Race to Nowhere showing at Oakland’s Grand Lake

Race to Nowhere documentary

I have yet to watch the “Race to Nowhere” education documentary, but I hope to catch it this week, when it plays at the Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave.

You can see it today through Sunday at 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. From Monday through Thursday it screens at 6 p.m., 8 p.m., and 10 p.m.

The filmmaker’s description:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Race to Nowhere is a call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.

I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is in Oakland. A 2011 YouthTruth survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that students at the typical Oakland high school (13 schools participated; Oakland Tech did not) perceived their academic work to be less rigorous, on average, than did students surveyed at the other 150 high schools nationwide.

If you’ve seen “Race to Nowhere,” I’d love to hear your take on it (no spoilers, please!). Do you think kids are assigned way too much homework and live in an overly competitive achievement culture?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I walked out of Race to Nowhere halfway through. I think I even posted about it on here at that time.

    I thought it was bogus. Was sob story about the poor overstressed rich kids at top high schools who are losing their childhood to the obsession to get into Stanford, make a fortune or become a senator. The parents who made the film seemed totally oblivious to the fact that 9/10ths of the problem was completely in the control of the parents themselves: Tell your kids it is FINE to not base their life around a pyhrric quest to become one of the 1%.

    But what REALLY set me off was how they stuck some Fremont High kids in as the movie’s TOKEN “color” and “diversity” and then blithely connected their plight as the children of immigrant parents without education trying to become the first in their family to graduate college to the stress this white girls at at top Marin school were going through because of aforementioned quest to be perfect fodder for Harvard.


    And yes, they also paid lip service to the problems of testing, etc., which I agreed with. But the rest of the phoniness made me understand a bit better why so many Americans hate the unctuousness of white liberal America — of which I am certainly a part — it can be so tone deaf as to what most folks go through, even as it is claiming to speak for them.

    Now, maybe the movie totally kicked ass in the second half after I walked out. To me, though, it was a shameless blurring of the real problems of the American underclass and the cultural problems of the elites.

    FYI, the genesis of the film is a Westside LA parent finding out her daughter’s friend tried to commit suicide and then realizing her daughter is also under enormous strain at her elite middle school to which she is chauffered every morning in a sleek Lexus. So, being a filmmaker, she decides to make a movie about it . . . instead of just moving her daughter to a less insane school!

  • detank

    I saw this film a few months ago and found it fascinating. The argument of the film is when you put kids in a high stakes, high stress environment of achievement, you will get some bad consequences.

    By the way, the lady who made this film is out of Lafayette. The issues that the film brings up seems to apply more to suburban schools than urban schools.

  • J.R.

    I never realized that the wealthy had it so hard. You learn something new every day. I have got to catch this movie and contrast it to “Waiting For Superman”.

  • Mick,

    Cranky Teacher,

    I agree with you. The producer is out of touch with urban schools. The consertives will have a field day with this movie, because it goes NOWHERE!

  • anon

    hallelujah, cranky teacher for your words about this film and the film maker’s POV- so, so true. I actually taught her son at one point… Let’s just say SO MUCH of this starts in the home.

  • On The Fence

    Wow. I saw this movie twice and felt it was one of the most important films for anyone raising kids today. I have a middle schooler and a high schooler in very urban OUSD schools and feel that the pressures to compete/succeed/perform on children with middle class values is pretty ubiquitous. I am neither a helicopter parent nor a tiger mom, and yet I have to work very hard not to get caught up in the ‘race’.

  • OUSD Parent

    @ On the Fence, I haven’t seen the movie but am interested in your post. My children are younger than yours but in OUSD schools. I naively think that I can avoid the supercharged pressures that some of my friends in Lamorinda/Piedmont schools struggle with, by staying in an urban district. I’d like to hear more about your experience in OUSD and how you still feel that pressure. Do you think it makes any difference? Are pressures greater or no different for middle class families in urban schools.

