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Sunday, January 19th, 2020

Documentary Review: “Race to Nowhere” may be ten years old, but it has aged well

After the sui­cide of a high-achiev­ing thir­teen-year-old girl in her com­mu­ni­ty, Vic­ki Abeles was moved to make the film “Race to Nowhere” to bring atten­tion to some of the prob­lems with the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion system.

Though the film is now ten years old, it remains high­ly relevant.

The film’s main crit­i­cism is for the large and increas­ing amounts of home­work that Amer­i­can school chil­dren, even ele­men­tary school stu­dents, are expect­ed to com­plete every day. This home­work, and the pres­sure to do well and get into a good col­lege, are cre­at­ing high lev­els of stress for stu­dents, with­out result­ing in stu­dents actu­al­ly learn­ing more or being bet­ter pre­pared for col­lege or career.

Race to Nowhere Film Poster

Race to Nowhere
Release Year: 2010
Direc­tors: Vic­ki Abeles, Jes­si­ca Con­g­don
Run­ning Time: 1 hour, 25 min­utes
Watch trail­er | Watch film (until 01/31/2020)

Abeles spoke to teach­ers, doc­tors, par­ents, and stu­dents, includ­ing her own chil­dren, to paint a full pic­ture of the impacts of high pres­sure for aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess and too much homework.

Home­work, it turns out, is of lim­it­ed val­ue, espe­cial­ly at younger ages.

Stud­ies show that in ele­men­tary school, there is no cor­re­la­tion between any amount of home­work and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment; in oth­er words, there is no val­ue in or rea­son to assign home­work to ele­men­tary schoolers.

For mid­dle school­ers, there is some benefit.

There is cor­re­la­tion with high­er aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment, but it drops off after about one hour of home­work per day. In high school, the cor­re­la­tion caps at about two hours per day. Any­thing above these amounts is of lit­tle to no benefit.

Stud­ies have also shown that coun­tries that out­per­form the Unit­ed States aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly give less home­work than US schools do.

Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, says that kids these days are over­sched­uled and tired. Chil­dren, includ­ing teenagers, are still grow­ing, and need nine hours of sleep each night. But many are not get­ting that much because they are too busy with school activ­i­ties and homework.

“This is a form of neglect,” says Dr. Mogel.

When it comes to home­work, rather than assign­ing a high vol­ume, teach­ers and school admin­is­tra­tors should instead ask them­selves two questions:

  1. What is the pur­pose of the homework?
  2. And what is devel­op­men­tal­ly appropriate?

“All along the way, we’re miss­ing devel­op­men­tal tasks with a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with per­for­mance,” says one of the sub­jects in the film.

Schools and par­ents also tend to for­get that play is very impor­tant for learn­ing and social­iza­tion, espe­cial­ly for young children.

A teacher in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, Dar­rick Smith, thinks the cur­rent edu­ca­tion sys­tem is dehu­man­iz­ing. He feels the sys­tem is try­ing to fur­ther “roboti­cize” stu­dents, to make them aca­d­e­m­ic com­peti­tors and producers.

Anoth­er teacher dis­cuss­es how stu­dents are not real­ly learn­ing what they will need to suc­ceed in jobs. Jobs need you to be a crit­i­cal thinker, a prob­lem solver, and to work well in groups, she says, but learn­ing and prac­tic­ing these things are pushed aside in schools, where it’s all about test­ing now.

In gen­er­al, Amer­i­can stu­dents do not per­form as well as stu­dents in oth­er coun­tries, espe­cial­ly in sci­ence and math.

This is par­tial­ly relat­ed to how we teach math and sci­ence, accord­ing to the film. We teach math and sci­ence in a very for­mu­la­ic way, and we teach to the test.

Anoth­er thing oth­er coun­tries are doing bet­ter than the Unit­ed States is invest­ing in teach­ers and pro­vid­ing them with pro­fes­sion­al pay. Those that invest more in teach­ers are out­per­form­ing the Unit­ed States. This is because qual­i­ty of teach­ing is what mat­ters most in edu­ca­tion, accord­ing to a study cit­ed in the film.

The film fair­ly places a lot of the blame on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Thank­ful­ly, one thing that has changed since the release of the film is that NCLB was repealed in 2015. How­ev­er many of the same prob­lems that No Child Left Behind cre­at­ed or exac­er­bat­ed con­tin­ue, even with it no longer in force.

There is still too much empha­sis on test­ing. Teach­ers are still held to high stan­dards with­out receiv­ing fair com­pen­sa­tion or the sup­port need­ed to ade­quate­ly do their jobs. Teacher strikes have become a reg­u­lar occur­rence through­out the coun­try over the last few years, as teach­ers fight not just for fair com­pen­sa­tion for them­selves, but for bet­ter learn­ing con­di­tions for their students.

Abeles made anoth­er film, “Beyond Mea­sure”, in 2014, that fur­ther explores some of these issues in schools, and also pub­lished a book with the same name.

Stream Race to Nowhere for free

“Race to Nowhere” can be screened for free until Jan­u­ary 31st on the film’s web­site, and is also avail­able on tra­di­tion­al stream­ing ser­vices such as iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play, for a fee, if you miss the free stream­ing special.

On the film’s web­site you can also request to host a screen­ing of the film in your com­mu­ni­ty, find more infor­ma­tion and resources about edu­ca­tion issues, and learn about ways to take action to improve schools.

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One Comment

  1. I will def­i­nite­ly watch this, thanks for the review!

    # by Seth Johnson :: January 20th, 2020 at 8:29 PM
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