Race to Nowhere

I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post. If you’d rather read it there, click here:

“Race to Nowhere.” Great title. I love that a kid says it, in the film. He’s trying to put his life into words. He pauses, searching for the right phrase. “It’s like a….race to nowhere.” Well done, kid.

What a disturbing film! It’s full of teenagers patiently, articulately explaining how they were hospitalized for severe anxiety. How they developed anorexia. How they want to die when they fail. How school is killing them.

These kids stay up all night, doing homework, they go to school and then to sports, and then to something artistic, and then to the tutor, to help them keep up in school, and then they have five minutes for dinner, and then homework starts again. Who are they? They are The American Teenager. The ones who don’t just drop out in disgust and frustration, that is. The ones who are fighting to get into a good college, or just a college, as colleges close their stately gates on more students every year. The kids from affluent families are fighting to have the same opportunities as their parents– it’s harder now. The kids from poor backgrounds are fighting to have opportunities their parents never had, and their options are constricted by lack of scholarships and inability to pay for the colleges they do get into. Everyone is fighting desperately to get in somewhere.

College, explains one of the students in the film, is where you finally start learning. It’s where your life starts. All of this, right now, this is just the business of getting into college.

Which seems completely right, especially when universities, including Berkeley, report that 50% of incoming freshman are required to retake basic subjects at the remedial level. These are the same freshman who had a 4.3 in high school. Why else would Berkeley even consider them?

But the worst part of the tragic story about the state of American schooling is not the tremendous effort expended by students towards goals that don’t even make much sense, or the sacrifice of childhood, or the anorexia, or even the suicides that occur when someone gets a bad grade for the first time. The worst part is the helplessness.

No one can do anything. It’s as though there is simply nothing to be done.

Parents watch helplessly as their children suffer. They drive their children dutifully to the emergency room and the therapist and the psychiatrist and the pediatrician. And then they drive their children to the tutor again. They ask, “How was school?”

(school. source)

Vicki Abeles, the filmmaker, tries to save her children. She finds a new school for her daughter, after the girl exhibits physical symptoms of anxiety on a regular basis and can’t remember liking school since fourth grade. Two weeks later, her daughter reports that things are pretty much the same. Abeles institutes family dinners and stops checking on her kids about their homework.

But the solution to school is more school. Or slight changes to a system that is clearly damaging and even dangerous. Abeles argues that homework should be abolished, or at least scaled back significantly. I think this is a fantastic argument. Homework doesn’t seem to be helping kids learn or retain information, Stanford researchers report. Especially not when there is so much of it. Homework is monopolizing everyone’s free time. Even little kids, who receive a shocking amount of it these days, and parents, who are supposed to help their children with homework, make sure their children are doing homework, and check over homework.

But even if homework was eliminated, that wouldn’t be enough. Kids are cutting themselves. They are crumbling. They are cracking under the pressure, and they are even killing themselves.

I was homeschooled. I look at Vicki Abeles’ life, and I wonder. She is driving a Lexus. Her family lives in an enormous, gorgeous house in an expensive Bay Area suburb. They are willing to pay for tutor upon tutor upon piano teacher upon therapist. Why not take the children out of school entirely? Even if Vicki and her husband don’t want to sit at the kitchen table and work through math problems with their children every day, they could bring in a tutor for that, just like they are doing now. They can’t even make that old, tired argument about traditional school and socialization, because their kids don’t have time to see their friends. Friends are a luxury. Why not give their kids back their social lives and their sanity? Why not remove them from the problem?

(outside. source)

It seems so simple. Yet it doesn’t occur to anyone.

Even alternative schools don’t seem to occur to many (one family in the film enrolls a son in an alternative school when he can’t go on any longer).

Believe it or not– alternatives already exist. They aren’t always accessible to everyone, and it’s definitely always harder if you don’t have money to spare, but in the case of the affluent families of Lafayette, CA, they have about a million more choices than they are aware of. If only they would learn to think outside the school. Their children’s lives may depend on it.

24 comments to Race to Nowhere

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Lakin and Richard Lakin, davidwees. davidwees said: A homeschooled person's perspective on Race to Nowhere http://bit.ly/dNCzCM #edchat #USed […]

  • We just started unschooling our daughter after 7 months of horror in public Kindergarten. YES to all in this post – because not only do I wonder how we tolerated 7 months of this, I keep shuddering, thinking about all the families that stick it out to the bitter end!