    I also agree with some of the other posts on this thread, that when there is a population dealing with huge challenges, stressing about getting a top GPA and getting into Stanford (or wherever) seems absurd. There was a story in the Chronicle this weekend about the challenges SFUSD is facing with the increase in homeless kids and the pressures they have. Talk about stress!

    But my family falls into that middle class group and am therefore curious to hear what other middle class urban families think about the movie and the issue in general.

  • On the Fence

    Some thoughts off the top of my head…. You are correct in thinking that the pressures in some of the more academic private high schools are greater than the urban publics. This can be because some of the most academic high schools give really overwhelming work loads to their students, and they are surrounded by many other high achieving, motivated students.

    However, the feeling of ‘is my child doing enough and keeping up?’ is one that I’m sure you will feel even in the urban public schools. Given your middle class membership, likely you will compare your parenting decisions and your child to a similar peer group and not to the group of homeless children or those in foster care or similarly disenfranchised children. Your similar peer group will have children who attend not just soccer, but begin to attend Class 3 or Class 1 soccer and this will be a separation that forces you to question if there is something inherently better about playing the sport more seriously, with better training, with more days of exercise/practice. There will be children who play an instrument and perhaps have lessons outside of school, camps, language, dance, swimteam, routine supplemental tutoring, drama, and other enrichment activities. You will have to make a decision as to how many activities are enough for the child who wants to participate in everything, or how much to push for the child interested in nothing. It will not always be so clear cut when to say “Enough” with the activities, as sometimes joining in is necessary to foster a strong social connection (not being left out), or you will find the health benefits of keeping your child active to be compelling.

    There will also be many parents in your peer group who choose private school and who, in the course of your friendship or acquaintence, will share their reasons that they are sacrificing financially to send their children to private school and each time you will subtly reassess whether your choice to go public will serve your child best. You will be bombarded by the messages from other parents and the media showing that today’s children will not attain the financial stability that their parents did, or that colleges are now looking for children with a passion in a certain endeavor like ‘ski team champion’, and with grades above a 4.0 GPA. Everyday banter will include someone saying “wow, I’d never be able to get into the college I went to, nowadays”. And then when your child gets into high school you are faced with the added pressure that grades/activities really do matter if they want to go to college straight from H.S. Add to that that many, many, many children at our urban public H.S. have tutors for multiple subjects, and privately paid college admissions counselors. Seems crazy, but each day there will be emails from parents requesting recommendations for each of these services on the public school email group.

    You may very clearly reject these messages and pressures for the sanity of your child and your family, but be clear, you will not be immune from this culture as it is ubiquitous, and managing it is often trickier than one might think.

  • OUSD Mom

    After having watched this movie, I’m surprised at the message that Cranky Teacher took from it. I, like On the Fence, felt it had some really important messages and information. I don’t want my kid to have to give up family time and play time in order to do hours upon hours of homework every night. Especially, if the studies mentioned (including one from Stanford if I’m not mistaken) in the movie are right that more homework does not = more learning (hence the name, “Race to Nowhere”) I don’t know if it’s true or not, but someone told me that Palo Alto schools have banned homework all together?? I find this fascinating and am certainly interested in seeing changes happen sooner, rather than later, as my kids are approaching middle school.

  • OUSD Parent

    On The Fence, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It seems crazy but I can already see a lot of what you mentioned happening now, and I have a couple of years until we move to the next level – middle school!!! I have been very laid back with my kids about homework and extracurricular activities. I refuse to push my son into competitive sports leagues because I want him to continue to play for the love of playing. But as my children get older I wonder if I am pushing them enough or if I’m too relaxed about things. Especially when I see other’s around me upping the ante. It definitely something that I’ll keep in mind moving forward.

