Race to Nowhere PragmaticMom Pragmatic Mom

Are We Racing to Nowhere in My Town or Yours?

A Race to Nowhere Here Where We Live?

I finally saw Race to Nowhere. My friend, Capability:Mom, was helping to pack the theater for Families First‘s fundraiser. They do such good work that it’s hard not to support them! My Mom Friend of 6 kids is on their Board and she did a lovely introduction before the movie started. Families First provides free workshops to low-income parents to help them be the best parents they can be. They brought in psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair to speak afterwards and she, we all agreed, was the best part of the evening.

It was hard to process all the  information at first. It comes at you like a one-two punch in a boxing ring. I asked Capability:Mom what her freshman-in-high-school daughter thought of the film. “Tell me something that I don’t already know,” was her reply. No shock factor here for the high schoolers. Yes, high school students stay up late at night, particularly those who take 4 honors classes and play a sport. Which you need to get into a good college. And her high school, Newton North High School, is filled with kids who want to attend good colleges to the degree that  50 kids from the two high schools in town, Newton North (and South) High Schools, go to top colleges every year like clockwork. Both schools also make the list of  Top 5% of High Schools in the U.S.

So the pressure to go to good high school is not necessarily parentally based. Contrary to my own high school experience, there are in my neighborhood:

  • Lots of kids who actually get into top schools which makes this seem like a realistic option (as opposed to my high school where the last person who attended Harvard was 5 years prior to me such that Ivy League acceptances were very much like a mirage).
  • Peer pressure to want to go to a top school. Unlike my high school where the big goal in life was to surf professionally and/or attend U.S.C. (University of Southern California)*. I am not joking here. It’s actually true stuff. I did grow up in the O.C. (that explains a lot, right?!)
  • Parents who attended top schools. Unlike my high school where most parents went to U.S.C., hence the huge enthusiasm that U.S.C. was the be all, end all.

As a community who might be racing to nowhere, are we? This is not a test people! There are no right or wrong answers to this question and it’s not a trick question.


First of all, I’d say that this film is deliberately provocative, as in: exaggerated for dramatic effect!! While the stories that are documented in the film are real, I suspect the kids featured are more outliers than the norm at their schools. This film isn’t trying to present a balanced view; it’s intention IS to shock us into action. And there is truth to this story. There are elementary schools in Northern California that assign three hours of homework to 4th and 5th graders because a friend from college was in this predicament AND her son is a bright and academic student. So, as the flag bearer for leading the charge that excessive homework is unnecessary and doesn’t promote learning (actually doing the opposite), this film is helpful.

But at my school, when parents ask about homework at curriculum night, and some wonder why it’s just a page of math that their child whips through in two minutes and thinks there should be more … the teachers and administrators are quick to point to the research. These are the main takeaway points:

  • The link between homework and student achievement is far from clear. There is no conclusive evidence that homework increases student achievement across the board. Some studies show positive effects of homework under certain conditions and for certain students, some show no effects, and some suggest negative effects (Kohn 2006; Trautwein and Koller 2003).
  • Too much homework may diminish its effectiveness. While research on the optimum amount of time students should spend on homework is limited, there are indications that for high school students, 1½ to 2½ hours per night is optimum. Middle school students appear to benefit from smaller amounts (less than 1 hour per night). When students spend more time than this on homework, the positive relationship with student achievement diminishes (Cooper, Robinson, and Patall 2006).

I would hazard to guess that the reason why MY school can cite research as the underlying basis of how they teach, it’s because that they actually have time to read it, study it, and do it themselves. They get a half day every week to do just that, plus 5 or 6 other additional half days. While we parents bemoan “Early-Release Tuesdays” because our darlings are ours to deal with after 12:30 p.m., this is one key reason why our teachers are ahead of the curve in terms of effective teaching. IF excessive homework is an issue at your school (particularly at the elementary school level, by all means see this film, and start the rallying cry for change!)

Excessive homework in not an issue at our elementary school as it is for some of the kids featured in the movie. Heave big sigh of relief! But as this was a root cause of issues for the kids in Race to Nowhere, realize that this movie is less pertinent to me.