    THANK YOU for this post!

  • Regina

    YES! Need to see this film. I can tell you that we spent hours in the evening working on homework when my oldest was in public school. We fought day and night on homework. She just spent 8 hours in a public school “focusing” and “learning” only to be sent home with three hours of homework? It totally confused me and angered me and caused so much added stress to our home environment on a daily basis. When we would sit down to work on the homework,she would argue with me. She did not understand the homework and my comment would always be “weren’t you paying attention in school?” Her reply was always “the teacher didn’t explain this to us!” After much speculation on her argument I started paying attention to the details of the day when I volunteered in her classroom and then it hit me, the teacher REALLY HADN’T gone over this! Here I am sitting at our table going over a subject that her teacher is getting paid to teach and I AM TEACHING it to my child. Well, if I am going to teach a subject to my child, then I want it in its entirety, not just a fragment of what the schools send home for us to teach! So, now I am the teacher and really always have been from the start. Eliminating the “middle man” and taking over what is taught to our children was the best decision for us! We don’t argue about homework anymore, we argue about what vegetable is going to be served at dinner!

  • I saw this film along with 2 other unschooling families. It was shown at a very prestigious private school in our area. Before the movie even began the Head Master of the school introduced the film by saying, “This is one view point and nothing more than something to think about.” The film certainly reinforced how glad I am that my family is not part of that culture. Yet it was also very frustrating to me, whose family does not even take part in a school system. It made me feel like there really doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. It needs to trickle up or trickle down from somewhere. It needs to begin. Enough schools need to say no to homework. Enough parents need to take back their families, away from schools. The government needs to stop encouraging every kid to be college prepared with the intention of every student going to college. More debt for students and their families more money for the government and colleges and universities pockets.
    Work your ass off in high school with the promise of getting into a good college. Work your ass off in college so you get a good job. Hope you get a job and if you do, work your ass off the rest of your life just to perpetuate the cycle. It really is a race to nowhere. So sad. Trying to climb that ladder with no guarantees. The only “for sure thing” is that families and students alike are missing out on their lives right now.
    After the film there was a short Q & A and NONE of the parents seemed disturbed by the movie. The questions were not like, “Oh my gosh what are we going to do to stop this?!” They seemed to think it did not apply to them or there kids. I am sure 99% of the kids at such a private school where students are held to the highest standards, most are feeling over extended and stressed.
    It’s an epidemic with no cure in site. I hope this movie not only sheds some much needed light on these issues but that parents and teachers choose to see that it really is a problem that needs immediate attention.

  • Rob

    Interesting. Would not mind seeing this film, myself. Here is a thought, might make an interesting writing project. Or maybe it already exists: It would be very interesting to see an overview and comparison of the school alternatives which do exist. Public/private/home is a very superficial way of classifying educational choice, and you strike me as a person who could approach the topic with a poignant perspective. For instance, you have mentioned ‘free’ schools on several occasions, and I have not had the time to look into it to see what you meant by that. From what you have written, though, it is clear that Free schools are probably in a class of their own, worthy of discussion as a distinct alternative. Are they generally public or private? What are the statistics on their existence and enrolment? What distinguishes them from other alternatives? Different children have different needs: are there particular needs that Free schools meet the best? All questions that would make for interesting reading, especially if answered in the context of other alternatives.

    Also, do you have a reference for the Stanford homework research? It would be interesting to take a closer look at it.

    • kate

      This isn’t exactly what the conversation about homework in the film expressed, but one of the authors of this piece was interviewed in RTN: http://stophomework.com/pdflinks/ENC204print.pdf

      Yes. I agree. That’s an amazing project. It should be a film itself. Lisa Nielsen and I are talking about doing a piece like that. The questions you’re asking are all ones I’m really interested in and doing research on.

  • Phoebe

    I love this article.

    I live in England and its not nearly as bad here but I can see the similarities. When I was in school I went through peroids of everything being supposebly “normal” (by normal I mean accepting the school system and doing what I was told) to terrible anxiety where I would cry every morning and was depressed lot. This was before I had even turned 14.

