Thursday, 10 February 2011

Race to Nowhere - a thought-provoking film

The other night I pitched up at the local high school (along with, it seemed, every other parent in town - the enormous parking lot was rammed) for a screening of a film I'd read about in the New York Times.

Race to Nowhere was made by a California mother, Vicki Abeles, after she became concerned about the stress that her children were under in school. It deals with the pressures of homework, of over-scheduling children, of the desperate attempts to get into 'good' colleges - especially for children who are considered high achievers.

In the film, there are (real life) children who stay up till 2am to finish their homework; who stop eating, sleeping, who take Adderall, a drug prescribed for ADD, to stay awake; who admit readily to cheating in tests; who have nervous breakdowns and drop out of school. (One comment that really struck a chord was that we are raising a generation prepared to do anything, and to cut any corners, to get a high-paying job -and look at the bankers. We are paying the price.)

While there were probably always examples of teenagers who became over-stressed by school (I remember one or two at my school) it seems the problem is becoming more widespread, as American colleges, largely funded by donors, try to attract the best pupils and get the best results. This in turn leads schools to set ludicrous amounts of homework in an attempt to get their pupils into colleges....and parents to put pressure on their kids, not just to be academic, but to be sporty, arty, do community service, and - well, basically, there aren't enough hours in the day.

Race to Nowhere is an unusual film in that it has not been screened widely on general release, but instead has been taken up by parent groups and shown at schools across the USA. At our local school, it was followed by a Q&A session - and it seemed that it had really struck a chord with many parents.

My children are too young to be experiencing this yet, but it won't be long, and I'm sure that many of the same problems exist in the UK; particularly in competitive private schools. (The coalition's decision to raise tuition fees, can only, I am sure, only add to the pressure, as Universities, deprived of government funding, will compete more ruthlessly for the best students).

It raises all sorts of questions, not least - is academic success really the key to our kids' happiness? As the film points out, only about the top 5% of students are really academically brilliant - why put pressure on everyone else to try and be so? We might dream about our kids going to Harvard, or Yale or Oxford or Cambridge - but what about well-adjusted kids who will only ever get Bs and Cs? Or indeed, one who decides college is not for them and goes on to a vocational training course?

Personally, what I want is for my children to be happy, and to end up in a job that they enjoy. But will I find myself sucked into this hyper-competitive culture as they get older? Will my kids half-kill themselves with homework just so they can get a job in an investment bank and work long hours for big-buck bonuses? Or will they sink under the pressure of it all and drop out.....
This film made depressing viewing in some ways, but I hope it succeeds in its mission to make parents, schools and colleges sit up and take stock of what we are doing to our children. And I hope UK parents have a chance to see it at some point, too.

21 comments:

Mwa said...

I already thought it was going a bit crazy when I was applying to university, but it seems to have gotten crazier in the last few years. I hope the trend doesn't get to Belgium any time soon...

Is that the film that Oprah was talking about a while back?

About Last Weekend said...

Hi there, nice to meet you. Jody here living in California. I missed this film but read all about it and it was life-changing for people. read Price of Privilege which is similar. Here in CA it is really, really hard not to be sucked into all these activities and travelling teams and attainment, but I'm trying hard. The Brits have it sussed much better, living now, now constantly looking to what college you're going to (and you're only nine)

Knackered Mother said...

What a refreshingly thought-provoking post. Off to find out more.

Knackered Mother said...

Oh god, just realized how that sounds. I love your posts, that's why I read you A lot. What I mean is, lots of fodder for thought. I'll shut up x

Calif Lorna said...

My son, at age 9, already has too much homework. I think it's the pressure to get a good result on the State Test which comes in a few months. It breaks my heart sometimes that it will be 5pm before he's finished and there's almost no playtime left. Hope it doesn't get any worse - sounds like it might do.

Iota said...

You've struck a chord here. We're having to think about high school options for our oldest, and we're mulling over what it is exactly we want for him. There's a very good IB programme (International Baccalaureate) at a nearby school, which is competitive, pressured, by all accounts a great experience. Or he can go to the high school that his middle school feeds into, which is lower-achieving, but less pressure, less intense.

It's a real challenge to think about this kind of question, because as you say, you're really wrestling with the question about what you think is important in life, what you value. That's a big question.

geekymummy said...

I haven't heard of this, I must be out of the loop! Will look into it immediately!

I have seen friends go through a lot of stress with their high schoolers.

My husband went to Penn (after doing the IB at a private sixth form in the UK, Iota, he loved the IB), and I went to Imperial College in the UK, so we are both high achievers and I kind of expect the kids to be too...Hmm!

Potty Mummy said...

Really interesting; I may suggest to the PTO here that they get a copy of this (although between you and I, pressure to be high achieving is not something I've spotted from this school - yet...)

Diney said...

Oh my! This is so relevant to me this very week. My daughter is in a very high achieving private school and, aged 11, is finding the pressure with too much homework and too many tests is getting her down. As a result, we took the decision just 10 days ago to visit a much less academic school which is smaller and offers a far more rounded experience for the children in a caring environment....I must see that film!

Nota Bene said...

Yes...stress shouldn't start until middle age....I shall watch

nappy valley girl said...

Mwa - yes, I think it has been mentioned by Oprah.

About Last Weekend - thanks. Sadly, I think many of the same problems do exist in England, or are starting to....

KM - don't worry yourself! Totally understood what you meant.

Lorna - I thought some of the homework claims might be exaggerated, but then my neighbour told me her 12 year old gets 3-4 hours a night. Far too much, surely.

