In her debut doc, mother of three Vicki Abeles appeals to educators, parents, and communities to alleviate the pressures weighing down today's children. It's a plaintive plea for a grass-roots movement.
Kids today are under more pressure than earlier generations realize. With higher and higher expectations from parents, teachers, schools, admissions boards, and state and local governments, they often face unrealistic amounts of homework, day-extending extracurricular activity, and pressure to achieve, achieve, achieve. At what cost?
Sparked by her own daughter’s over-the-top stress and a local 13-year-old girl’s suicide, that’s what first-time filmmaker—a corporate lawyer who is the mother of three—Vicki Abeles set out to uncover in her documentary Race to Nowhere, opening Friday, September 10, at IFC Center.
Abeles hopes the film, which she is making available to families, schools, and communities, will be the starting point for conversations that will spur a grass-roots movement across the country. Her mission? To get parents and adults to advocate for all our children. Her goal? To give kids time to be kids—with unstructured play, time to spend with their families, and, yes, plenty of sleep. Doesn’t sound like much to ask, right? You’d be surprised…
Filmmaker Vicki Abeles
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?
Vicki Abeles: This film really got started in the emergency room of our local hospital. My daughter became physically ill from the pressures she was feeling. She was 12 years old and coming home to several hours of homework and studying for tests each night.
At first I felt so alone, but then I started talking to others and asking, “What is going on in our schools and communities?” I talked to other students, and then teachers and principals, and eventually to many of the top education experts who appear in the movie. Everywhere I went, I met young people who were depressed, anxious, sleep deprived, abusing performance medications, and in the worst case, contemplating suicide. Many had simply checked out of learning.
I wound up making a movie because I just couldn’t sit back and do nothing anymore.
Tribeca: Watching the film, I was struck by how pressured kids today feel to achieve, succeed, and surpass expectations, both academically and extracurricularly. To what do you ascribe this increased pressure?
Vicki Abeles: There are a lot of factors coming together to create the perfect storm. You can really trace this all the way back to the space race that started 50 years ago, after Sputnik woke America up to a gap in science and math compared with the Soviet Union.
Additional pressure and fear began in 1983 with the government’s report on education titled A Nation at Risk, and continued with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Then there is the continual worry that we won’t be able to compete in the global economy. In addition, the media’s focus on numbers, rankings, and “most prestigious schools” contributes to the mindset where success is defined very narrowly.
And the focus on standardized tests at all stages of a child’s development, which in the past 20 years have become a way to get into not only college, but even preschool, and recently—under No Child Left Behind—to judge entire schools and all the teachers in them. Teaching to all these tests has only resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and stressed out everyone involved, which is turning students off to education and leaving them unprepared for college and the workplace.
And the unintended impact is an epidemic of pressure. In the movie you hear from kids with depression, kids who are in kindergarten with headaches, kids who are cutting themselves, kids who are taking ADD medications just to get through the homework that’s expected of them.
Sleep deprivation and rampant insomnia is a big part of what this is doing to our kids and to their health.
We also hear in the film about how the pressure to perform and compete is creating an epidemic of cheating in our schools.
In fact, the title of the movie comes from a boy who says, “It’s like we’re on a race to nowhere.”
Tribeca: There’s a growing frustration among teachers over how “teaching to the test” discourages creativity in the classroom, and I was moved by the teacher in the movie who left the profession in tears. How can teachers and administrators fight back against those who hold the power and implement rigid standards?
Vicki Abeles: Many sense the impact the narrow definition of success and achievement is having on our children. But teachers and administrators are caught in this broken system and feel they don't have a choice but to conform.
The reality is it’s not working for many kids, even those with the résumés and high GPAs. So many of those young people are burned out, exhausted, anxious, and ultimately unprepared for life beyond high school. And there's a large percentage of young people who feel marginalized and disengage because they don't fit into the narrow way that our culture defines success for young people.
Someone has to be the first to stand up and say that a narrow focus on test scores, performance and competition is adding stress, and not providing our children a better education.
Teachers can start by getting this film into schools, so that parents, students, teachers, and administrators can all have the “aha!” experience together: no one is alone in this—in fact, we’re all in this pressure cooker together.
This film is really the trigger, the centerpiece, the heart, of our grassroots movement for change. We feel it’s talking to millions of parents and teachers. On 9/30, 10/4, 10/26 and 11/4, in conjunction with National Child Health Day, we are going to have hundreds (or even thousands) of screenings across the country and even overseas. Parents and students and teachers are going to come together—in schools, community centers, and theaters—to talk about what makes for a good education.
Anyone can join in by going to racetonowhere.com and setting up your own screening. It’s easy to do.
