The much-discussed documentary “Waiting for Superman” focuses on low-income children languishing in low-performing schools that ask too little of them. The film “Race to Nowhere” trains its cameras on middle-class children striving in high-achieving schools that expect too much of them.
Born out of first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles’ concerns over the demands on her children, the documentary is a montage of over-scheduled kids working at a literal fever pitch to be smarter, faster and better to get ahead in what has become an arms race to win admission to top colleges.
“I didn’t think when I had kids, the only time I would see them is 20 minutes at dinner,” says Abeles.
“Childhood has become indentured to test scores, performance and competition,” she says.
“I started to make some changes in my home, but the pressures on my children and family felt more systemic and beyond my control. We face an epidemic of unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared kids trying to manage as best they can.”
In the film, parents confess their contributions to the escalation, pushing their children to do more after coming home from open houses at high schools where they hear that the only students admitted last year to Yale or Harvard had a full AP load. At the first sign of a stumble, parent rush in reinforcements, hiring tutors.
In their efforts to measure up in competitive private schools, Abeles’ children, now ages 16, 14 and 11, began to complain of headaches and stomachaches, and every night became a battle to complete hours of homework.
When Abeles finds her daughter doubled over in pain, a trip to the emergency room produces a stark diagnosis: Stress. Her once carefree children are tense, tired and losing confidence that they can do anything right, says Abeles, who documents her children’s personal struggles, especially those of Jamey and Zak.
But the real moment of revelation comes when a well-liked and seemingly well-adjusted 13-year-old girl in her community commits suicide over a math test grade. “When something like that happens, you can’t help but worry about your own kids,” says Abeles.
The most poignant comments come from exhausted students struggling to excel at everything and still maintain their health and their sanity.
Eating disorders abound. A student explains that she stopped eating because it made her sharper, more alert. A teenage boy says that he doesn’t even have time for a lunch period because of all his advanced classes. Another says he lives on lettuce to maintain his 145-pound wrestling weight.
A therapist talks about the rise in “cutting,” in which teens slice their own flesh in despair. One girl rolls up her sleeves to show the therapist what she carved into her forearm that morning: “Empty.”
At a forum on stress, a teenager cautions parents that the worst question they can ever put to their children is “And?”
“I’m in three AP classes. ‘And?’ Well, I do sports. ‘And?’ Well, I work at the theater. ‘And? What else are you doing?’ I’m in three clubs. ‘Well, you know what looks really good — community service.’ Everyone expects us to be superheroes. ‘Why aren’t you doing more for your community? Why aren’t you working harder at school?’ I think parents need to step back sometimes and say to their children, ‘You’re doing a really good job.’”
But that student’s plaint is followed by counselors who explain that to get into the top colleges today, students really do have to do more because of the increased competition for slots.
The film has its heroes; An AP biology teacher who cut the homework in his class in half and found scores on the AP exam rose. Principals who abolished homework in elementary schools, based on research that shows homework only begins to benefit kids in middle school, but only when it does not exceed an hour a night. Parents who reclaim family time in the evening and stop dogging their kids on grades.
There is a wonderful segment with Matt Goldman, a founding member of the theatrical trio, the Blue Man Group, which won a national following with its blue heads, creative antics and combination of art, music comedy and science. (To me, Goldman’s comments resembled those of regular Get Schooled poster Ed Johnson.)
While a movie or Wii game might seem the next evolution for the wildly popular act, the Blue Man Group chose a unique encore. Its members, all young parents themselves, launched a quixotic school in New York designed on the premise that children’s curiosity, creative expression and self-awareness are paramount.
“Why can’t we have children who love going to school all the way through 12th grade?” asks Goldman. “Why can’t we have happiness be as important a metric as reading skills and math scores? Kids come to school with a love of learning. Why don’t we not take that out of them?”
By Maureen Downey, for the Get Schooled blog