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Chasing the Empty ‘A’

Take out a pencil. This is a test.

Which of the following best describes parents who pick up their children from school and ask,

“Hey, how’d you do on that math test?”

  • Attentive
  • Supportive
  • Involved
  • Contributing to a high-pressure academic culture that’s hurting our kids’ health without actually helping their intellect.

Yeah, take your time on this one. It’s tricky.

I thought I knew the answer. I thought I understood how to squeeze my kids through the narrow, competitive tube of American academics. But a challenging new documentary called my assumptions into question.

Created by a frustrated mother of three, Race to Nowhere aims its cameras at our pressure-cooker of a school system, where college hopefuls scramble to build dazzling transcripts only to graduate high school burned out and, ironically, unprepared.

With a sold-out screening at the Arlington Theatre on January 9, the film is getting nationwide attention. Filmmaker Vicki Abeles, a former corporate attorney on Wall Street, made the film after her seventh grade daughter was diagnosed with school-induced stress.

“I can’t really remember the last time I had a chance to go out in the backyard and just run around,” the girl says in the film.

So her mother started asking questions.

“I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place where our family had so little time together,” Abeles explains on camera, “where kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under.”

Through interviews with students, parents, teachers, psychologists and professors, Race to Nowhere posits that the high-stakes rat race of American society has trickled down into our schools such that students are being pushed to perform rather than actually learn. Hours of homework combined with after-school sports, clubs, volunteer work — and anything else that’ll spruce up their Harvard applications — cause unnecessary stress on developing bodies and minds.

“You care so much about making people proud of you and living up to that expectation and standard that you start neglecting your health,” says another teen in the film.

Cheating is on the rise. So are childhood depression and the abuse of prescription Adderall as a study aid. A 13-year-old girl in Abeles’s community committed suicide after failing a math test.

And for what? Universities report that incoming students lack the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills required for college-level work — and for the job market beyond. They’re great at memorizing but lousy at analyzing.

Like the best teachers, Race to Nowhere brings up a lot of questions and doesn’t hand us all the answers. But Abeles hopes it will inspire changes in the way our kids are schooled. “I’m hoping,” she told me, “that together we parents and educators can create a revolution around this.”

Before that happens, though, it’s bound to freak us out a little. With studies showing that U.S. students lag behind other countries in reading, math, and science — and the hit documentary Waiting for Superman blaming teachers’ unions for the school system’s woes — it’s hard to know how to wisely guide our kids through the middle-school-to-high-school gauntlet. Can we really stop nudging them toward a glorious GPA?

Parents in Race to Nowhere suggest, for one, that we all stop focusing on our kids’ grades. Instead of asking after school about a math test, for example, ask what they had for lunch, whom they’re spending time with, what they’re excited about learning.

“You don’t,” Abeles warned me, “want to be just one more adult who’s measuring them.”.

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