Tribeca: Kids need time to play, and imagine, and stretch, and grow. What can parents do to avoid overscheduling their kids?
Vicki Abeles: We need to take charge of our kids’ education, and wake up to the fact that just adding a lot of stress does not make better students, and does not make better education.
For starters, parents should not allow homework to take over their homes in the evenings and they shouldn't do the homework for their children. In this way, educators will see what each child is developmentally able to handle independently. Homework quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns—the film has experts who speak about the research in the area of homework, and we need to become familiar with that research as parents and advocate for policies and practices that respect the research. Let’s put front and center what works for the kids.
Parents should safeguard sleep at all costs, even if it means not completing homework.
Parents should make conversations about college focused on finding the "right fit" rather than the "best college."
Tribeca: The film feels like both a personal, plaintive plea and a national call to action. What concrete steps do you hope people will take after seeing your film?
Vicki Abeles: First, I tell them, schedule a screening and get the conversation started in your own school, community, or home. Because until you’ve had this inside look that the film gives you, you really can’t appreciate what it’s like in school today. We’ve put together a facilitation guide for a discussion following the film; it’s packed with information to help communities find a new way forward.
The film is first and foremost about raising awareness and bringing communities together to discuss how we can better prepare the next generation for their future while also ensuring a healthy childhood. Layers of change are needed in order to transform our education system. Race to Nowhere empowers everyone to be involved in creating a vision for change.
Tribeca: From a filmmaking point of view, can you talk about your process? Once you decided to make a film, how did you proceed? When/how did your co-director Jessica Congdon get involved? How did you work together?
Vicki Abeles: After my daughter became sick with stress and a girl in my community committed suicide, I decided I wanted to create something that would draw immediate attention to academic pressure and bring people together. The media fuels our performance-based culture. I wanted to harness the power of media to inspire change in the way we raise and educate kids.
I decided to make a film. First I made a 15-minute short: experts and a few kids spoke about stress caused by school. Then I decided I needed to interview more kids, from various socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic locations. I wanted to talk to more teachers, more parents. I knew I needed to expand the entire production.
I also decided to include my own family’s story as both a central narrative and as through line for the entire film. I hired a writer who worked closely with me for several months to expand the informational film into a short documentary. We developed visual concepts that we could capture in our b-roll.
And we began interviewing parents and students of various ages and backgrounds: from elementary to middle to high school; urban and suburban locations; west coast, east coast, middle America. I hired camera crews in each location to capture not only these interviews, but to follow around our various subjects.
Jessica came recommended to me as a very savvy, highly experienced editor. We had so much great footage, and we had the movie outlined on paper—but we needed an editor to pull it all together. Jessica is an incredible storyteller who was able to take our footage and shape the story. It started in my own home, in my community, and broadened to different communities throughout the U.S.
Tribeca: Did you encounter any resistance from anyone you tried to film or interview?
Vicki Abeles: We attempted to obtain contrarian voices for the film, and that proved to be a challenge. The reality is it’s hard to argue with the health impact we are seeing today.
We would have loved to have interviewed a teacher or administrator who explained that the pressures on our kids were necessary, and that kids just needed to learn how to deal with the stress—someone who supported the system. But of course, no one wanted to express that point of view in a film that questioned these unreasonable expectations and advocated changing the education system.
We once sought an on-the-fly interview with an instructor at a learning center for infants. I wanted to see if this person supported the company’s philosophy: that kids should start learning math and other academic subjects at an absurdly young age (2 or 3). The person declined to be interviewed and we were asked to leave.
Tribeca: As a first-time director, what advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers? What have you learned?
Vicki Abeles: Follow your passion. Build a team and make the process a collaborative one. If you have a personal connection to the subject, include your story. While I didn’t set out to include my family’s story in the film, others encouraged me to do so and it made for a much more compelling film.
Don’t forget b-roll.
Try to get your movie into theaters, sure, but don’t stop there. If your film captures people’s attention, consider a hybrid approach where the film plays both in theaters and in other venues such as schools, libraries and community centers. In many cases, more people will see the film if it is shown in places where you have a captive audience.
We have thousands of requests for screenings and we’re setting them up as fast as we can. We’re already approaching 300 confirmed screenings in theaters, schools, churches, community centers, and we’re just getting started.
Tribeca: Do you think you will make more films?
Vicki Abeles: Yes. I’m currently in development on my next film while also consulting on a couple of films already in progress.
I’m also committed to getting Race to Nowhere out to the widest possible audience so that we can make an impact and begin to change the mindset around what makes for a good education and childhood.
Tribeca: What makes Race to Nowhere a must-see?
Vicki Abeles: You’ll never look at school, or young people, the same way again. You won’t forget the stories and will leave the film inspired and empowered to make a difference.