    Schools are terribly damaging in more ways than we can probably ever explain. I just wish more people could realise this before its too late.

  • nice.
    and see. you’re a natural for what we need.

    your voice sweet.
    it’s so clear to you.
    and you articulate so well.

  • Claire Allison

    I’ll have to see if this comes out here to my part of the Great White North.

    I understand the call to “end” homework, or what have you, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s a symptom, not the root problem. There is something to be said for teaching kids how to do independent study projects and to work outside regular time constraints, so they have some control over their discipline when they do enter college and university and need to work within different time constraints. However, it’s also worth while to say that the current execution of homework produces not only anxiety but terrible learning habits. I think the big problem nightly homework creates is the time-management crunch. If you go home and have an assignment due tomorrow, or the day after, then it reinforces the idea that you can always do work on the fly, with little preperation. You do one of two things: get it done as soon as you get in the door, or hours later, or the next night or right before it’s due. It reinforces that procastination habit by encouraging students to think that a short-term assignment can produce good results even when it’s executed late. Beyond that, having lots of successive short-term assignments eliminates time to create long-term assignments, the kind that really need thought and care. Even now, in my Masters, I’m still trying to teach myself to break the procastination-instinct.

    I think that’s the big shitter- it hurts students (especially the ones in the humanities) because they don’t learn to educate themselves through carefully selective accumulation and thoughtful reflection on works- they learn that first instinct and reactionary discourse will produce rewards and so they never push beyond that. I’ve spent so much time telling my students they need to reflect and think about our assignments, rather than react to them, just trying to break them from their habits.

  • […] post on Un-schooled, about the film Race to Nowhere. It’s really good. And a really big deal right now. And the screening I went to was the first […]

  • Julia

    First of all let me say I love your blogs and your writing Kate! I’m a regular follower of eat the damn cake.
    Now, I just thought I’d put my two cents in, me being a junior in a private high school in new york. The film “race to nowhere” was recently shown at my school, and it let to a bit of conflict where many of the parents freaked out about the amount of work we have (and had forgotten by the next week). While this was interesting in itself, what I found even more fascinating was that I and many of the other students in my school didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Yes, school was portrayed horribly in the film, and if you’ve ever read “the overacheivers”, which is a great book, it’s about a similar topic. The thing is, not all school is like that. I go to a pretty intense school. I’m often quite stressed, and I’m at school for 12 hours some days. About once a year I get only 3 hours of sleep. But on the whole I really love school, and I think that it is worth it. I love the classes I take, my teachers, what I’m learning, and my after school activities. I don’t think I would have it any other way. It’s true that I go to an amazing school that’s pretty good about not killing students, and that I might just not realize how tough things are because I’m in the midst of them. I honestly don’t know.
    But I just wanted to let you know that while school can be awful for some, it still is a wonderful experience for some kids. School still can be good!

    • kate

      I hear you, Julia. I know plenty of people who didn’t mind school, or liked it. My brother went to private school and liked it! I guess my main objection to the problem posed by the film was that people seemed unable to imagine a solution. I’m also disturbed by the fact that the experiences depicted in RTN seem pretty common, but that definitely doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way! And I’m glad you’re one of the people who don’t. Although, honestly, 12 hours a day? I wish I had that kind of stamina. Those are my Bear’s work hours, and I think they’re really excessive.

  • Val

    I wrote about this too a month or so ago. I enjoyed your entry today, well said. Here’s the link: http://well–yeah.blogspot.com/2010/12/just-walk-away.html love, Val

  • Have you watched this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diSJv6FfHjc It’s about why school is a forced government training program, very similar to prison.

  • Kate- AGAIN, I am thankful to read your thoughts. Im thankful you are poignant and straight forward. Im thankful such a strong {intelligent} woman represents the children I am growing up in a homeskool family. Reading your posts reassures me that we are doing the best thing, even when it feels questionable.
    Thank you.

