Race to Nowhere: One Principal’s Response

Thursday evening, our school (St. Gregory College Prep, Tucson, AZ) hosted a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere and a panel discussion afterwards.  Here I am offering my own first reactions to the film; in subsequent posts I intend to share some of our panelists’ responses and explore the suggestions from the film’s website, End the Race.

The film asks and addresses what are for this parent and educator some of the most central and essential questions about K-12 education and child-raising; it does so in ways stimulating, provocative, compelling, redundant, one-sided, and emotionally manipulative.

The essential questions, then, to my observation, in the film include the following:

  • What is K-12 education’s  ultimate purpose?
  • What is the role of happiness and self-fulfillment (or self-actualization as our panelist Dr. Davis asked) in the priorities of K-12 education?
  • Are we educating effectively if our education is constituted primarily of test-taking, test-preparation, and memorization/regurgitation of information?
  • How do we promote balance in the lives of our students, and what is the role of homework in this equation?

1. It was genuinely terrific to have the cross section of voices in the film:  rarely do we get to hear from children and students alongside parents, teachers, and experts.   One of the film’s primary purposes is to launch a nation-wide conversation about these questions, and this film models valuably the array of voices who should be participating.

That being said, though the constituencies were diverse, the opinions were far less so.   There is a tension running through the film, I think: the film-maker, Vicki Abeles,  wants to promote an open conversation, and she has a very heavy-handed agenda to change the norm.   She has every right to this agenda and to making a film to advance it, but it is not easy for these two aims to be entirely reconciled.

An open-minded inquiry into these questions might have been better advanced if we heard from students who love homework and challenges in school, from parents who think their students are happier when busy than when idle, and from all constituents about educational practices which promote challenging and hard work in ways humane, engaging, and rewarding.

2.  The experts chosen for participation were excellent:  at my previous school, we hosted as parent education speakers both Deborah Stipek and Madeleine Levine, and I think very highly of their work.  Stipek, who is the Stanford Education School Dean, has a book, Motivated Minds,which is a very valuable guide to what schooling looks like when it is designed around students’ interests and passions and is intended to cultivate lasting intrinsic motivation, not short-term, and ultimately self-defeating, extrinsic motivation.

Levine’s book, The Price of Privilege, is a damning indictment of parenting philosophies and educational programs which narrow student ambitions to a few, highly select universities and promote competition, pressure, and stress in the adolescent years as necessary for future success.    Her book chronicles powerfully a “race to nowhere” in which our very best and most affluent students are most likely to be struggling with depression and related crises.

Wendy Mogel is featured less prominently, but she is there, and her words about fearing a day coming when our children file a class action suit against us for stealing their childhood from them are hard to forget.  Both of Mogel’s books, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and the Blessings of a B-,  are very important for parents and educators alike.

To my observation it was Denise Pope who stole the show.   Also a Stanford professor, she is the author of the incredibly important book, Doing School, which explores the way in which true learning is being deprived by a schooling that emphasizes achievement over understanding.   Pope is concerned that students are under stress, and that this stress drives our students to cut corners and maximize expediency instead of learning, but she never wavers in her focus from her larger goal for schools: a truly outstanding educational program which challenges, engages, and teaches students what they really need to know in a lasting way.

Now, as much as these four experts are terrific, they could be viewed as a bit narrow in range.   It would have been great to have Michael Thompson and Yong Zhao; it would have been great to include university admissions Deans like William Fitzsimmons or Stu Schmill from MIT; it would have been great to include successful scientists and engineers who could speak about their secondary school experiences that were built more around inquiry and creative expression than about test preparation.

3. I think I speak for many when I wish the film hadn’t gone so deeply into the particular experiences of two families (the film-maker’s own experience and that of her acquaintance from a neighboring town), and hadn’t tried so hard to extrapolate from the experiences of these two families, one difficult, the other horrifyingly tragic, to significance for the larger issues explored in the film.

I respect the film-maker’s prerogative:  she has every right to offer her interpretive extrapolations from these experiences.  But the film would be a much stronger contribution to the conversation it seeks to advance had it exercised the discipline not to seek to manipulate our emotions with these disturbing but narrow experiences.

4. The film is rightfully concerned about the question of “work” in schooling.

What is there to say about “work?”  Is work bad?  Is it bad to be busy? At times, to this viewer,  the film seems to suggest that work is bad, that it is bad to be busy;  I can’t accept this point of view.