  • theinsidestory

    Please note that even in school communities such as those that Cranky describes, and along with the messages and infomation “onthefence” points out — there are kids in these communities similar to “Urban Kids…”

    An important question left out of the film is “How do these school communities address the needs of students who are average (on or approaching grade level) or below? The answer to that question will tell you just how each and every other student is being treated and why their is this undue pressure of competition, and success at all cost…

    As an insider of such a school community, I can tell you that this has been an absolutely disgustingly horrible experience for both now 1st grader and our family…

    First, many of the families “red-shirt” and if you don’t choose to hold your kid back until 6 years old – you are punished – fast-tracked into SSTs, pressure to retain, and/or referrals into special education…and if opposed get ready to have your family and kid labled and the anty upped in the next grade…;

    Second, many of the families insist on and have insisted on academic-focussed early learning, and because many of the kids are a year older or more, the curriculum and focus is geared 1 to 2 grade levels ahead, and if a family takes issue with this and merely requests that their student have access to grade level curriculum to attain foundational skills and abilities with the option of going beyond depending on the child, be ready to be highly pressured again and if you or any other family tries to appeal with common sense through the micro-level, community relationships to at least have your child get access to a basic education at his/her grade level, be ready for more aggressive tactics against your family and child on the playground and to push you out of the school all together…;

    Third, my child graduated kindergarten with an absolute dislike for school, learning, his teacher, or anything that reminded him of going to school…his “veteran” teacher spoke in monotone, there was no focus on “developmental” play-based learning, and the curriculum was 1st grade focus…when he went to 1st grade, the teacher showed us an exemplar of another 1st grader (produced by a student a year or more older than my son)which was on a scale of 1 to 4 from not yet to beyond, a 4, and was told that this was the expectation for an incoming 1st grader for writing, and the writing curriculum delivered in-class, was a grade 3 – 5 as designated by the publihshers, and our family was further put on notice that our son’s report card would reflect his lack of being a “capable” writer, when the primary grade curriculum by the same publisher was to focus on how to write sentences with writing a 3 – 5 sentence paragraph by Thanksgiving. The expectation here was to go home and do extra homework with a 6 year old (for how many hours a night???) and catch him up on going over the handwriting without tears curriculum (which was quickly reviewed in 2 homework assignments rather than spiraled through for him to internalize over the 1st 6 weeks of 1st grade, while teacher does modeling of sentence/oaragraph writing with graphic organizers on the overhead) while 1st graders learn how to write sentences (since it was never taught in his Kinder class (not even sight word or rebus stamps with sentence strips or anything else), MY POINT IS>>>>>what kind of confustion and pressure is this for a 1st grader or our family?????

    Also in these communities, there are school foundations, where many of the people have nothing better to do than to participate in fundraising…which collect and manage millions of dollars in private funding…yet in a Kindergarten and 1st grade classroom, there was no evidence to me of any developmentally appropriate writer’s workshop tools for writing at an emergent writer level…mostly worksheets from a copy machine and paper and pencil…for all subjects…and when I took issue with this…guess who came knocking on my door two weeks later…?…CPS…which turned out to be a false and malicious complaint by the school of general neglect that even the case worker was concerned why such a complaint was ever filed…

    Threatened like this…we were chased out of the school for inquiring up the ladder why our child wasn’t receiving access to a basic 1st grade education, or why those families that decided to “red-shirt” couldn’t ask to advance 1 – 2 grade levels (rather than the curriculum geared up 1 -2 grade levels) so that the achievement gap could be closed for those who don’t want to succumb to “THE RACE TO NOWHERE”

    Cranky, it doesn’t matter where you live, what you color, race, creed, sex, class, orientation, etc.., etc…, there are kids with an “Urban” culture of origin who attend these schools posed in the film who WANT TO BE SOCIALIZED TOWARD ACHIEVEMENT that are school right along side those who are headed for Harvard from well-off families!!!!

    Yes, even kinders and 1st graders have a full range of activities: school, tutoring, sport-team, church, scouts, volunteering, etc…, those are traits of emerging, multi-talented, future leaders….but, who also do deserve how to work smarter NOT harder in the academic field


  • Katy Murphy

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, theinsidestory. I apologize for the delay in posting it (I had the day off today). From now on, your comments should appear automatically — as long as you use the same username and email. I moderate initial comments to prevent spam from appearing on the site.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I agree with folks that it is hard to know how much to push our children and how much to let nature take its course. I know that I’ve been kinda shocked to find that when I put my kids in sports around 10, they were considered way late to the game — many of their teammates had already been playing that sport YEAR ROUND for five years!

