My Reflections on the Documentary – Race To Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture

Jul 06, 2010

If you are a student, a parent or an educator (especially in the U.S.), I encourage you to see the documentary film, Race to Nowhere directed by Vicki Abeles. I was fortunate to catch an advanced screening of the film last week in nearby local community of Morgan Hill, CA with my wife and friends. The film is on a limited screening run through support of local organizations. Our children’s cooperative pre-school, Almaden Parents Pre-School, was one of the sponsors of the screening.

About the Film (from the official website):

Director Vicki Abeles turns the personal political, igniting a national conversation in her new documentary about the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers in our achievement obsessed public and private education system and culture.

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Race to Nowhere is a call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.

I had seen the trailer a few months ago, but wasn’t sure what to expect of the film. I think, like the approximately 200 people that attended, I was truly frustrated by the "system", particularly when seen through the narrative of schoolchildren, parents and educators just looking for a way to do things differently – to break the cycle that we, as a society, are responsible for perpetuating.

One main thread was that our education system is primarily based around standards testing and score-based competition and evaluation. This flattening of what is taught and how it is taught has created a system whose only result can be to crank out zombie students that either fit or don’t fit one mold. This system doesn’t teach to learn, but teaches to take tests. There is increasingly little place, or incentive, for children to excel in a creative field – there is no academic measurement for creativity.

So many side effects have resulted in this achievement culture – from depressed, stressed-out, sleep-deprived kids, to parents that have to trade out family time for a strict schedule to educators left with no choice but to compromise their teaching ideals to help the most kids pass up the education chain. At the end of that chain – burnt-out kids who make it to high school and college that lack the critical-thinking skills needed to ultimately succeed in society.

This is only a fraction of what the film shares through the various stories. I think it was an educator that stated "America’s education system is a mile wide and an inch deep."

Thankfully, the film began intertwining ideas and ended with recommended actions at many levels to initiate change. Some include:

  • Maintain family time and model for children that success is not strictly academic / financial
  • Fight in local schools for less homework; especially for younger children where social and emotional growth is still in early development
  • Help students limit their schedule – amount of classes and extra-curricular activities
  • Encourage students to seek their passions and support even if they aren’t part of a clear academic path
  • Get involved in local education and community to promote changes and affect decision-making

The screening was followed by a question and answer session with Director Vicki Abeles whose own family experience, featured in the film, sparked her action. Abeles was very engaged with each question from the audience. Near the end of the Q&A session, a woman stood up as a representative of the local school board. I don’t think I was the only one that thought she could have chosen a few better words in her remarks. She opened by stating "There are some great points in your film that are worth debate…" and concluded with an open invitation for people to get involved by attending school board meetings because she "loves an audience". Many were wondering if she was actually paying attention to the message of the film…!

Race to Nowhere opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles in September and is planned to get a wider theater and DVD release thereafter.

Please check out the official film website at: The filmmakers are counting on grassroots support to spread the word about the film and its message through word-of-mouth and social networks. The website presents an excellent list of tips and resources if you want to learn more on the topics covered in the film.

The site invite visitors to "Take Action" by registering, after which additional actionable tips are accessible, targeted for students, parents, teachers, coaches, medical professionals, and administrators.

The film was also featured on