I was dreading watching this movie. When I saw the slim disk in the mail, I wanted to slide it to the bottom of the Netflix pile, underneath Fight Club and the first season of Friday Night Lights. For days it lay there and I found excuses to avoid it: the boys were awake and I didn’t want them to over hear; I was too tired to take notes. But I’d promised the filmmaker I’d return it within a week and so finally, my deadline looming, I roped my husband Tony in as my viewing partner, warning him it wasn’t a movie to just roll over us, an easy Friday night flick. I feared it would make me want to do something, start uncomfortable conversations with teachers and school administrators, make me think twice about the questions I ask my third grader about his school day.
That Race to Nowhere (2009) became a kind of homework project for me is appropriate, because Vicki Abeles’ powerful movie documents the mad pressures of homework on American children. And although Tony’s and my kids are only eight and five, it spoke to us compellingly.
The documentary opens with Vicki’s story: the child of a single mom, she was raised to believe in the value of hard work, and to trust in education, more than possessions or even personal relationships, as the one thing that can never be taken from you. So she worked hard and found success at work and happiness raising three kids; over home movie footage of Abeles reading to her babies and playing in the park, she says she felt like she’d found the right mix of family time for everyone.
But as the kids grew older, as their extracurricular activities took more time and their homework responsibilities amped up, family time was lost. Over a shot of her harried husband handing their son a plate of food to eat in the car, Vicki says “I didn’t think when I had kids that the only time I would see them is for twenty minutes at dinner.” And worse, even, than the loss of family time is the impact of the stressful schedule on her children; entering middle school, each child begins to report headaches and stomach aches, they have trouble sleeping, they don’t have time to play with their friends.
All of this might seem like the typical complaints of a privileged, upper middle class family and perhaps not engender much sympathy except that, as Vicki discovers and illustrates in the film, these complaints aren’t limited to private school kids. Across the spectrum, as she visits public and private schools, as she talks to families in a range of socioeconomic brackets and experts ranging from teachers, administrators, college admissions officers and psychologists, she discovers a system that is so thoroughly broken that even the adolescent medicine specialist, a father of two middle school girls, confesses, “I’m having trouble with this! And I’m writing books on this stuff!”
So while Abeles does have a personal stake in the project, she doesn’t let her agenda take over the story; she interviews a diverse group of people involved with children and in the American education system — from public school teachers to adolescent health specialists to college admissions officers — all of them unhappy with current practice and its impact on kids, but daunted by the prospect of attempting change. Her film concisely outlines the history of homework in American society – how a post-Sputnik homework lull in the ’70s ended with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and the 2002 passage of the misguided No Child Left Behind. Now, educators agree that there’s no correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school, and the correlation flatlines after two hours of high school homework. But federal education requirements, overworked teachers, and anxious parents, worried that their children will be the first generation not to surpass their parents’ achievements, continue to pile it on, and kids are left anxious, depressed, or worse, as they turn to drug use or cheating to cope. One student shrugs, “cheating has become another course; you learn how to do it from 9th to 12th grade, and it continues, and you get better at it.”
Abeles stands back and lets personal stories do all the work. Cinematically accessible, expertly shot and edited, Race to Nowhere consists simply of interviews — in classrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and offices — interspersed with and occasionally overlapping establishing shots of the interviewees’ schools and homes. The individual voices rise and fall, building into a chorus of voices that range in tone from puzzled to furious. There’s Jessica, a high school senior who says, “The worst question you can ask your child in high school is ‘And?’ Like [the kid will] say, ‘I’m in 3 AP classes.’ ‘And?’ ‘Well I do sports.’ ‘And?’ ‘I work in the theater.’ ‘And?’ Everyone expects us to be superheroes. . . and I think sometimes parents just need to step back and say, ‘You know what? You’ve done a really good job.'” Sam says, ‘I’m never really thinking about the meanings of any of [my homework], I’m just thinking about how to get done.” Emma, who has been driven out of teaching by the frustrations of being made to teach to the test in an underfunded urban school, starts to weep in frustration as she says, “I’ve always been a teacher, I’ve always wanted to be in East Oakland, and I love these kids. One of the things that I never knew about teaching was, I’m a mother, I’m a friend, I’m a mentor and, I don’t want to leave them. . . I don’t want them to feel like I’ve just given up on them.” And Jacqueline says, with a weary mix of regret and optimism, “I think college will be the place where I start to learn.”
If Race to Nowhere were only an indictment of the current system, powerful though it is, it would leave us enraged and powerless. But it offers models of change and suggestions for action. We meet Matt Goldman, a founding member of the Blue Man Group and cofounder of Blue School, a Reggio Emilia-based curriculum that strives for both academic rigor and, using a term I’ve never encountered in reading about education, “academic enchantment.” We meet a school principal who has eliminated homework for elementary school entirely, and teachers who have replaced tests with student portfolios, schools that have dropped Advanced Placement courses, and college admissions directors who have eliminated or modified the use of the SAT in their decisions. The film ends with lists of do-able goals for viewers, whether they are parents, teachers, administrators, students, or taxpayers.
My son Ben’s homework — one math worksheet; five sentences in a writing journal; fifteen minutes of reading — is meant to take less than half an hour. But the agonizing over the homework (except for the reading) sometimes consumes us for hours. He sits at his desk, twirling his pencil, bored by the math sheet, uninterested in the writing prompt. Tony and I alternate, sometimes just letting him sit, sometimes sitting with him and helping him tease out some sentences for his writing journal. Sometimes we are patient, often we are not. After watching Race to Nowhere, though, we met with both his teacher and his school principal (who had already seen the movie). We talked about their expectations and ours, strategies for coping with Ben’s homework malaise, and what we could expect in the future. They didn’t offer to eliminate his homework, and we didn’t refuse to supervise it anymore, but the film helped us start a productive conversation, one I expect we will revisit periodically as both our kids move through the school. Race to Nowhere is an uncomfortable movie to watch but everybody should make time for it.