Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Race to Nowhere


I was dreading watching this movie. When I saw the slim disk in the mail, I wanted to slide it to the bottom of the Netflix pile, underneath Fight Club and the first season of Friday Night Lights. For days it lay there and I found excuses to avoid it: the boys were awake and I didn't want them to over hear; I was too tired to take notes. But I'd promised the filmmaker I'd return it within a week and so finally, my deadline looming, I roped my husband Tony in as my viewing partner, warning him it wasn't a movie to just roll over us, an easy Friday night flick. I feared it would make me want to do something, start uncomfortable conversations with teachers and school administrators, make me think twice about the questions I ask my third grader about his school day.
That Race to Nowhere (2009) became a kind of homework project for me is appropriate, because Vicki Abeles' powerful movie documents the mad pressures of homework on American children. And although Tony's and my kids are only eight and five, it spoke to us compellingly.

The documentary opens with Vicki's story: the child of a single mom, she was raised to believe in the value of hard work, and to trust in education, more than possessions or even personal relationships, as the one thing that can never be taken from you. So she worked hard and found success at work and happiness raising three kids; over home movie footage of Abeles reading to her babies and playing in the park, she says she felt like she'd found the right mix of family time for everyone.

But as the kids grew older, as their extracurricular activities took more time and their homework responsibilities amped up, family time was lost. Over a shot of her harried husband handing their son a plate of food to eat in the car, Vicki says "I didn't think when I had kids that the only time I would see them is for twenty minutes at dinner." And worse, even, than the loss of family time is the impact of the stressful schedule on her children; entering middle school, each child begins to report headaches and stomach aches, they have trouble sleeping, they don't have time to play with their friends.

All of this might seem like the typical complaints of a privileged, upper middle class family and perhaps not engender much sympathy except that, as Vicki discovers and illustrates in the film, these complaints aren't limited to private school kids. Across the spectrum, as she visits public and private schools, as she talks to families in a range of socioeconomic brackets and experts ranging from teachers, administrators, college admissions officers and psychologists, she discovers a system that is so thoroughly broken that even the adolescent medicine specialist, a father of two middle school girls, confesses, "I'm having trouble with this! And I'm writing books on this stuff!"

So while Abeles does have a personal stake in the project, she doesn't let her agenda take over the story; she interviews a diverse group of people involved with children and in the American education system -- from public school teachers to adolescent health specialists to college admissions officers -- all of them unhappy with current practice and its impact on kids, but daunted by the prospect of attempting change. Her film concisely outlines the history of homework in American society - how a post-Sputnik homework lull in the '70s ended with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and the 2002 passage of the misguided No Child Left Behind. Now, educators agree that there's no correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school, and the correlation flatlines after two hours of high school homework. But federal education requirements, overworked teachers, and anxious parents, worried that their children will be the first generation not to surpass their parents' achievements, continue to pile it on, and kids are left anxious, depressed, or worse, as they turn to drug use or cheating to cope. One student shrugs, "cheating has become another course; you learn how to do it from 9th to 12th grade, and it continues, and you get better at it."

Abeles stands back and lets personal stories do all the work. Cinematically accessible, expertly shot and edited, Race to Nowhere consists simply of interviews -- in classrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and offices -- interspersed with and occasionally overlapping establishing shots of the interviewees' schools and homes. The individual voices rise and fall, building into a chorus of voices that range in tone from puzzled to furious. There's Jessica, a high school senior who says, "The worst question you can ask your child in high school is 'And?' Like [the kid will] say, 'I'm in 3 AP classes.' 'And?' 'Well I do sports.' 'And?' 'I work in the theater.' 'And?' Everyone expects us to be superheroes. . . and I think sometimes parents just need to step back and say, 'You know what? You've done a really good job.'" Sam says, 'I'm never really thinking about the meanings of any of [my homework], I'm just thinking about how to get done." Emma, who has been driven out of teaching by the frustrations of being made to teach to the test in an underfunded urban school, starts to weep in frustration as she says, "I've always been a teacher, I've always wanted to be in East Oakland, and I love these kids. One of the things that I never knew about teaching was, I'm a mother, I'm a friend, I'm a mentor and, I don't want to leave them. . . I don't want them to feel like I've just given up on them." And Jacqueline says, with a weary mix of regret and optimism, "I think college will be the place where I start to learn."

