact made clear with the story of 13-year old Devon and her suicide at the hands of an ‘F’ in math. Her mother speaks of really thinking she knew her daughter while her father posits the revelation he didn’t. Counselors brushed it off saying, “Oh, that’s just being 13. You’ll have five more years of that to look forward to.” But despite this professional opinion, they were out of time. It may start with pressures from parents constantly badgering their kids about tests, work, studying, etc, but it trickles down to the child himself. When you work so hard to get ‘As’, there is only one direction to go—down. Multiple kids speak in the movie about how one bad grade ruined their world, ending any chance for the lofty dream of Ivy League salvation, causing them to give up and quit rather than realize it is but one mistake on a lifetime of redemption. Our society doesn’t think that way anymore, it’s now an in the moment existence of immediate results. College no longer is a choice, but a necessity. Your transcript is your resume and without those AP and SAT scores backing you up, no one will take notice.
It’s fascinating to see how much has changed over the few short years I’ve been removed from schooling. Kids had problems with weight loss, sleep depravation, and depression in my class, but it never seemed to be to the extent it is now. With extra-curricular activities and school work taking up entire evenings, parents now barely see their kids for twenty minutes at dinner before Mom has to drive Sally and Dad has to take Billy to whatever scheduled task is taking place. The ever-haunting question of “And?” rears its head, provoking children to add more to their workload and go all out because these 12 years of school are merely an audition for what is to come. The system roboticizes students into automatons competing against each other rather than learning to work in tandem creatively and effectively. Life becomes a means to ‘getting in’ to the good schools or ‘making everyone proud’, causing a total neglect in one’s health. Drugs start to be abused thanks to a surge of Ritalin-type stimulants being prescribed like candy, keeping kids alert for the short term but ravaging their bodies sooner than later. School and sports demand full dedication, so if you are unwilling to give your all, you’re dead. Or else you’re smart enough to realize the system and give it the middle finger for its trouble, becoming disinterested and destructive.
Race to Nowhere has no easy answers, but it does posit case studies that have worked. It has been proven that homework has no correlation to academic accomplishment in elementary school and, while showing positive gains in middle school, when the workload exceeds an hour grades plummet there too. The curriculum has expanded so vastly that teachers need to give more work so kids learn outside of the classroom in hopes they’ll be prepared for the test. Therefore, rather than reinforcing concepts, kids are made to self-teach and wonder why they ‘don’t get it’. Cheating becomes an easy and acceptable answer, hand holding and coddling the norm so teachers can keep their jobs. It has gotten so bad that graduates are entering the working sphere anticipating the same coaching by employers, shocked at the reality they are thrown to the wolves to stand on their own. The problem is a social issue needing changes in all facets of life from safer streets so children can play outside to a mindset based in social applications and creativity over academic testing. We fail when compared to other countries because they learn the big picture while we educate towards good marks on tests with no real-life bearings, material forgotten as soon as the pencils are put down.
Would abolishing grades and going to a portfolio system of peer grading and behavioral aptitude do the trick? Perhaps. I’ll admit that while I got ‘As’ in every class and finished 3rd among graduates in high school, there wasn’t any pressure because I knew I’d leave math and science behind for a career in the arts. I did the work stress-free to have the time for my art projects after. Much to the shock of friends and educators, I turned my back on the objective, number-driven subjects to pursue a passion in a subjective field ripe with interpretation and conceptual basis devoid of ‘right’ answers. Art is a performance-based program of criticism and failure leading to success. It’s a fluid field ever evolving without clear-cut solutions to be held accountable against. Mistakes are necessary for evolution and learning—there is something to be said about projecting those values onto the more regimented academic fields. Perhaps if children learn early on that they can get an ‘F’ and still work hard to transform it into an ‘A’ by year’s end, one bad grade won’t make them physically ill from stress and low self-worth. Maybe kids like Devon would bounce back stronger, ready to take on the world and prove it wrong.
Race to Nowhere 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
And yes, I could go into how using depressive emo rock like The Weepies is somewhat insensitive to the subject at hand or how the MTV-ADD type cutting to show a kid studying statically at her desk is overkill, but the point of a film like this is to get its message across, not be cinematically wonderful. In as far as facilitating its agenda, Race to Nowhere gets the job done.
courtesy of http://www.racetonowhere.com/