Battle Hymn of the Anti-Tiger Mother

The powerful, alarming documentary that’s riling up parents across the country.

The Race to Nowhere

By the end of this school year, about half a million people will have watched the documentary Race to Nowhere. This stealth juggernaut can’t be seen on TV, in any multiplex, or on DVD. But since the fall of last year, it’s been shown almost 2,000 times in school auditoriums and community centers across the country—mostly to parents beset with the fear that they’re blowing the raising of their kids. The emotional discussions following the screenings—part catharsis, part call to action, part finger-pointing—are excellent introductions to the contentious debate about what we want from our kids and from the people who educate them.

First-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, 49, a Northern California lawyer and mother of three, was moved to pick up a camera when her children started suffering from school-related headaches, stomachaches, and panic attacks. What she produced is a wide-ranging polemic against our current education system that is artless, occasionally overwrought, and undeniably powerful. It confirms—and stokes—the unease many parents have about how miserable much of childhood seems today. It also sets up Abeles as the anti-Amy Chua. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua’s thesis is that if you let up, your kid will become a coddled American slacker. Abeles offers the antithesis. She argues that part of America’s greatness is born of our misfits and dreamers, that our gift to our children is time to engage in “aimless” play.

Race to Nowhere is mainly composed of interviews with unhappy kids, concerned parents, and pressured teachers interspersed with commentary from experts in education and child development. In its 85 minutes, the documentary tackles so many issues that it sometimes feels as if it’s cramming a semester’s worth of material into one class. It’s a canny strategy: Every parent will feel an identification and rush of stomach acid at something Abeles portrays—I know I did. The staggering amounts of homework kids receive and the perniciousness of standardized testing are two major themes.

But Race to Nowhere also introduces us to a culture of rampant cheating, which students see as the only way to keep up; rising numbers of medicated kids, some of whom abuse attention-deficit drugs to finish all their assignments; children nearing emotional and physical collapse over the expectation they must be dazzling; and young people trained to be so fearful of making mistakes or taking risks that they are unable to cope when arriving at the workplace. And then there is the agonizing story that bookends the movie—that of a 13-year-old girl, a perfect child so undone by her perceived failures in middle school that she committed suicide.

Abeles defends the broadness of her indictment. “You have to look at the unhealthy culture we’ve created. You have to name the problem,” she said in an interview.           

The fact that the film can only be seen at group screenings is a strategy born of necessity—a distribution deal stalled out—that has proved opportune. Seeing the film is a communal experience, and that is the best way, Abeles said, to inspire change. The discussions are a first step toward action.

At a screening I went to, at a school in Montgomery County, Md.—which has one of the highest ranked school systems in the country—the parents who took to the microphone afterward could barely contain their outrage. One father, whose high school-age daughter was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, said she would need 10 hours a night to complete all the homework she was assigned. A first-grade mother said that because of academic pressure, her child’s class gets only a short daily recess and one physical-education class per week. Students who haven’t done their homework aren’t allowed outside during recess and are forced to wear a bathroom pass around their necks all day. “It’s like a scarlet letter!” she exclaimed. “It’s appalling!”

The educators sitting onstage were defensive and disheartened. One high-school teacher said the push for homework came from competitive parents—to snorts from the audience. An administrator said schools were under pressure from higher up the bureaucracy to enroll ever more students in Advanced Placement courses.

My daughter’s high school in Washington, D.C., showed the film recently at separate screenings for parents and students. Afterward, I talked to her and a group of her classmates, expecting they’d feel the film was a “J’accuse!” to the adults who were demanding so much from them.

But these freshmen were rather dismissive of the movie. Stress, pressure, hours of homework—that’s just the way life is, they collectively shrugged. But then they slowly started to describe things they’d had to give up to deal with their nightly homework load—a musical instrument or a beloved sport. They talked about seeing kids crying in the hall because they got a B on an exam. When an expert in the movie said kids need nine hours or more of sleep a night, they said the auditorium erupted in laughter. But Race to Nowhere may speak more directly to worried parents. “My mother loved the film,” one of my daughter’s friends said. “She’s gone in to talk to people at the school.”

Like that mother, I was educated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, an era notable for a desire to break down existing institutions. I had no homework through early elementary school, and when it started, it never became the nightly second shift that it is for my high-school student daughter. When I was her age, getting into a selective college was not a multi-year campaign that required paid consultants. We were not expected to have started our own charities or to have played at Carnegie Hall. When it came time to take the SAT, my preparation consisted of bringing enough sharpened pencils.

But education, like religion, is prone to wild swings of reform and counter-reform. By the 1980s, policymakers had grown alarmed at what they saw as a generation of uneducated nitwits, and in 1983 a presidential commission issued the landmark report A Nation at Risk, which stated that schools were failing to prepare students for the modern workforce and explicitly recommended more homework. And the levels have been ratcheting up ever since. The experts in Race to Nowhere assert there’s virtually no correlation between homework load and academic success in lower grades, and in upper grades, a reasonable amount is more effective than a ton.

The 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act brought another wave of transformations. Its worthy premise was that an excellent education is the right of all children. The way it was decided to measure progress toward that goal is through standardized tests—with teachers’ and administrators’ careers on the line. But as the critics in Race to Nowhere argue, an unintended result of NCLB has been that what’s being taught in class is increasingly narrowing to what’s on those tests, and how best to take them, at the expense of creative thinking. Meanwhile, in 2009—the year Race to Nowhere made its film festival debut—Barack Obama announced Race to the Top, his administration’s package of education reforms, which calls for still more high-stakes testing. (Abeles’ title isn’t mockery, just coincidence.)

Abeles’ crusade against the enormous problems her film highlights is going to have a hard time gaining traction, warns education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which indicts the punitive, reductive nature of our recent reforms. “Vicki’s talking about a malignant force that’s touching every school in America,” Ravitch says.

In this year’s State of the Union address, track coach Obama said we must “win the race to educate our kids,” who are being lapped by little whizzes from China and elsewhere. But as Abeles notes—reformers of the reforms sometimes end up in the odd position of defending our apparent mediocrity—we’ve never led the world in test scores: “We’ve led the world in innovation.”

At a recent Town Hall meeting, Obama seemed to express ambivalence about his own education program. “We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids,” he said, in response to a student who asked for fewer of them. “One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test.”

Abeles has become a full-time activist and is now working on a book. She knows change will only come in small steps. She cites a school principal who has put a lid on homework, a school district that’s eliminated AP classes. She is showing the film to college presidents and admissions officers, hoping to get them to release some of the pressure. Maybe, she suggests, colleges can say that student résumés attached to applications (yes, teenagers have résumés—and often they’re more impressive than yours) will go in the trash, or that they won’t consider more than four AP courses.

And she says the change will also have to come household-by-household. My daughter recently suggested she should take AP history sophomore year because it would show colleges she was signing up for the most rigorous courses. I was happy to say, “I don’t think you should.”