It may lie partially in the semantics: one of our after-film panelists responded that if we can re-conceptualize “homework” as “home-fun,” perhaps we can reclaim the value of learning beyond our school walls/school-day.

Some of my fondest memories of high school were times I was “working” hard on a project, conducting original research, interviewing experts, note-taking, organizing outlines, writing, revising, editing.   I loved it: I was consumed by it; I found in it the happiness of “flow.”  In some ways you can’t experience Csíkszentmihályian flow without an immersive experience which is perceived by others as being “busy” with the work of the experience, and yet we know from happiness psychologists such as Marty Seligman that flow itself is among the happiest of all possible states.

Now, of course,  I think it is great for kids to have downtime; I think it is incredibly important that kids have time out-of-doors and in natural environments; I think they should have socializing time respected and supported inside and outside the school-day.   But we should never apologized for working hard to engaged kids in working hard in their own “constructing of knowledge and learning.”

Very briefly, the film summarizes some of the research on the learning effects of homework time: none at all for elementary students,  about an hour or so for middle school, and about two hours for high school students.  Denise Pope also points out that in many high-achieving on international tests nations, homework is much rarer than in the US.  The research reported aligns fairly well with the excellent information from the Duke University homework center.   But these kinds of time analyses, as much as they have a place in the conversation, are not sufficient.  What is as or more important as/than the quantity of time spent on homework is the quality of the work students are doing and their attitudes about it.

Some will take from this film the message we should abandon homework altogether in our schools, and far be it for me to condemn that approach.   It would be great for our their to be a multiple of experiments to take place across the very wide breadth of our schools and school systems, so as to give families and students more choices and so as to allow more experimentation to learn better the best practices.  But to say that the information provided in this film demands of us we cancel all homework is not, to this observer, a fair conclusion.

5. Although the moments were rarer than I had anticipated, the moments where the film spoke most compellingly to me were when we heard calls for teaching and learning where students are meaningfully engaged and are learning for lasting understanding.  There was a short discussion of the value of project-based learning as a tool for exactly this, leaving me wishing for more.

The film also touches on– in its desultory narrative style– the idea that we are missing the boat terribly on what exactly our students need to learn.  Stipek says of our national curriculum that it is a mile wide and an inch deep; Pope discusses the problem of just learning content for the test and not retaining any knowledge at all: some students are getting 4.0’s but then requiring remediation when they get to university, and what does that say about the quality of learning happening in many pressure-cooker high schools?

Another commentator, a lawyer, tells of recent law school graduates who have great credentials, but seek direction in every thing they do, and lack deep thinking and analytic skills, because, it is hypothesized, of schooling that overly emphasizes “filling in the blanks,” and not deeper, creative, and applied thinking.  Someone else points out that

Stipek reminds us what we really need to develop in our students is their analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving; others complain rightfully that we lack standardized tests which measure these very things, and instead are reduced to only measuring basic skills and memorized content knowledge.   It is exactly because of this large problem that I am such a passionate advocate of the CWRA, a test that does measure the right things: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, written communication, and problem-solving.

6. Another compelling message for me was in the call to reexamine the goals and rewards we have for students in their learning.   I very much want my students to explore thoroughly attending “national universities” and making a very careful match of their passions and ambitions to just the right school, but I know we make a terrible mistake when we only consider them successful if they are choosing to attend, and have been chosen to attend, one of the top ten most famous universities in the nation.  Our educational programs must have as their goal making a great match for each individual student from among the wide array of diversely excellent colleges and universities, not about “getting into Harvard.”

Similarly, it is for the purpose of our students learning how the world works, the great tradition of knowledge in our civilization, and how to do things with their minds that we should be building our schools.   These things, research says and this film reminds us, are often set back by   As Denise Pope says in the film, “when success is defined only by good grades, great schools, and trophies, what we get are students who are disengaged, unhealthy, and depressed.”  Or as Madeleine Levine puts it more dramatically, when our students internalize the pressure they perceive being placed upon them from schools, parents, and wider society, what we get are students who, when you roll up their sleeves, are bleeding underneath, metaphorically or even literally.

7.  Some other favorite quotes from the film:

  • Student voice: “I’m not thinking really hard about the meaning of any of what I am learning, I’m just thinking about getting it done.”
  • “If our students are being trained from a script, how are doctors and dentists, for instance, going to respond when they have to understand or interpret something not in the script?”
  • The pressure to perform, perform, perform, produce, and produce, produce crowds out the time for processing.
  • We in the US have always been known for producing innovative thinkers, because we allowed time for innovative thinking, but now we are cutting out all the time which used to be available for more open-thinking.
  • The schools of tomorrow may not resemble the schools of the last 100 years, but the world of tomorrow won’t resemble the world of the last 100 years either.