    Honestly, if the film had just been blunt about saying that it was a film by and for upper and upper-middle class families, I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly. It was the use of the Fremont High kids — from a campus and community I am very familiar with — to lend a false equivalency that set me off.

    I also agree with theinsidestory that the hyper-demanding schools are often particularly lousy at dealing with special ed students, poor/miseducated students, immigrants, etc. I taught at one that was public that had this problem, and my relatives attended a very “progressive” socal school that was terrible with students who didn’t fit the “best and the brightest” model instantly. Their message: Fit in or get out.

  • Catherine

    Cranky Teacher: You said that she tried to make a movie about her daughter’s friend rather than just taking her daughter out of an inappropriate (less insane) school environment.

    Lt’s flip that comment a bit from what my friend said recently. Rather than spend another seven years going to school board meetings, heading GATE committees, spending endless hours fundraising, participating in SLIP committees, writing endless emails and letters to the state and the district and meeting with the principal weekly to see how my kids’ needs could be met in public school, I just moved them to a less insane school district. They are still in public school, have seven classes a day with a choice of three foreign languages and the elementary kid actually has to think to get the work done and is writing more in the first two months of school than the past four years combined.

    What is insane? Both sides of the problem.

  • J.R.
  • Zinnia

    All points about school pressure on children can be valid. But when I saw the film, I kept thinking that no one ever really knows why a young person would decide to die. Anything could have been going on including family trauma or mental illness. The film maker made a big assumption that the girl had the perfect life and that the stress was entirely about school. This was a giant flaw in the film. I think that we all try to find answers to this kind of tragedy and this was the film makers way of dealing with her grief.

  • Debora

    I agree with Zinnia that we have no idea was drove this suicide. I have a very driven daughter. When she was in the primary grades in elementary school there was an assumption by two different principals, many teachers and many parents that as her parents we pushed her. We recently met up with some parents from the elementary school now that our fifth graders have moved on to various middle schools. These parents got to know my daughter well through activities at the school. Each person mentioned how internally motivated she was in academics, sports, volunteer activities and through her leadership.

    While I am proud of the person my daughter is becoming, we have actively worked on helping her overcome perfectionism. However, when she was bored in elementary school because of the lack of academic rigor she began to use nearly a roll of scotch tape a day to “tape myself together because my mind and my body go numb after sitting for hours every day learning nothing. No one cares whether I learn. The school needs my test score and parents need me to go to school.”

    My daughter is now in a middle school where she is challenged daily and learns something new every day in two ore more subjects. She is given the freedom to walk around the campus to think and reflect and is not “rounded up and corralled” (her words) to be in only certain portions of the campus at specific times of the day, such as before and after school and at lunch. For my daughter it was the pressure of not being able to read ahead, to think critically, and to learn to her capabilities that caused her distress.

    When this was brought up to a counselor through the school district I was asked “what is going on at home?” When I explained that nothing at home has changed and that she is supported, the counselor said there was nothing else she could do. Perhaps we needed to work with our medical care provider to get her counseling.

    What happens to kids who march to their own drum? How do parents, the educational community and medical personnel help them?

    The movie struck me as sad that parents, the community and others did not know these children and young adults deeply. As for our family, we were extremely fortunate to have found the right educational setting for our daughter, we continued to talk to our daughter, we paid attention to changes in mood, we watched the tape usage (yes, really), we talked about eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, depression, cutting and how to get help if those issues arose. I think back on the years of taping, the meetings with teachers and the principal and how a change in school environment was what she needed and I ask myself as her mother, why didn’t I do more?

    Pressure is built from the outside and from the inside. We all need to pay attention to how we affect the young people around us and then we need to have the courage to act on what we know is right.