Iota - it's a difficult one. Clearly some children thrive on pressure and can cope -others not so much. I suppose we have to try and gauge what they want, as well as us - and guide them in the right direction.

Geekymummy - we are the same, both did well ourselves, but I would hate to see myself forcing my children into something they didn't want to do. You probably haven't heard of the film because your children aren't in elementary school yet. Ask some people in your district - the filmmaker comes from the Bay Area, so they are bound to be showing it somewhere.

PM - if it's an American school, they should be get hold of it. I think you can contact through the website.

Diney - there were some mothers in the film who had switched their children's schools for that very reason.

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

it's certainly a lesson we've learnt living abroad, not to get sucke dinto frantic activity & having been forced by dint of context to be less busy/activity driven etc. I hate that abt the UK when we go back, that everyone's schedules are so jam packed, kids included. I hope we can avoid that. I think our son will go a bit mad wth all that's on offer at hi sschl extra curricularly but I'm sure it wil settle down & he copes well with pressure. It will be hugely different though. My cousin's daughter has just semi burnt out at cambrdige- v bright v high achieving but is overwhelmed by the pressure they put on her.

Home Office Mum said...

Just returned from Seattle for our visit (more on that later). But the thing that came home to me was exactly that point: so many of the private schools there focus solely on academics. They don't even have sports grounds. It's all about college prep. My husband and I walked around dumbfounded - where the hell is the 'whole child' in all of this?

All along I've assumed that I would want to send my children to the best school i.e. the one that league tables rank as academically brilliant. But now I'm thinking that I just want my children to get an education and enjoy their lives.

The competitiveness in the US seems crazy. It is so worrying.

PantsWithNames said...

Great post. I do worry about how much time the kids have to spend working and how little time they spend just pottering around. If they don't have time to potter how will they learn to develop an interest in things?

I totally resent every homework that the school set us to do. Think there is far more important things to be doing with our time.

nappy valley girl said...

PLIT - I bet it will be different. Hopefully years of not having much going on will have taught your son some equilibrium!

HOM - one controversy here is that the high school here does not have a swimming pool. And yet it is supposed to be a great school district (and people pay high taxes). I agree, there is less focus on the whole child. Although I think the same could be said of London private schools??

Pants - I don't mind a little bit of homework, at least it allows me to see what they have been doing. But I wonder how full time working parents cope - there needs to be quite a lot of parental input, I find.

Muddling Along said...

Great post

Working in the City I think that the trend for people to want to be bankers has actually made the sector far worse than it needed to be, you have people trained in exactly the same way who have wanted to do the job since 16 rather than, as it used to be, people with a wide variety of backgrounds with different viewpoints to bring - very easy to fall into a rut that way

I hate how childhood is being destroyed by the need to compete at such an early age. I want my child to be happy and to play not to have to do endless things upon things. Although I do worry that they may be missing out I hope that at least this way they'll be happier

Nicola said...

I am horrified by this constant emphasis on academic achievement. My ex I think is much more focused on the boys 'excelling', but I feel really strongly that I don't want to push them and pressure them, in any area of life. I really want them to be well-rounded. I want them to discover things that they love and then pursue them with passion. I want them to recognise that sometimes they are going to have to put effort into things that are not fun/they find difficult and that's part of life. But the whole pushy parent/competitive expectations thing really, really scares me.

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

I really want to see that film. All of this pushing of kids at such an early age is madness, and is sadly just getting worse, in the US and in the UK I think.

I don't relish being inevitably drawn into all this. Of course I want LLC to have opportunity, to fulfill her potential, blah blah blah, but I also want her to be happy and enjoy being a child. As I parent I hope I can help her embrace learning and make the most of her education. I don't want to push her too hard, though I'll want to see that she is trying. I think if everyone looked at it in terms of what helps kids learn and become balanced, happy people rather than what makes them well rounded on a CV we'd all be so much better.

And one thing that I do hope to do is to encourage LLC to think about what she does want to do when she's older, even if that ultimately changes with time. Because I did sport, a mix of extra curricular activities and finished near the top of my high school class (which, mind you, I did without staying up to crazy hours or feeling stressed out of my mind so it is possible to find balance here and it certainly helped I had friends doing much of the same so we had support in each other)but I didn't ever really think about what I wanted in my future, and subsequently I've always been conflicted about what I want to "do." Thinking about little things like this get lost in the rat race of doing!

Great post.

planb said...

Really interesting. I don't know if it happens here at a school level as yet, but I suspect it does.... I see it, certainly, at work. When I got my job I was one of eight trainees in my intake. We'd all got good degrees from good universities, which was obviously one of the recruiters' criteria, but otherwise we'd done the same mix of a bit of sport, or a bit of music but nothing earth shattering.

I was reading the mini-biographies of this year's trainees the other day: One is an Olympian, another set up her own charity, one of the boys walked across Africa... There's not a chance I - moderately bright, totally lacking in hand eye co-ordination, occasional member of county youth orchestra, went on holiday occasionally, can touch type - would get that job now... And if it's that obvious at 22, I suspect it's insidiously present lower down - at university selection, or work experience or or or...

Interestingly and anecdotally, it's actually made it much harder for *really* clever people to get jobs. If you turn up for a job interview with an Oxbridge first, you have apparently to prove triply hard that you have other interests, otherwise they write you off as someone who "only" spent their time at uni working...

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MarmiteFluff said...

Good. The pendulum has to swing back some time. My own high schooler spends far too much time on homework and extracurricular activities -- high time for an updated version of The Water Babies, I think.

Just an observation, though -- younger teachers (those in their 20s) tend to set far less homework than the older ones do. No doubt because they have suffered themselves, very recently.