[Note: all quotes in this piece are paraphrases, from my note-taking during the film, in the dark.]

None of these issues is easy, and this is exactly why we need to be doing more to further this conversation.   I was struck by Dr. Ken Ginsburg, an adolescent psychology expert in Philadelphia, when near the end of the film he admitted that

“I look at my two daughters entering their teen years; I want them to be happy and support them in all these ways and then I find myself asking myself what colleges are they going to get into when they graduate?  I’m having trouble with this balancing act, and I am writing books on this stuff!”

Yes.  Many of us, surely, find ourselves in similar situations, torn between our ideals in parenting and educating and our personal ambitions and hopes for our children, and I too struggle with this as I envision my twelve year old son’s future.

The film will speak to different viewers differently; we all bring our experiences to it and project our points of view onto it.  I know already that there were many different reactions from among the 250 people in our audience.   Let’s take this film, and others like it, such as the forthcoming Finland Phenomenon, as inspiration to be more reflective, more thoughtful, and more intentional about the education we provide our children and students.

I would be delighted to welcome other film-viewers to share their reactions to the film by using the comment box.


  1. Lyn Hilt said:

    You beat me to it. 🙂 I saw Race to Nowhere a few weeks ago, and I’m going to take some time to craft a response to share my ideas. The audience members at my particular screening were a very emotional group, consisting mainly of parents of students in a high-performing school district. Several of my students’ parents are planning to attend a showing in the coming weeks. I am very interested to hear their perspectives as well. Thanks for summarizing your ideas here!

    March 7, 2011
    • Hi Lyn:

      Thanks for the nice note. I can’t wait to read your response!

      March 7, 2011
      • Ed Allen said:

        Jonathan, thanks for the post. I have not yet seen the film, but plan on it/ I have only seen the trailer.

        March 7, 2011
  2. Thank you for an articulate, in-depth reflection about the film.

    One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On Chapter 16 (http://techforschools.com/handouts/zenartofmotorcyclemaintenance.pdf) there is an interest discussion about Quality and what would happen if schools were gradeless.
    One of Phaedrus reflections was: “He had wanted his students to become creative by deciding for themselves what was good writing instead of asking him all the time. The real purpose of withholding the grades was to force them to look within themselves, the only place they would ever get a really right answer.”
    Phaedrus also wonders: “The questions, What’s being taught? What’s the goal? How do the lectures and assignments accomplish the goal? ”

    These quotes make me wonder what changes need to take place in our current schools systems whether public or independent in order to de-emphasize the quest for grades and activate passion for learning in our students? I don’t think there’s a simple way to answer these questions but I certainly welcome engaging our school communities in these discussions involving not only teachers and administrators but welcoming students voices.

    March 7, 2011
    • Nick Brette said:

      I saw the film as well. The one point that was not made in the film is the most important reason for students to do home work is so they can discover for themselves how they as an individual learn. The best thing a student can learn in high school is good study habits that will allow them to learn a difficult subject. Rare is the student that can go to a lecture class in college and learn the subject. The real learning will need to be done at home. Also, let us not forget the role that electronic media plays in the students life today. This mainly allows the student to waste a large block of time while thinking they are busy working.

      March 7, 2011
      • Lyn Hilt said:

        Nick, I agree that it’s important for students to discover themselves as learners and develop strong habits for learning, but I am wary that “the real learning will need to be done at home.” As educators, shouldn’t we strive to ensure that the real learning is happening in our classrooms and school environments? With peers and adults to support and extend the process? Some children leave our schools and go to homes where they are under incredible amounts of stress and where they assume adult responsibilities. In these homes, environments conducive to learning or studying simply do not exist.

        March 12, 2011
      • Adrian Watts said:

        Nick, thank you for your thought provoking comments about homework helping students discover how they learn and electronic media mainly allowing students to waste a large block of time. A few years, before my school became a 1:1 tablet laptop environment I might have agreed with you on both these points. However, what I have experienced leads me, with all due respect, to differ. I have to say that I agree very much with Lyn’s point of view that real learning must be taking place in “our classrooms and school environments.” This is very much the emphasis of reverse instruction which is made possible through the power of electronic media as a tool for closing the circle of learning. My observations and readings have led me to believe that if students are taught responsible use of technology, as a tool that enables them to discover and analyse effectively the wealth of knowledge that is the www, then the university lecture takes place at home and the classroom becomes the environment where the teacher is coach, supporter and trouble shooter for embedding that learning. The reality can be that electronic media allows students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, rewind and find alternative sources that therefore match their learning style. This is not to say that work at home doesn’t have its role in education but I do not feel it is as the tool for showing students how they learn.

