More than 130 people attended the screening of Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture (2009), a documentary that condemns the pressure put on students to succeed academically.
The Graduate School of Education and the Student Affiliates in School Psychology (SASP) sponsored the screening of the documentary, which was produced by parent-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles.
Abeles said she made the film after she noticed that her three children were subject to a culture of stress that has “invaded our schools and our children’s lives, creating unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared and stressed-out youth,” she said.
“I saw the strain in my children as they navigated days filled with school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities. But it wasn’t until my 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a stress-related illness that I was determined to do something,” Abeles wrote on the film’s website.
Race to Nowhere featured interviews with young people, educators who are worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, even though some of them admit they are the ones who add to the pressure.
After the screening, which was held on April 27, Zsuszanna Kiraly, Ph.D., associate professor of school psychology and director of the Hagin School Consultation and Early Childhood Centers, moderated comments from the audience.
One woman who identified herself as a teacher in a New York City public school that many times her students are not involved in any extra-curricular activities.
“So for them and their parents, homework is that thing they do after school. It’s a responsibility and, sometimes, a source of success for some very underprivileged students who don’t have the opportunity to participate in any activities,” she said.
Another teacher who said she worked in a school where some students do participate in extracurricular activities, wondered how someone could convince schools and parents to reduce homework, a goal advocated for in the film.
“How do we get them to take those risks?” she said. “It’s really a tricky position. The movie is trying to get across a great message, but it may be too idealistic.”
Kiraly said she feared society at large is sending a double message.
“In one way, to get to the best school, you must get the best grades and so it becomes very grade-oriented,” Kiraly said. “Then in terms of psychological adjustment, we’re trying to come up with non-academic ways of measuring success. But still, society tells us you are only successful if you get into a certain kind of school.”
In the film, middle school students expressed pressure to get into the best high schools while high schoolers stressed about getting into top colleges. The film even interviewed the mother of a 13-year-old who may have committed suicide over a bad math grade.
An audience member who said she was a public school teacher in the Bronx said students are being prepared for tests very early in the school year.
“Students are losing their ability to enjoy school because school has become test prep, starting as early as October,” she said. “They are suffering and losing their sense of what school should be.”