  • I loved this! I homeschool my children and sometimes sit and listen to my friends with their 6-8 year old kids talk about their 3-5 hours of homework each night. I try to be sympathetic as they complain and worry about their children but any suggestion of homeschool (which to me seems the natural other option) they are quick to say no no no I couldn’t teach them. I often ask but aren’t you already doing that if you are helping them with homework for up to 5 hours a night? Then to be honest I see the work they are doing and its not even what I view as advanced. I spend maybe 3 hours a day homeschooling my children and they are 1-2 grades ahead of all their peers. Yet homeschooling doesn’t make sense to them?

  • […] And she gave us a superb educational model to end the “Race to Nowhere.” […]

  • While running for politics in 1993 I told a group of school children in grades 6 to 8 that As a long term computer programmer I could take any of them with a grade 8 education and sit them beside me and teach them every job I had done. They cheered me. I had attended over 50 political forums and never heard a candidate cheered so loudly. They knew the bs we put them thru is bs.

    Check for “Yellowhead speaks 1993” for a similar statement.

  • […] And she gave us a superb educational model to end the “Race to Nowhere.” […]

  • linda

    Love reading everyone’s posts. I am an elementry public school teacher in my 20th year. I actually feel sorry for kids myself. I can’t believe the standards that they are supposed to master at such a young age. It is the government; not the schools themselves. I can clearly see why they are at thier wits end by middle or high school. I read about RTN in a magazine and would love to see it. I had never heard of it otherwise. Does anyone know how to go about finding he view for it?

  • A stressed student

    My average day.
    1:00 A.M. Can’t sleep. Worrying about art project I should’ve had done 3 days ago. I find it funny how we can’t even be creative in art: We have to draw this, this way. We have to draw that, that way. You have to paint this, not that. Also, they tell us to take our time and make it neat, but don’t give us the time to make it neat! Thinking about sneaking downstairs and working on it until it’s done. Feel exhausted, but can’t fall asleep.
    3:00 A.M. Falls into restless sleep.
    4:00 A.M. Sneaks downstairs. Finished project.
    6:00 A.M. Wakes up.
    7:00 A.M. Dad drives me to school. I look awful… Hair tugged up in a stupid looking bun and no makeup on my face. Bags hang under my eyes.
    8:00 A.M. Drama with friends starts, making school 1,000 times more stressful.
    12:00 P.M. Got yelled at by my reading teacher for not getting my work done on time. I don’t understand science, quiz tomorrow. Handed in my stupid looking art project. It’s lunchtime. My friends aren’t even talking to me. More drama starts. I felt like crying.
    2:50 P.M. Walk out of school laughing with my friends, but I feel like collapsing and never talking again. Trudge home, with a crap load of homework to do.
    3:15 P.M. Just got home. Fall into the recliner, wait ten minutes to collect my thoughts… and start my homework.
    5:30 P.M. I’ve worked on my homework for nearly 2 hours and still have a ton more. I feel like I just work and work and work and work and work but never get anything done. It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle.
    6:30 P.M. Still working on homework 2/3 of it is done and I’ve been working for three hours. I eat dinner, and pass out on the couch.
    8:00 P.M. Mom wakes me up. I finish my homework. I go up to my room, and fall into bed.
    Starts all over again. It’s a terrible thing. I feel trapped every single day. Teachers and friends don’t make anything better with their drama. I’ve already had a few nervous breakdowns, but I put on a brave face and pretend it doesn’t bother me when I’m seriously falling apart. And I thought I was alone.
    Now I know I’m not alone. :) Thanks for sharing.

  • great blog post. I loved race to nowhere! It was definitely thought provoking. It was funny how my and my husbands reactions to it were totally different. His kids go to public school and he would never consider homeschooling them. I homeschoo my kids. He thought that the race to nowhere the kids were just a bunch of whiners and they should just suck it up and deal with it, while I had a totally alternative opinion of why don’t those parents consider another option? Why make the kids go through all of that. crazy. One of my friends daughters is really struggling right now and is really in danger of doing and having bad things happen to her as she moves to middle school next year. they consider her and atrisk student. I offered to homeschool her girls along with my own kids but she didn’t want to do that as an option. The thought of homeschooling was too scary for her and she doesn’t think the girls would get everything “they are supposed to know” even though my kids are pretty smart and well adjusted and love life. It is funny how people get scared into thinking that there is the only way to do things and it is the mainstream way, if you dont go with that, you wont succeed. I see it as we are all different and are not all going to fit into the box. Great post!

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