'Race to Nowhere' film highlights stress students face in high-pressure academics

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 1:43 PM

It was as if their private worries had come to life on screen: Teenagers so pressured to get A's, to fill their college resumes with sports and music and language, they start losing their grip. Long nights of homework leave them exhausted. Stress becomes stomach pain and anorexia and depression. Some turn to cheating or pills. Others just give up.

Riveted to this disturbing tableau were 325 parents and educators, including Elise Browne Hughes, 46, who wiped away tears one recent evening in Bethesda while watching the documentary "Race to Nowhere," which is becoming a growing grass-roots phenomenon in the achievement-minded Washington area and beyond.

"It's in the culture, and it kind of feeds on itself," said Hughes, a mother of two sons who paid $10 for a ticket and braved the heavy rain to watch the film at Walt Whitman High School.

For her and thousands of others nationwide, the film has raised difficult questions about how to raise well-adjusted children at a time when schools seem test-obsessed, advanced classes are the norm and parents worry that their sons and daughters will not go as far in life as they have.

One teacher in the film put it this way: "You have a fear from the parents that my kid needs to be able to get a job. Okay, I got them in the accelerated program; that's the first step. But now they need to perform and compete so they can get into a good school, and it's out of love. It's out of concern. It's out of fear. It's out of all these things that parents normally have, but it ends up turning kids into little professionals."

Nationally the film is playing as a quiet counterpoint to the better-known "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which focuses on failing urban schools. "Race to Nowhere" explores a different problem, the strains of competing in a pressure-packed academic culture that is highly test-driven and pushes some students to the edge.

The film is attracting notice from New York to California, where mom-turned-filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, a 48-year-old lawyer, launched the documentary project as she set out to understand the stresses her children, now ages 16, 14 and 11, were experiencing.

One daughter had become physically sick as she struggled with the demands of school. Then, several months into Abeles's effort, a teenager in her community committed suicide after getting a failing math grade, a tragedy Abeles says intensified her commitment to making the film.

"I think there is tremendous pressure on all kids to get the grade, to get the test score ... which is creating an epidemic of unhealthy kids who are also arriving at college and at the workplace unprepared," Abeles said in an interview.

'Why are we doing this?'

More than 500 screenings are expected this fall, including theater runs in such places as Peoria, Ill., and Oakland, Calif. In the Washington area, it has played at a Bethesda movie house, at Walt Whitman High School, at private schools in Baltimore and Upper Marlboro, and at the D.C. Jewish Community Center in Northwest Washington.

"Word of mouth spread, and people who weren't here wanted to know, 'Where can they see it and how can they show it to their kids,' " said Susan Barocas of the Jewish Community Center, who said she shared the enthusiasm. "I'm the mother of a 14-year-old, and it so spoke to me."

Each screening ends with an audience discussion, as it did last week in Whitman's school auditorium.

"How can we get things changed so they can be more reasonable again?" asked a mother from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, calling her Montgomery County area "a ground zero of the achievement-oriented culture."

Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin, in the audience, told parents that his school had created a "Stressbusters Committee," which had requested the movie, and made such changes as discouraging homework on holiday weekends. Still, he added: "Homework is a necessary evil."

The film explores the meaning of success in an era when teenagers often struggle in isolation without telling their families. And it questions whether memorizing material to pass a test fosters the kind of critical thinking students need for college classes and jobs down the road.

"I think more people need to be willing to take a step back and ask, 'Why are we doing this?' " said Hughes, who saw the film and spread the word to others in her PTA community in Bethesda. Now she hopes parents in her school cluster can arrange another showing for those who missed it.

Hughes said she has reconsidered her own approach to schoolwork. "It made me feel that when I get on my kids' case about things, I really shouldn't," she said.

The filmmaker is hoping for a national debate on such ideas. The way Abeles sees it, her documentary echoes what some experts have been saying for years: that the pressure to perform can be damaging and that more testing and an overload of homework do not make students smarter.

Not everyone agreed with the film's messages. David Tompkins, 39, a father of four who saw the film Monday at the Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema, said it relied too heavily on anecdote, especially on issues of student stress that often comes as a byproduct of competition. "Our society rewards competition, and there is competition for jobs and college admissions, and you're not going to be able to avoid that," he said. "Not everyone is going to be a winner."

Serena Ranganathan, 16, a Whitman student, said she thought the movie overstated stress-induced health problems. She doesn't know anyone who wakes up at 1 a.m. with stomach aches or has checked into a stress clinic, she said.

Still, the issue of teaching to the test is true to life, she said.

"We're not really motivated to learn to gain knowledge," Ranganathan said. "We just want to memorize it and get a good grade and get into a good school." In a sense, she said, the educational process has been corrupted. "Especially after the final exam, you just forget it afterward."

Hitting home

Traveling to Maryland this week, Abeles moderated the post-film discussion Monday at a screening hosted by Norwood School, a private school in Bethesda. After the movie ended, the audience broke out into applause.

Afterward, parents and educators talked about the name for the film (which came from a student's observation). About innovative schools. About how children reflect what their parents value.

For Jennifer Powers, 43, mother of two in Bethesda, the film hit harder than she expected. "I feel like I'm living this experience," she said.

Powers said she was moved to hear one pediatric expert in the film confess that in spite of his own efforts to guard against pressuring his children to do well, he sometimes worried about the college they would attend.

"I think we [as parents] are anxious about this stuff, and I think we have put it on our kids," Powers said. "But when you step back and say, 'It's not important,' you worry about that too. It's a balancing act."

Abeles said it was important for communities to come together to address the issues raised in the film. She told of an elementary school that cut back on homework and encouraged reading, and how several high schools did away with or limited AP courses.

For parents and schools, "I think it feels scary to make these changes alone," she said.

Abeles told the audience she was disappointed more students had not attended.

"They're all doing their homework," someone called out, eliciting laughter.

As the evening ended, Abeles was surrounded by parents and educators who wanted the discussion to go on.

"You've definitely got us on your team," said Claudia Helmig, 39, a Norwood parent and mother of three who found Abeles "so approachable, and one of us."

"There was a lot of sadness in the movie," she said, "but when you get out of there you also have hope that people are uncovering some truths and have the energy to make change."

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