Secondly, teaching to the test is lambasted as a root cause of burning out teachers and students alike. I am no fan of teaching to the test or of No Child Left Behind (the basis for this) and certainly my children are most definitely being taught so that they can perform for our state school exam, the MCAS. These detrimental educational policies can be traced back to the Bush era, as in George W., who I am convinced when given the luxury of more time for history to pass judgement on his performance, will be considered the one of the worst presidents ever to take office in the United States. Sadly, it doesn’t look like this path is going to change dramatically under Obama.

I have noticed my kids’ teachers even in Kindergarten are stressed out trying to prepare their kids academically, particularly getting each child reading and reading well. Still, the only thing that really matters at school in terms of a good, bad, or great academic year REGARDLESS OF CURRICULUM is a great teacher and we’ve been fortunate to have great teachers, more or less, pretty consistently. I actually think getting great teachers is a function of hiring and that could be I think this way because I have been in staffing for decades. The role of the principal is just like any manager; hire good peeps to get good results. You are only as good as your hires.  And then support them or just get out of their way so that they can do their thing.


Catherine Steiner-Adair put things into perspective with her talk post movie. To cut to the chase and not be featured in a movie like this, we, the parents,  need to be connected to our children. She stresses that our kids  truly do want to have a connection us unless we are “scary,” “crazy,” or “clueless.”

“scary” = Tiger Mom. Rigid and relentlessly demanding of their children and their performance.

“crazy” = Helicopter Parent. Too deeply involved in their children’s social politics to the point of trying to solve every issue with a phone call to an adult.

“clueless” = Boarding School Parent. A parent who has no idea what is going on in their child’s life and doesn’t make the time to find out.

Don’t be that type of parent and all will be well! For more advice from Steiner-Adair, check out her book.

* As a UCLA family, USC is our arch-rival. Boo hiss!


Finally, I got this in my email and it seems to fit along the lines of this conversation … for anyone who needs to fight the good fight.

5 Steps To Fixing A “Broken” School
By Alexander Russo
Author of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School

Fixing a neighborhood high school with a quarter of its kids not showing up every day, single-digit test scores, 40 percent graduation rates, and extremely low morale is one of the hardest, least desirable jobs in education. The chances for glory are few and far between, and miracles are rare. And yet, there’s really no choice.  Leaving things the way they are at deeply dysfunctional schools isn’t right, pulls down neighborhoods, and can affect an entire school system.

And yet, turnarounds can be done. Disorderly, dreary buildings can become safe, warm, and engaging places for kids to learn. Teachers frustrated and disillusioned with far-off administrators and over-stressed building leaders can become re-energized, hopeful guides and mentors.  I know this because I’ve studied the research on school turnarounds and spent three years reporting on the effort at Locke High School.  Located in a rough area of South Central Los Angeles, Locke was rescued by a dedicated group of teachers, an outside organization that took on the massive responsibility of running the school, and a lot of very, very hard work.  There were mistakes and setbacks along the way, and the effort appeared to be on the rocks several times, but three years later the school is, well, a school again.  The students who go there have a legitimate chance to get an education and go on to college.

So how do you start on the path to fixing a broken high school?  Here are five not really very easy steps you should take:

1)  Where Does Your School Stand?:    One of the most important steps is to take a careful look at where things really stand – how students, teachers, and community members feel about the school, and how the school performs compared to other similar schools. What’s the pass rate for students taking key math and English classes?  What’s the attendance rate for teachers and kids?  How many freshmen make it through to graduate four years later?  You’d be amazed how often parents, teachers, and even administrators don’t know where a school stands compared to its demographically-similar counterpart in another part of town.

2) Find Inside Allies:    Ideally, a school improvement effort will at least partially come from inside the school itself – involving the teachers, parents, and community members who are part of the school and want change just as much as you do.  That’s what happened at Locke, where a group of teachers tried everything they could and then, determined not to give up, circulated a legal petition to hand the school over to an outside education organization.  It was a controversial and risky maneuver, but no one could ignore it because it came from a genuine desire to show that the kids and school could do better, and it came from inside the building.  Parents, alumni, or community members can do the same.

