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Race to Nowhere: The Review

March 11, 2011

Last night the Oakland County Schools hosted another in their series of movies on education, Race to Nowhere.  There were a hundred or so people at the screening followed by a discussion time at the tables.  The film is about over-scheduled and over-stressed teens and it places a lot of the blame on our society that values achievement.

For my review, I’ll cover the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good

First, Race to Nowhere does point out that many American children are over-scheduled.   I have a hard time disagreeing with that.  Many kids have more activities than adults and since they tend to get more sleep, it means they have even less free unstructured time during the week.  The days of kids running down the street to play with their friends are over.  Those kids are running down soccer fields every night until it is time to do homework.  However, this isn’t every child.  There are still many that don’t participate in extracurricular activities.   And according to the University of Michigan, kids age 6-11 average 28 hours per week in front of the television.  But this isn’t mentioned in the movie.

Second, what is great for one child isn’t for another.  The movie doesn’t get into this too deeply.  After all, it doesn’t want to blow its premise that all kids need less stress and rigor.  But it does touch on that advanced classes for one child shouldn’t mean that all children have to take advanced classes.  Where it fails is in suggesting that if some children can’t handle the additional work of an advanced class that advanced classes should be dropped.  Based on the thinking behind this movie, some schools are removing honors and AP classes so that no child is “too stressed”.

Third, the amount of pointless homework can be overwhelming.  However, going back to the second point, for some children the homework is pointless and for some it is helpful.  Sending the same worksheet home with each child means that some children will spend hours struggling with it, others will find it helpfully reinforces the concepts from the day’s class, and others will see it as a tedious exercise because they are already far ahead of it.  I don’t think 4-6 hours of homework is great for any child.  However, despite the inference of the movie, I suspect this is rather rare.  Please post in the comments what age your child is and how many hours of homework a night they average.

Fourth, the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum is not good.  Nor is the focus on just memorizing a lot of facts.  Students need to be taught how to think, how to problem solve, and how to create ideas.  But they do also need to learn facts and sometimes that is rote memorization.  I’ve interviewed many database developers and I try to ask two kinds of questions.  One is basic knowledge that anyone in this field should know but requires memorization.  The other kind is scenarios that require problem solving.  Developers from countries that focus on rote memorization usually can answer the first type but not the second.  Developers from the United States often can answer the second kind but not the first.  I need the rare person who can do both.  Both must be taught in the schools.  And while the inch-deep person may have more varied interests, the mile-deep person can do the job I hire them to do.

The Bad

Race to Nowhere ultimately ignores that students are different.  Its solution to over-stressed, over-scheduled kids is to cut homework and advanced classes for all kids.  While I do not know many children that enjoy doing hours of homework, I do recognize that for some children it is an effective learning tool.  With appropriate homework, often parent-chosen, my daughter can advance quicker on a subject in the time we spend with her than she does at school.  (She often doesn’t realize that the games we play where she does 2 and 3 digit subtraction are really homework.)  However, homework must be appropriate for the child and the movie doesn’t seem to adhere to this.

Likewise, advanced classes are really difficult and stressful for some children, but  I found them to be a joy and a release from the boredom of plodding through subjects.  Advanced and gifted students learn better in classes for them.  In fact, studies show that a slower pace of class can cause advanced and gifted students to learn less.  Instead of banning advanced classes, make sure that children are in the appropriate classes.

Race to Nowhere really doesn’t seem to understand advanced and gifted children.  It talks about kids who have had school easy becoming stressed once they enroll in a class that is difficult.  However, the filmmaker doesn’t realize that it is precisely because school has been easy that the student is struggling and stressed.  They have never learned to learn, to persevere, to overcome difficulty.  For the first time in their lives, they are challenged by academics and they don’t know how to cope.  On this one, I speak from experience.  When I hit college with no study skills, it was very rough.

Phony self esteem plays a huge role in Race to Nowhere.  These kids have been told they are great, can do anything, and have otherwise had their egos inflated.  But this isn’t true self esteem.  True self esteem comes from having overcome obstacles to succeed.  A person with phony self esteem and a person with true self esteem react to difficulties differently.  Someone who has been told they are the best will have their phony self esteem deflated when they can’t easily accomplish what others can.   Someone who has struggled and succeeded will use their true self esteem to know that they probably can do this too but it may require hard work and sacrifice.  We need to focus on children having true self esteem.

The Ugly

Race to Nowhere is not meant to foster discussion but suppress it.  Yes, there is usually a discussion period after the movie, but the movie attempts to make you feel heartless and insensitive to children if you still believe that children need external motivation, challenges, homework, and competition.  It is a “scare movie” meant to make you think that your children could be driven to physical ailment and suicide if you set high expectations on them.  People who hold beliefs contrary to the filmmaker are not shown in the movie.  There is no dialogue in the movie, but only a single viewpoint presented.

