Thoughts on “Race to Nowhere”

I finally saw the advocacy documentary Race to Nowhere Sunday afternoon at the end of my 25th class reunion at Haverford College. There was a showing of the film after a panel Saturday about adolescent anxiety and inspired by several other alumni who have clinical practices and are worried about the same topics the film’s producer Vicki Abeles is concerned about. I was on the panel as an alumnus attending reunion who writes about education policy, and it was very interesting hearing practitioners in different contexts discussing what they see as anxiety disorders tied to academic pressures.

As I said at the panel, I don’t know of any solid research documenting trends in adolescent anxieties — most of the stuff I could find before this weekend had cross-sectional data on children and adolescents that could allow a few comparisons such as male-female differences in point prevalence rates for different mental illnesses, but that is far from something that allows one to say either that there is a trend of changing disorders or constant prevalence. At the extreme end, however, there is good evidence of no change; according to age-specific suicide rates from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, child and youth suicide rates have been flat over the past decade.1 Going into the panel yesterday, I knew that general picture (or rather, the inability to check claims about prevalence trends for anything other than suicide), and it was interesting to hear several practitioners on the panel and in the audience describe their experiences, which is seeing clinically-significant signs of increasing anxieties tied to academic pressures of different sorts. Obviously, Race to Nowhere has struck a nerve for some segments of its intended audience, as other education-related advocacy documentaries have done.

The film itself is not nearly as manipulative as other issue/advocacy documentaries in education; it’s impressionistic in structure, rather than focused on a single dramatic event (though one teen suicide in Abeles’s community gets some discussion). Both at Saturday’s panel and in the small discussion after the showing Sunday, there was a diversity of views expressed about homework, standardized testing, providing frequently-updated grade information to parents, and other subjects. And the list of “things to do” at the end of the movie is all over the map. If there is a generalized argument, it is that both families and schools are focused too much on competition, doing more, doing “better” in superficial ways, and that instead we need to avoid piling too much pressure on children and teenagers.

I take my fellow panelists (and Haverford College alums) at their word that they have witnessed excruciating cases of adolescent anxiety — and given their clinical roles, it’s very good that they can attend to those cases. I am also sympathetic to arguments that we need to draw a line between healthy challenges to children and teens as they grow up, on the one hand, and unreasonable pressures and inaccurate advice given to them and parents, on the other–so I very much like the type of advice Cal Newport gives in terms of being academically successful without burning out. And I had been cheering the effort in Los Angeles to give homework a lower weight in student grades… up until the point when political pressures forced LAUSD to back off.

But the film gives the clear impression that there is a consensus among some education experts that homework is evil, No Child Left Behind is responsible for significant amounts of child and youth anxiety, and that academic stress is the principle cause of child and youth anxiety. My thoughts on these matters:

  1. Viewing all homework as bad is essentially saying that children should be learning academic material only in school — only while the teacher is yapping or the students are in a classroom. In my experience, in any subject there is a healthy mix of what students can learn in the presence of a teacher and what students must learn outside classtime. There are plenty of assignments that are poorly constructed, but the proper question is not the existence of homework but what the homework is and its ability to solidy or extend what students are learning in class.
  2. On the one hand, I agree with the implicit argument of Abeles and the clinicians at the panel this weekend that depression and anxiety should not be viewed entirely with the lens of psychosocial development (or internal deficits/problems), and that social context matters.2 But if you’re going to say that we go beyond the individual, then you need to acknowledge that poverty and limited access to health care are higher risks to more children’s mental health than stress from pressures to overachieve academically. Again, this is not a statement about the clinically-significant issues of children and youth affected by major depression or anxieties related to academic stress but about the relative size of the problems.
  3. As another member of my class observed earlier this weekend, the unhealthy, distorted academic pressures on individual students and on schools are far more likely to come from middle-class parents than from education policy at the state or national level. Another person viewing the film Sunday pointed out that in her neighborhood, she was the only parent who kicked her children outside for an hour or so right after they came home from school instead of keeping her children inside to start/finish homework immediately. My wife and I also explicitly gave our children downtime after school. So there are plenty of choices available to individual parents to avoid the gazillion-activities-a-week schedule.

Where pressure to overachieve is a factor in mental illnesses for children and youth, I am afraid it comes with the territory of consensual American beliefs about striving and upward mobility. As David Labaree would observe, millions of parents want public schools to serve their families’ private interests of mobility, and that readily leads to the efforts of parents to accumulate cultural capital and help their children accumulate cultural capital. To the extent Annette Lareau is correct that a significant core of professional parents practice “concerted cultivation” as parents, that is simultaneously what Lareau describes as the key tools for the middle class and the behavior described as unhealthy in Race to Nowhere.

I don’t think Abeles or anyone else is going to have great luck persuading the relevant parents they don’t want their children accumulating those experiences or much luck persuading ambitious children from other backgrounds that they don’t want to try their hand at them, either. Same with the expansion of (still clunky) systems involving data. While there were several parents at Saturday’s panel who were horrified by schools that fed their children’s grades to them online, one father was adamant that it was a crucial tool for him as a parent of a middle-school boy. I’m sympathetic to the first group of parents, but I also see the father’s perspective and know which view will win out.

What is more realistic is talking about balance–not the end of homework but the shrewd use of it and the elimination of busywork; not the end of extracurricular activities but the encouragement of youth to follow a few passions intensely; not enrollment in every single AP class a high school offers and the completion of every single set of homework but a concerted effort to challenge oneself significantly and succeed in those challenges overall; not eliminating testing but making sure that instructional decisions are based on evidence in a sensible and not macho way. Those arguments are winnable.


  1. One interviewee for Race to Nowhere asserts that teen suicide rates have gone up in the recent past, and while Abeles is not responsible for the views of interviewees, I wish the production team had done a little more fact-checking. [↩]
  2. We are all ecological/system analysts now… [↩]

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives. His research interests include how schools educate children they have treated poorly in the past and how we define...