By the end of this school year, about half a million people will have watched the documentary Race to Nowhere. This stealth juggernaut can't be seen on TV, in any multiplex, or on DVD. But since the fall of last year, it's been shown almost 2,000 times in school auditoriums and community centers across the country—mostly to parents beset with the fear that they're blowing the raising of their kids. The emotional discussions following the screenings—part catharsis, part call to action, part finger-pointing—are excellent introductions to the contentious debate about what we want from our kids and from the people who educate them.
First-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, 49, a Northern California lawyer and mother of three, was moved to pick up a camera when her children started suffering from school-related headaches, stomachaches, and panic attacks. What she produced is a wide-ranging polemic against our current education system that is artless, occasionally overwrought, and undeniably powerful. It confirms—and stokes—the unease many parents have about how miserable much of childhood seems today. It also sets up Abeles as the anti-Amy Chua. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua's thesis is that if you let up, your kid will become a coddled American slacker. Abeles offers the antithesis. She argues that part of America's greatness is born of our misfits and dreamers, that our gift to our children is time to engage in "aimless" play.
Race to Nowhere is mainly composed of interviews with unhappy kids, concerned parents, and pressured teachers interspersed with commentary from experts in education and child development. In its 85 minutes, the documentary tackles so many issues that it sometimes feels as if it's cramming a semester's worth of material into one class. It's a canny strategy: Every parent will feel an identification and rush of stomach acid at something Abeles portrays—I know I did. The staggering amounts of homework kids receive and the perniciousness of standardized testing are two major themes.
But Race to Nowhere also introduces us to a culture of rampant cheating, which students see as the only way to keep up; rising numbers of medicated kids, some of whom abuse attention-deficit drugs to finish all their assignments; children nearing emotional and physical collapse over the expectation they must be dazzling; and young people trained to be so fearful of making mistakes or taking risks that they are unable to cope when arriving at the workplace. And then there is the agonizing story that bookends the movie—that of a 13-year-old girl, a perfect child so undone by her perceived failures in middle school that she committed suicide.
Abeles defends the broadness of her indictment. "You have to look at the unhealthy culture we've created. You have to name the problem," she said in an interview.
The fact that the film can only be seen at group screenings is a strategy born of necessity—a distribution deal stalled out—that has proved opportune. Seeing the film is a communal experience, and that is the best way, Abeles said, to inspire change. The discussions are a first step toward action.
At a screening I went to, at a school in Montgomery County, Md.—which has one of the highest ranked school systems in the country—the parents who took to the microphone afterward could barely contain their outrage. One father, whose high school-age daughter was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, said she would need 10 hours a night to complete all the homework she was assigned. A first-grade mother said that because of academic pressure, her child's class gets only a short daily recess and one physical-education class per week. Students who haven't done their homework aren't allowed outside during recess and are forced to wear a bathroom pass around their necks all day. "It's like a scarlet letter!" she exclaimed. "It's appalling!"
The educators sitting onstage were defensive and disheartened. One high-school teacher said the push for homework came from competitive parents—to snorts from the audience. An administrator said schools were under pressure from higher up the bureaucracy to enroll ever more students in Advanced Placement courses.
My daughter's high school in Washington, D.C., showed the film recently at separate screenings for parents and students. Afterward, I talked to her and a group of her classmates, expecting they'd feel the film was a "J'accuse!" to the adults who were demanding so much from them.