3) Make the Building Calm and Safe:    You want to make the campus safe and welcoming – without turning it into an armed camp or kicking all the so-called knuckleheads out at the first sign of trouble.  That “lockdown” mentality won’t work for long and will actually undercut student achievement.  You need to show that you can make things better with the same group of kids as before, treat everyone with the utmost respect and restraint, and demonstrate patient persistence during the early months when the new rules and systems are being tested by the kids.

4) Make Changes as soon as Needed:    No matter whether you have months or a full year to plan, be prepared to adapt on the fly because there will be mistakes, bad hires, and plans that don’t work out. That’s OK.  The key is to be prepared to revisit and re-route along the way – whether it’s two days into school or halfway through the year.  As long as problems are being addressed rather than being left as they are, the kids, parents, and teachers will generally understand.  Problems that aren’t addressed – teachers or administrators who aren’t up to the task, for example, or rules that aren’t  being implemented evenly, will create problems and undercut confidence in the effort.

5) Make a Clear Break with the Past:     It’s tempting to avoid making big changes, but a turnaround can’t just be new paint and a new set of textbooks or computers if it’s going to have any real chance. It’s got to include new leaders, a certain number of new staff, new rules, and a new way of doing things. The key is to create a balance of familiarity, coordination, and accountability.  You don’t want everyone off doing their own thing, or losing sight of the serious task of improving results.  A core group of teachers and staff will want to stay and help with the turnaround.  Another handful will be deeply opposed and likely to leave.  But that’s OK.  The veterans will create continuity and help orient the new teachers and administrators.

What’s it like to try and turn around a broken school?  It’s deceptively simple at the beginning. It’s a trickle of halting, incremental success — totally unlike the instant results and heroic figures who dominate the Hollywood version. And at times it may seem like everyone wants you to fail. But you’re not alone in doing this.  The federal government is investing $3.5 billion and there are roughly a thousand schools around the country being turned around this year. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said, “We’re not going to stand idly by where you have populations that are being poorly served, where we are in fact perpetuating poverty and social failure. Our country can’t afford that.”

© Copyright Alexander Russo, 2011.

Alexander Russo, author of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School is an education writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Miller-McCune, Washington Monthly, Chicago Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. He’s the author of three blogs: This Week In Education, District 299, and Hot For Education. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


UPDATE: How do you think this new study affects the Race to Nowhere? From USA Today:

“A study this month by American Institutes for Research found economic returns are greater for people with degrees from highly selective colleges than from less selective schools, but that even those degree holders were likely to earn $230,000 more over a lifetime than a person with no more than a high school education.”

“An analysis of the projected lifetime earnings of 171 college majors provides a clearer picture of what one bachelor’s degree means compared to another in the labor market. And the answer can be as much as $3.64 million.”

and …

“Women tend to hold the majority of degrees in many of the lower-paying fields, such as education.”


To examine any book in my blog more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Melissa Gulley

    My takeaway from the film was in a different direction. I think the title says it all. Where/what are we racing to? Most business objectives start with the end in mind – right? Well then lets apply that to life- in the end what do we want for our kids? The movie was pointing to the fact that all this nonsense was a path to a hopefully bigger paycheck after college (why else would you go to the better college). But do ivy league (or better colleges) grads earn more- actually no they don’t(but thats not the point). Are kids from Ivys happier- no they are not! So i think we need to examine what we actually want for our kids lives (the part after college). My husband and I saw the film together and both agreed that the only thing we cared about for our kids was happiness in life – what ever that means to them. numerous studys have shown that a bigger paycheck does not lead to happiness. So instead of makeing our kids (or them pushing themselves) stressed out, overly focused robots incapable of critical and creative thinking for the first 22 years of their life- how about focusing on enjoyment in life and ultimate happiness. The only time you can teach the foundation of that is the first 20 years of life. I think the point of the movie was that we as a society are missing the point! sorry for all the type o’s and editing mistakes (I must have focused on happiness too much early in life)