        March 28, 2011
  3. Amy Alamar said:

    A very thoughtful response. You mention Denise Pope and Madeline Levine – they co-founded Challenge Success with Jim Lobdell and we work with schools and families to pursue a broader definition of success. We have parent education, professional development, and a multi-stakeholder schools program to work with communities.

    March 14, 2011
  4. […] Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school […]

    March 16, 2011
  5. Carol said:

    My thought is that people have romantic notions about what public school used to be – it was none of them. Was there some time in the past that I am not aware of where every student in the nation went to school, learning creative thinking, and then all graduated from high school? I don’t think so. But students in the past, and even in the fairly recent past did come to school with more skills than they do now. We are asking so much more of schools than ever before, and they already have so much more to do, like teach kids how to use scissors, how to hold a book, how to sit in a chair. We need project-based learning more than every because our kids need to experience the world outside 4 walls, and they just don’t do that at home anymore, unless experiencing videos and video games counts.

    October 26, 2011
    • Marcia said:

      I find Carol’s comment interesting where she says that students used to come to school with more skills than they do now. I think a bigger issue is that there is a far broader spectrum of skills that students do or don’t come to school with. In some households, kids are learning computer skills before they are 3-4…in other households there is no computer at all. This one thing alone creates a vast range of skill levels when kids enter school…and exposure to media, reading and typing ability, etc that i think our schools have never had to deal with until the last decade or so. In my affulent community, EVERY kid has a computer at home, most kids are reading before kindergarten and the parents’ level of education and strong $$ mean that the kids have a far broader range of experiences than a ‘typcial’ community would. In the community one mile away, 30+% of kids are hispanic, from low-income households, english is a second language, access to few computers prior to school and at home after school, etc etc. Well guess which schools achieve higher test scores, have lower drop-out rates, produce more kids moving on to college and entering higher-skilled jobs?
      I think demographics, household income, level of parent education have become an enormous, over-arching influence on the educational system. Many of these parents from affluent communities demand a much higher level of education from their schools. These parents also provide a vast assortment of outside educational, recreational and ‘play’ activites for their kids, and they set the bar far higher in terms of expectations for their kids in many aspects…including volunteering in the community, joining organizations, pursuing creative edeavors, etc. Result…much higher percentages of those kids go on to higher education, eventually get the best jobs, and the cycle continues….I’m not at all reflecting on whether this is good or bad….simply observing the reality that I see in my community and others nearby.

      January 13, 2012
  6. Joelle Permutt said:

    I really appreciate your comments on The Race To Nowhere, overall I think they are very articulate and poignant. I especially liked the thoughtfulness in points 5.-7.

    I’m curious, however, about the issue brought up in the movie about the changes in education since Bush’s no child left behind 2002 policy. You spoke about liking homework in high school, but I’m wondering if school really is different today than when we were in school in the 80’s? Is there more ‘teaching to the test’ going on now? My husband supports testing because he’s supportive of benchmarks in business and life in general. But my concern is that due to the pressure of funding being tied to performance levels so teachers have to teach to the test. So then is the testing just a measure of how much information the students have absorbed from being taught the test material, rather than a true measure of their creative learning abilities? Are there effective measures for teaching kids how to learn? Because that is a life long skill that seems to be a more important skill for the long term future.

    October 27, 2011
  7. Elizabeth Steward said:

    Dear Jonathan Martin,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your detailed synopsis of and response to this film! With my schedule, I may never get to see it, and no number of pleading emails has convinced them to send me a copy (I did offer to pay for it).
    I am a mother of 4 and 5 year old boys and wanted very much to have greater awareness about current education concerns. I am very grateful to find an article that provides so many details on it, as well as criticism. I shall print out your article, skip the film, and continue my merry way – now much better informed.
    Thank you!
    Elizabeth Steward

    November 17, 2011
  8. […] lives. I shared my thoughts on this documentary last spring and some of my colleagues did as well, including Jonathan Martin, who most recently shared a guest post on his blog pushing back against Nowhere’s claims that […]

    November 29, 2011
  9. […] Martin on Connected Principals talks about how the film asks and addresses some of the most central and essential questions about […]

    July 20, 2014
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