If Race to Nowhere were only an indictment of the current system, powerful though it is, it would leave us enraged and powerless. But it offers models of change and suggestions for action. We meet Matt Goldman, a founding member of the Blue Man Group and cofounder of Blue School, a Reggio Emilia-based curriculum that strives for both academic rigor and, using a term I've never encountered in reading about education, "academic enchantment." We meet a school principal who has eliminated homework for elementary school entirely, and teachers who have replaced tests with student portfolios, schools that have dropped Advanced Placement courses, and college admissions directors who have eliminated or modified the use of the SAT in their decisions. The film ends with lists of do-able goals for viewers, whether they are parents, teachers, administrators, students, or taxpayers.

My son Ben's homework -- one math worksheet; five sentences in a writing journal; fifteen minutes of reading -- is meant to take less than half an hour. But the agonizing over the homework (except for the reading) sometimes consumes us for hours. He sits at his desk, twirling his pencil, bored by the math sheet, uninterested in the writing prompt. Tony and I alternate, sometimes just letting him sit, sometimes sitting with him and helping him tease out some sentences for his writing journal. Sometimes we are patient, often we are not. After watching Race to Nowhere, though, we met with both his teacher and his school principal (who had already seen the movie). We talked about their expectations and ours, strategies for coping with Ben's homework malaise, and what we could expect in the future. They didn't offer to eliminate his homework, and we didn't refuse to supervise it anymore, but the film helped us start a productive conversation, one I expect we will revisit periodically as both our kids move through the school. Race to Nowhere is an uncomfortable movie to watch but everybody should make time for it.

For more information and to find screenings in your area, please visit the film's website.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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Boy, Caroline, this really resonates -- the homework loads(starting in kindergarten!) are absurd. I just went to back-to-school night for my H.S. sophomore, who is taking AP World History. The instructor says proudly, "We're using college level textbooks here -- you can see the text goes edge-to-edge, no pictures, no white space like in normal high school texts." And I'm thinking, that's supposed to be a *good* thing? They're 15 for chrissakes! They don't have the context, vocabulary, or interest to do college-level stuff! They are suffused with lust and sweat and angst! But they gotta go to AP classes to get into a decent college, if only for the extra GPA points. Meanwhile, my 9-year-old is being forced to learn what subjunctive clauses are, which makes him want to kill himself. Ugh. All this homework makes having three kids less fun than it could be.
Oh, Jennifer, I'm so sorry about the homework load on your kids. It's hard in our house and we only have one kid doing homework so far! I'm lucky, at least, that our school doesn't start homework until midway through first grade. Would your school be open to hosting a screening of the movie? It might be a useful conversation-starter.
Caroline, What a thought-provoking review, indeed! Thank you for this review. Having been a teacher before having children of my own, I can admit I was guilty of over-prescribing a homework regimen -- and I know this only because now I have children of my own facing homework every night. There are some great books out there, too, which address the topic. One I read early on as an educator (but not as a mother) is titled The End of Homework by John Buell and Etta Kralovec. Now that I am a mother, when I thumb through it, I can understand the language much more clearly. Then, all I could think was 'how bad can it really be?' Thanks for sharing this review.
I am thrilled that you wrote about this film- I had not heard about it and am now really interested in seeing it. As a parent (and an educator!), I am so frustrated by the reality of homework today. My oldest is in second grade and while her homework load is not huge, I still feel like it is busy work that takes away from the true work of childhood- play.
I, too, worry about my son having less time to play now that he's in kindergarten. His homework is supposed to take 30 minutes, but often takes longer and I spend much time nagging him to do it. I try to reason w/him and myself that the homework is a necessary part of learning (ie. practicing his letters). I feel guilty because I would rather spend the time helping him build a volcano or making paper from old newspapers, things we used to do in the past before our free time was eaten up by homework. My son used to attend a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool, so all the rigidity of a public school is quite a change for us. I can't wait to see this movie and create some solutions to this dilemma. Thank you for writing about it because I was unaware it existed.
Thank you for reviewing this film, Caroline! My husband (who is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year) hosted a screening of it at UC-San Diego and we are talking it up. This is the same basic issue on which I based the launch of my blog (Having Enough (in a Have-It-All World)) three years ago -- the pressure, the skewed definition of success, the more more moreness of our culture. So glad this film is getting more (more more!) people talking about this! ;) And, on a side note, looked at the Blue School -- inspiring but SO expensive!! (Is it the Reggio Emilia approach you are referring to, BTW?) So many questions and issues to address, but we must start somewhere. Thanks for doing that! :)
Caroline, thank you so much for this wonderful review. I'm going to add it to our queue, as well. This struggle is just starting for us and I'm already worried about keeping homework fun and fresh for Stella and to nip her perfectionism in the bud. It seems the more homework she has, the more worried she gets about making a mistake. Yikes!
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