Monday, June 15, 2009

Race to Nowhere - an Interview with Filmmaker Vicki Abeles

I had heard about a film called “Race to Nowhere” that was in the works and I was lucky to catch a few moments of Vicki Abeles’ time to ask her about the film. Vicki founded Reel Link Films in 2007 and “Race to Nowhere”, their first film will premier this year. The documentary is a look into the stressful, activity-packed lives of students who are feeling the pressure to achieve.

What is the film about?

Race to Nowhere is a film examining the current state of childhood and education in America. The film asks the question, are we preparing the next generation for healthy, productive lives.

What brought about your work on this film?

After a series of wake up call in my family and community I set out to understand why childhood today looked so different than what I remembered from my own youth.

What change or work would you like to see as the result of this film?

Our intent is to start a national dialogue on education and the pressures our children and educators are under in the hopes of galvanizing change.

I often think there is a sense of economic fear that causes us to want our children to succeed, but there is a more sinister motive at play in that we put the burden of global competitiveness squarely on the shoulders of our children and expect them to rescue us and assure us a spot at the top of the competition. Do you think that is what is part of the pressure we put on them in school?

So much of what we see today seems to be the result of parental fears as well as fear at a national level that we are somehow slipping behind in this flattened world.

There are many models and ideas of education (Democratic Schools, Educating for Human Greatness, De-Schooling Society) that propose to allow students to learn and excel at what is interesting to them and teachers are more facilitators. In these models we don’t worry so much about setting a standard that everyone must live up to, whether they are interested or not. What are your thoughts on these kinds of models?

I think there are many experts in the field of education better equipped to handle this question. That said, I believe we need to move away from today's one size fits all approach and make education relevant to our kids and the 21st century.

The consequences of the pressure to succeed, meaning get good grades and high test scores, are many. Kids do not get play time, recess time, down time. Programs that smack of fun or are in any way less than academic, like art, drama, music, or even gym class are routinely cut to save money and time to devote to more academic studies. Why are these programs or activities important? Why is balance important?

Play is the work of childhood, and adolescents have the important work of figuring out who they are. When we sacrifice the downtime needed for these important developmental stages, we see many unintended consequences from stress and anxiety, to depression, disengaged learning, and a failure to develop life skills that are critical to adulthood. We fail to recognize the importance developing the right side of the brain - critical for future innovation.

How do we address the developmental needs of the whole child beyond academics (physical, emotional, social, etc.)?

We recognize that children develop at different rates, and have different strengths and challenges. We allow the down time to play, explore, work on social interactions, so vital to healthy adulthood.

Do you think standardized testing is the cause of the pressure to succeed? Are there other causes?

As you pointed out, fear drives so much of the pressure. Some of it comes from parents, some is student and peer driven and some comes from the teachers who are also feeling the pressure to hit the scores and satisfy the parents. A number of other factors contribute to the pressure. Broad standards that require teachers to teach to multiple choice tests, the media driven perception that there are only 20 colleges that will lead to success, a test and homework driven education model, and the pressure to build "resumes" for the college application.

Expert after expert in the field of child development, pediatrics, psychology and education have continually pointed to the necessity and the effectiveness of play-based Kindergarten, but more and more it is becoming learning-centered with the pressure to read and write at ever-earlier ages. What are the consequences?

There are many unintended consequences: loss of childhood; increasing rates of physical and emotional health issues in childhood (I am also concerned about the long term implications of seeing these medical problems at such a young age); sleep deprivation; use of performance enhancing medications to get through this pressure cooker system; compromised values because of a desire to get the grade at any cost; kids are dropping out; arriving in college burnt out; mental health offices on college campuses are stretched beyond capacity; the college drop out rate is high; and industry is telling us the graduates lack the skills to succeed in the workforce.

Daniel Pink, author of a Whole New Mind talks about the urgent need for creativity in schools and the work place. Sir Ken Robinson talks about finding your element, your passion and how that can more easily be accomplished through a richer curriculum. How does a school district with limited funds meet these needs and still foster academic achievement?

I believe schools can include these programs by first recognizing their importance in developing whole human beings. If we start moving away from the mentality of inexpensive, multiple choice tests focused on broad standards, teachers can build these programs into their curriculum with project based learning, etc. As well, businesses and local communities can work in partnership with local schools to help build these programs. First, we have to recognize the importance of these programs to the development of healthy, productive people. Transforming education and childhood doesn't require the funds to develop new technology or cures for a new disease. There are plenty of experts in the fields of education and child development that have solutions. We need to first raise awareness and engage in a national dialogue.

To learn more about the film and to see a trailer, visit:


  1. I'm one of the advisors on Vicki's film and I encourage everyone to see it and then to come up with some solutions in individual communities. Big problems can be dealt with in small increments. Just a simple shift of attitude on the parent's part is a good first step. Parents should rethink accepted education practices and question something when their gut tells them it's wrong.

  2. Since WWII, there has been a dominant ideology on both sides, during the Cold War and after, for waging war to gain or maintain economic advantage in the world. This has included the use of WMD for attacking civilian populations. Thus, pursuit of economic advantage has long been a justification for mass destruction of civilian populations, and it has not been an issue that any leaders in authority in the world presently disagree on. Those who publicly take exception to this morality have been repeatedly subjected to obloquy and contempt as unrealistic and unmanly. This sets quite an example for the youth-- and the underlying ideology of wealth-through-military-power continues to this day.

  3. ROAD TO NOWHERE, actually, to somewhere, but do we want to go there?
    Pushing our kids to PERFORM is always at the detriment of those children becoming BETTER HUMANS.
    If we look at those chinese whiz kids or the athletes, we see an awful lot of ABUSED KIDS, from a VERY YOUNG AGE, MAYBE EVEN 2 or less.
    The performance in olympics by chinese is only half the truth when they are caught underage, but the biggest concern is what kind of mental and physical abuse have they gone through to achieve this?
    As for studies to have the best jobs, same here, it leads to grown-ups only seeing GREEN. Their only aim in life is MORE AND MORE MONEY, with life and the environment being last on their list or concern.
    If we think these kids are going to be the future, well, we have a reason to worry. NOW, IF THE WORLD IS LOOKING AT THE CHINESE AS ROLE MODELS for running their life, WE ARE IN TROUBLE.
    Let's not forget that THEY HAD TO TRAIN PEOPLE IN COURTESY, FRIENDLINESS, POLITENESS, CHEERING, CLEANLINESS...... prior to the shame games. And that is the previous generations who were raised in such BRUTAL TREATMENT.

  4. This film simply proves that you can point a camera in any direction and prove just about anything. The entire premise is that kids who are in 4-6 AP classes and are taking multiple after school activities are spending upwards of 6 hours on homework every single night and the stress is killing them. First: the kids in this film probably shouldn't be in multiple AP classes. Second: the parents should limit the number of after-school activities their children participate in. It seemed the film makers' solution was to eliminate homework so as to eliminate stress. There was zero talk of the kids who were successful in all of these programs and even less talk of teaching kids how to manage stress. When are we going to wake up and realize the solutions to our problems are not eliminating what is difficult but learning how to overcome what is difficult. I hesitate to even mention how they shamelessly exploited a suicide victim to further their cause of less homework for their poor babies. If you notice all of the homes shot in this film were very upper class. Why no mention of the kid who takes AP classes, participates in multiple sports and doesn't always come home to a full meal?