Race to Nowhere: Homework for Parents

Last Updated Dec 13, 2010 8:48 AM EST

The new documentary Race to Nowhere is getting a lot of buzz with its attack on the nation's school system which, according to the film, goes overboard in pressuring young kids to make good grades so that they can get into a good college and later make good money.

The film describes a debilitating learning environment, citing homework overload and much more, and boldly asserts that the education system:

  • Robs kids of their youth
  • Stifles creativity
  • Fosters adolescent stress
  • Undermines kids' emotional and physical well-being
  • Cuts family time
  • Destroys student self esteem
That all? Well, no. In some cases classroom pressures tear apart families and contribute to teen suicide. This film has a lot to say.

I have argued that the insane focus on building a gaudy college resume through A.P. classes, after-school clubs, community service and hours of homework is a big reason that kids don't learn more about personal finance in school. There's no mandate for it; there's no time for it. Teachers have told me this is the case even though most kids don't even go to college and would benefit immeasurably from a basic financial grounding before going forth into the world.

Race goes much further, blaming our obsession with runaway resume building for all the bad stuff, including kids who withdraw or drop out because they feel they just can't do it all. Check out these clips addressing the escalating issue of A.P. course overload.

I buy a lot of the criticisms in this film. Even most of them. This is an important movie, which can be viewed only through private screenings -- mostly sponsored by community groups in school auditoriums, churches and temples. We're experiencing an epidemic of sorts. The number of students taking A.P. courses rose nearly 50% to 1.7 million from 2004 to 2009. In a survey of A.P. teachers, more than half said "too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads."

Meanwhile, kids are not getting the financial skills they need to succeed on a personal level or, Race director Vicki Abeles told me, "the life skills, problem-solving skills and critical-thinking skills they'll need in the workplace." We're raising a generation that is trained to do what it is told, not to lead or create.

Race has its problems. Its biggest flaw is that it spends too much time examining stressed-out and sleep-deprived straight-A students who will even cheat to avoid a dreaded B. Call me bourgeois; but freaking out over a B is what I'd call a problem for the privileged. The more common victims, it seems to me, are the average students who don't have and don't want private tutors, and who feel inadequate amid all this hyper competition and simply give up. They don't get enough attention here -- just like at school.

Another miss is that the movie doesn't do enough to explore the way parents pressure kids. We can't lay it all on the school district.

Finally, it's not a great movie experience. This is not Waiting for Superman. Nearly 90 minutes of parents and kids and counselors describing the system's failures is numbing. By all means, see the movie when it comes to your community. But know first that it isn't entertainment; it's, well, homework. How badly do you want that A in parenting?

Photo courtesy of Race to Nowhere
More on MoneyWatch and CBS:
· Teach Money to Kids-or More A.P. Classes?
· Too Much Homework?

  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.