Worried about the toll that school exacted on her children, tyro helmer Vicki Abeles parlayed maternal concern into a profession, and joins numerous fellow documentarians in analyzing the ills of the educational system, with “Race to Nowhere.” While Celvin Soling’s “The War on Kids” focused on physically repressive “zero tolerance” policies, Abeles’ “Race” decries the stress induced by a performance-driven, one-size-fits-all methodology. Teachers, pupils, administrators, parents and psychologists discuss student burnout, anxiety, depression and withdrawal, presenting persuasive arguments for change. This cogent if repetitive advocacy docu opens today in New York and Los Angeles and is scheduled for community summits nationwide prior to likely tube play.
Starting with her own offspring, Abeles (co-directing with Jessica Congdon, who edited) limns a picture of children deprived of childhood — groomed, coached and molded from kindergarten for the sole purpose of ladder-climbing to a “good” college, logging long school hours followed by hours of admissions-required extracurricular activities followed by tons of homework. Indeed, the last decade’s exponential increase in homework emerges as one of the main culprits of the piece.
Many students at all pre-collegiate levels complain of engaging in grueling latenight sessions and still not finishing the reams of paperwork demanded daily. One girl, hospitalized for anorexia, speaks of starving herself to stay awake. Expert interviewees attest that the failure to keep up, despite best efforts, produces feelings of hopelessness and anguish at the thought of disappointing adult expectations. Many students drop out in sheer frustration, while more turn to cheating. Pic cites general studies and trots out individual teachers who testify that abolishing homework in early grades, and greatly reducing it thereafter, in fact increases learning skills.
“Race” particularly ratchets up criticism over the legacy of President Bush’s infamous “No Child Left Behind” initiative and its emphasis on standardized testing, which force-feeds knowledge soon discarded post-exam. Mandated curriculums favor quantity over quality, leading to the quip about American education being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” College educators complain of the new generation’s general unpreparedness for anything but predigested feedback.
Most of the docu is couched in terms of schools’ ineffectiveness in instructing youngsters on how to become productive members of society, and the system’s failure to move the nation forward in the global education race. But one kid suddenly puts the whole schooling question in a larger context: He sees himself as being trained to be a better laborer, to do without eating or sleeping so that he can have “some bald guy yelling at me to do his work.”
But such provocative moments are rare and seldom followed up, as Abeles never abandons her central thesis of being a caring mom. The docu is dedicated to a girl in Abeles’ suburban neighborhood who committed suicide under the strain of falling from perfection, her fate largely coloring the pic’s dramatic thrust.