And it is presented tediously over and over and over.  It is probably why this film was not picked up for release by a distributor.  A good film editor knows what to put in, but more importantly what not to put in.  Vicki Abeles has not shown to a good filmmaker.  Everything is shoved in and one-third of the way through the movie you are staring at your watch eying the second hand somehow grind to a halt.  No, I don’t expect this movie to be entertaining.  But just as the filmmaker believes that an hour and a half of homework could be compressed down to half an hour and achieve the same results with less wasted time, this movie could be compressed to half an hour and waste less of the viewer’s time.

What is really ugly though is that this movie takes aim at education for the stress on teens.  Yes, it has been too many years since I was a teen, but academics was far from the only stress.  There is stress to succeed in sports, to be popular, and to have a girlfriend or boyfriend.  There is stress at home and at work unrelated to academics.  Why should the burden be on schools and parents to relieve the stress on academics?  Decrease the stress on sports, on dating, and on the popularity contest called high school.  I went to an all boys school and the stress on one’s dating and social life was greatly lessened.  But suggesting single gender schools raises the ire of many feminists who often populate the upper echelons of the educational establishment.

This movie is ultimately lacking in solutions.  Letting American children have better phony self esteem through easier standards is not a solution.  Since the movie has failed to offer realistic suggestions to over-scheduled and over-stressed kids, I will offer a few.

  • Place a sign in each classroom: “Mistakes are Made Here”.  We learn more through making mistakes than we do through succeeding the first time.
  • Shorten the school day back to where it was.  Fewer but longer days means more homework and less time in the afternoon for play.
  • Don’t give busywork for homework.  Tailor it to what the child needs.
  • Decide as a school district which is more important: academics or athletics.  And then cut back on the other one.
  • Have more stay at home parents.  Many children are in activities because their parents are working and need something for them to do.  A stay at home parent also means that evenings can be filled with family activities instead of housework.
  • Have study halls and tutors available for kids who need help.  A child falling behind will not raise his hand to ask a question and appear stupid.  He will just fall further behind and become more stressed.  One on one time with a tutor will give him the opportunity to learn what he missed.  If schools can pay for coaches, assistant coaches, and trainers for athletics, why is there not money for the same in academics?
  • Have different tracks for students based on ability.  I hate playing baseball.  It stressed me out in school because I couldn’t hit, catch, or throw as well as others.  I would have done better and learned more about how to play baseball on a team of unathletic kids.  The same is true for academics.  How can children not be stressed when they are trying to keep up with kids with greater natural ability?  Instead of revolving classes around age, create them around ability, which will result in greater learning and less stress for all.
  • Have high schools based on where the student is headed.  Someone going into skilled trades need not learn Algebra II, but an applied geometry course or auto shop would be a better use of their time.  Germany has done this with great success.  Place value on creating both the best engineers and auto mechanics.  Work with the child’s talents not against them.

Overall, I give this film a D.  It’s message is wrong for many, it doesn’t explore both sides, it is monotonous and long-winded, and it doesn’t offer solutions.  Consider it a class you can skip.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE!
Rochester Supports Advanced & Gifted Education!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2011 4:58 PM

    I have a child in second grade (age 7) and one in kindergarten (age 5) who both have homework every night from their enrichment teacher. The amount of time is dependent upon their focus. The second grader can complete 5 total pages of 3×3 digit multiplication (#40), long division (#40), mixed word problems (#20), mixed fractions (#20), and mixed addition and subtraction up to millions (#40). It usually takes him an average of 45-60 minutes. My child in kindergarten has 3×3 digit subtraction with regrouping (#50), 5×5 digit addition (#50), mixed word problems (#10), time and money problems, greater than less than problems. It usually takes her 20-30 minutes to complete 4 pages.

  2. Anna Wojcik permalink
    March 11, 2011 7:38 PM

    I too have a second grader and kindergartner. Each night we work on different aspects of homework. One night we spend reading for thirty minutes or more depending on the type of book each child has chosen. Other nights we do writing and spelling activities, and other nights we work on math activities. We also play games (math or strategic) after dinner for about half an hour.

    I don’t necessarily have a day set aside for each, ie Monday Math, Tuesday reading, etc. I try to mix it up so the kids don’t get bored or tired of the “same” thing.

    So on average we spend at least 30minutes on homework a night or more depending on the activity itself.

    I do pay attention to the time and gauge how my kids are doing. Some times we will break from the homework if I see they are too frustrated, tired or not interested. I try to keep a balance so as not to overwhelm them as my homework activities are beyond what they do in the class.

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