    • To Melissa,
      A preschool teacher once told me wisely that the goal for these tots who are first experiencing school isn’t for them to expect continuous happiness. It isn’t realistic to be happy all the time; life just doesn’t work that way. Instead, she said that it is more important to teach kids to be resilient. When life knocks you down, to pick yourself up. This, she felt, was a more important and realistic life lesson for parents to focus on and for kids to learn. In A Race to Nowhere, yes, I agree with you that the parents’ underlying anxiety was to give their children the same standard of living that they were currently experiencing, and that the path to this kind of financial success lay in a top tier education. I also agree that Ivy League doesn’t necessarily mean financial success. Some of the most successful people I know, both in terms of wealth and happiness, went to state schools in California. On the other hand, Ivy League colleges open more doors to certain lucrative professions that otherwise discriminate against less well known schools. If you look at average salaries from business schools, there is a HUGE difference between what Harvard Business School grads and say, University of Phoenix Business School grads make out of the gate.

      My husband thinks that the crux of the movie is that every parent thinks that their kid is a high achieving genius child and that it’s someone else’s kid that is average and that this is where the pressure comes from. He keeps quoting this line from Caddyshack, “Well, someone has to be a ditch digger.” Is this the problem? That the majority of the kids in the movie are just average students being pressured to take classes or be in schools that are just too challenging for them? Is the message to let average students take average classes and make average paychecks? If you look at a bell curve, MOST of the curve is in the middle/average part. Or is it that the demographics are brutal: most kids now are going to college and that the number of colleges hasn’t increased but the number of kids applying has. If your child applied to college three years ago, it was the greatest number of college applicants in the history of U.S. because of the baby boomer child demographic. There was simply a huge number of children born that year. So, getting into college, any college, is harder than it was for our generation.

      I think the crux of the issue is also letting children make decisions for themselves in a way that allows them to ascertain for themselves a path that they want to pursue. I grant you that this is not easy! But the be all/ end all isn’t really college because now grad school is the new college. My classmates that had Ivy League college and grad school experiences that did not allow for failure or a period of “being lost in the woods” are experiencing dissatisfaction with their career choices, particularly those that did that head down, just get into a good grad school. I think there is a lot to be said for a year off somewhere between high school, college and/or grad school, time spent abroad, and time spent trying out jobs that suck. I feel like those parents, aka Tiger Mom, who followed a rigid track that wasn’t necessarily satisfying to their soul push their kids along the same path to the same end: big paycheck with a job that is lucrative but just a pay check. My Korean Mom friend who dad was a hard worker and high achiever told her that if a job is 20% stuff that you enjoy, that’s pretty good. Is this the right message? Her dad is a professor at a famous university.

      On the other hand, I have a Mom friend whose life goal was to pursue happiness. She has done so at the expense of pursuing lucrative careers and now experiences financial stress. Can you be happy if you are freaked out about making the rent?

      I guess this discussion shows why the movie is generating so much buzz. Please chime in!

  2. this is very helpful – I want to see the film and read these books. Thanks, Mia.

  3. As parents, we should be moving our kids towards discovering and understanding their own goals instead of pushing them towards what we think will ultimately earn them more prestige or money. Ultimately, it’s their self-discovered happiness that matters most in the end.

  4. Thanks for sharing this article. If nothing else, it provides a parent to really sit back and think about their children’s school and what the future holds for them and their happiness.

  5. Maca

    Thanks Mia. As a teacher, I can tell you that I absolutely hate teaching for the state exam. I wish I could teach real life experiences. I notice that my students learn much more and are more engaged when its not constant “practicing for the state exam”. I appreciate your post.

  6. What a rich post! Very informative and full of facts. Having been in the same route, I can relate to homeworks having both positive or negative effects. It definitely agree that too much homework may not be effective especially for those studies that did not understand the subject well. That’s why balance is needed between subject explanation and homeworks.

    And yes, school calmness and safety are essential for good learning. No wonder that’s the very first thing parents look into potential schools for their children.

  7. Nathan

    Appreciate you sharing pragmatic mom. School life has certainly changed a lot even since I graduated from high school back in 1995. Kids today are dealing with so much more. It is certainly a different reality for them then we had.

  8. Amy

    About four years ago we bought copies of the video and have them in the counselors office at each of our high schools. I had a parent ask to check it out just the other day. I wish there was a way to get this info to more people. I really think it is changing lives.

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