But these freshmen were rather dismissive of the movie. Stress, pressure, hours of homework—that's just the way life is, they collectively shrugged. But then they slowly started to describe things they'd had to give up to deal with their nightly homework load—a musical instrument or a beloved sport. They talked about seeing kids crying in the hall because they got a B on an exam. When an expert in the movie said kids need nine hours or more of sleep a night, they said the auditorium erupted in laughter. But Race to Nowhere may speak more directly to worried parents. "My mother loved the film," one of my daughter's friends said. "She's gone in to talk to people at the school."
Like that mother, I was educated in the '60s and '70s, an era notable for a desire to break down existing institutions. I had no homework through early elementary school, and when it started, it never became the nightly second shift that it is for my high-school student daughter. When I was her age, getting into a selective college was not a multi-year campaign that required paid consultants. We were not expected to have started our own charities or to have played at Carnegie Hall. When it came time to take the SAT, my preparation consisted of bringing enough sharpened pencils.
But education, like religion, is prone to wild swings of reform and counter-reform. By the 1980s, policymakers had grown alarmed at what they saw as a generation of uneducated nitwits, and in 1983 a presidential commission issued the landmark report A Nation at Risk, which stated that schools were failing to prepare students for the modern workforce and explicitly recommended more homework. And the levels have been ratcheting up ever since. The experts in Race to Nowhere assert there's virtually no correlation between homework load and academic success in lower grades, and in upper grades, a reasonable amount is more effective than a ton.
The 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act brought another wave of transformations. Its worthy premise was that an excellent education is the right of all children. The way it was decided to measure progress toward that goal is through standardized tests—with teachers' and administrators' careers on the line. But as the critics in Race to Nowhere argue, an unintended result of NCLB has been that what's being taught in class is increasingly narrowing to what's on those tests, and how best to take them, at the expense of creative thinking. Meanwhile, in 2009—the year Race to Nowhere made its film festival debut—Barack Obama announced Race to the Top, his administration's package of education reforms, which calls for still more high-stakes testing. (Abeles' title isn't mockery, just coincidence.)
Abeles' crusade against the enormous problems her film highlights is going to have a hard time gaining traction, warns education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which indicts the punitive, reductive nature of our recent reforms. "Vicki's talking about a malignant force that's touching every school in America," Ravitch says.
In this year's State of the Union address, track coach Obama said we must "win the race to educate our kids," who are being lapped by little whizzes from China and elsewhere. But as Abeles notes—reformers of the reforms sometimes end up in the odd position of defending our apparent mediocrity—we've never led the world in test scores: "We've led the world in innovation."
At a recent Town Hall meeting, Obama seemed to express ambivalence about his own education program. "We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids," he said, in response to a student who asked for fewer of them. "One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test."
Abeles has become a full-time activist and is now working on a book. She knows change will only come in small steps. She cites a school principal who has put a lid on homework, a school district that's eliminated AP classes. She is showing the film to college presidents and admissions officers, hoping to get them to release some of the pressure. Maybe, she suggests, colleges can say that student résumés attached to applications (yes, teenagers have résumés—and often they're more impressive than yours) will go in the trash, or that they won't consider more than four AP courses.
And she says the change will also have to come household-by-household. My daughter recently suggested she should take AP history sophomore year because it would show colleges she was signing up for the most rigorous courses. I was happy to say, "I don't think you should."