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'Race to Nowhere:' It's no 'Waiting for 'Superman', ' but it's Honest

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By now it seems we have all reviewed "Waiting for 'Superman'," but what's surprising is that WFS is just one of four or five movies about education now out. A few weeks ago I reviewed WFS, and now I've decided to review the rest of them, beginning with "Race to Nowhere," the 2009 film made by first-time director (and angry parent) Vicki Abeles.

"Race to Nowhere" is a film about how schools and parental pressure are affecting students' mental and emotional wellbeing. WFS portrays our schools as undemanding; "Race to Nowhere" says the opposite -- that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally.

On one level, the title is unfortunate because it seems to be playing off the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top," which in itself is playing off a common criticism of George W. Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' law that many believe created a "Race to the Bottom."

However, "Race to Nowhere," came first, according to the filmmaker. Sure enough, a young man uses the phrase to describe what high school seems like to him and, by extension, to just about all of the kids in the film. While No Child Left Behind is one of the villains of the film, there's no mention of "Race to the Top" and the billions of dollars that have just been awarded to the competition's winners.

Some moments in "Race to Nowhere" just jump off the screen. One that I found particularly compelling: a young woman speaking on a panel asks her audience to identify the worst question a parent can ask his or her child. Turns out, she says, it's a one-word question. Just

"And?" As in this circumstance:
Child: "I'm taking three honors courses."
Parent: "And?"
Child: "Well, I have the lead in the school play."
Parent: "And?"
Child: "I made the volleyball team."
Parent: "And?"

You get the picture. The parents are never satisfied, and the child can never relax. Life for these students is nothing but stress and unrealistic expectations. The world the film conjures up is all too familiar: students are expected to perform and produce but aren't given time to play.

In another chilling sequence, a school counselor relates a conversation he says he's had often: After a child has collapsed from stress, the parent says that he doesn't understand because "she's a good kid." No, the counselor replies, She's a good performer; you don't know whether she's a good kid or not.

Later a counselor relates a family story. His father works at a mental health facility near a university and always knows when exams are approaching -- because the place fills up with students!

Stanford's Deborah Stipek provides eloquent testimony about the effect of grade grubbing on genuine learning. After her own daughter completed her French Advanced Placement exam, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Now I never have to speak French again," she told her mother.

"Race to Nowhere" is also Vicki Abeles' personal story, detailing her realization that her own children were suffering, emotionally and physically. That is the reason, she told me, that she made the film in the first place.

"Race to Nowhere" is unrelenting, piling on problem after problem. Hours of homework produce unbearable stress; stress produces cheating, cramming to pass tests and then forgetting everything; that false learning then means remediation when they get to college; and, on rare occasions, students kill themselves.

In my 35 years of reporting for NPR and PBS, I have covered these issues more times than I care to remember. In the late 70's I spent several weeks in mental institutions for children and met kids like those in this movie. In the late 80's I reported on adolescent suicide for what was then called The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, a segment that still wakes me up in the middle of the night from time to time. And in 1995 we produced "A.D.D: A Dubious Diagnosis?" for PBS and saw some of the same pressures being put on kids. I promise you that this movie is telling the truth.

"Race to Nowhere" spreads the blame around: No Child Left Behind, bubble tests, too much mind-numbing homework and -- yes -- parents who are more concerned with their own social status than with the health and well being of their children. One counselor recalls hearing mothers at a mall boasting about how well their children are doing, adding that she knows better because she is treating their kids.

"Race to Nowhere" conveys important messages with power: Our obsession with test scores is dangerous and counterproductive. When parents and schools treat young people like automatons, they not only kill their childhood, but they are not preparing them to lead healthy adult lives. In what is almost a throwaway moment, one employer says that these young adults make lousy employees because they're always waiting to be told what to do. Throwaway or not, it's shockingly effective.

As a movie, "Race to Nowhere" is -- unfortunately -- depressingly linear, which means that, at the end of the day, it's not a great film. When in about the 100th minute we are finally taken to an alternative to the rat race, a joyous school started by Blue Man Group, I wanted to stand up and cheer. A veteran filmmaker would have known to stop and start, and to mix the gloom with some cheer. In more experienced hands, we would have been taken to that happy place early, just so we would understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Ms. Abeles indicated that she's no longer searching for a commercial distributor for Race to Nowhere, after one promising deal fell through. To quote her directly, "We are proceeding with a hybrid distribution model, screening the film in hundreds of locations including over 70 theaters and schools. There are thousands of requests we are responding to because this film is speaking to millions of parents, educators, and students. This isn't just a film; it's a grassroots phenomenon." I hope she's right because her approach is both appropriate and brilliant, in my view, because that's the central message of the movie: what we are doing to our children, in school and at home, is harmful to their mental and physical health.

In our conversation a few days ago, Ms Abeles, a Californian and a lawyer, opined that some of the resistance the film has met has been because of its title. "People seem to assume that we are attacking the Obama Administration, but we came first." I asked her if she'd consider changing the name, just to make it easier to find an audience? "We have been talking about that," she said, but added that they were reluctant because the movie was finding an audience based on word-to-mouth. We kicked around the notion that if might do better if it had been named "Road to Nowhere."

When I spoke with Vicki Abeles last week, she alluded to efforts made by those promoting "Waiting for 'Superman' " to push her film aside. She said she had been invited and then disinvited to a number of film festivals, dropped only after WFS had been added to the bill. Who's doing that, I asked? She wasn't sure whether the motive was ideological or financial, but she said that she had offered to debate Guggenheim after joint screenings. That hasn't happened so far, she said.

I wish "Race to Nowhere" were as good a movie as "Waiting for 'Superman'." It's not, unfortunately, but "Race to Nowhere" is honest, and that counts for a lot in my book. The film is screening at select locations nationally -- I urge you to see it if it's playing near you - -or you can request and schedule a screening in your area. This film's message should be taken to heart.

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John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.