Race to Nowhere: documentary targets impact of America’s achievement Culture

Jamie Friedman, Staff writer

Playing in 48 states with more than 500 screenings, “Race to Nowhere” is giving viewers a lesson about the harmful effects of America’s achievement culture on high school students.

The 85-minute documentary follows the lives of students as they try to maintain balance between hard work and pressure. It points out problems that are becoming epidemic in many schools, such as cheating, high dropout rates, and increasing anxiety.

Vicki Abeles directed the documentary, a San Francisco mother of three, who grew alarmed when watching the strain on her children as they navigated days filled with school, homework and extracurricular activities. When her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, Abeles said that she knew that she wanted to take action.

Urban students who haven’t seen the documentary yet say they already are familiar with the subject of stress. “I have lots of homework and not a lot of time to do it,” said Simone Enderlin, ’13. “To deal with stress, I blast music in my room or I sleep and go to bed early.”

High expectations also play a part. “Probably 80 percent of my stress comes from school,” says Sarah Pelfini (’11). “Getting into college is stressful.”

In the documentary, teacher Emma Batten-Bowen, formerly of Mandela High School in East Oakland, says she feels stress due to the divide between what she wants to teach and what the state requires.
“I wanted to change those kids’ lives,” she said of her students. “I wanted them to see learning as a lifetime skill that’s important for them to move out of their socio-economic strata.”

But standardized tests get in the way. “They give my students this test that is culturally biased, that they do horribly on,” Batten-Bowen said. “(The test]) isn’t related to my curriculum and (my students) are from a different culture then this test culture.”

In addition to standardized tests that are part of high school curriculum, California public school students also must pass the California High School Exit Exam, (CAHSEE), to graduate.

Instead of motivating students to excel, says another teacher in the documentary, such tests often cause them to drop out.

“They are being forced into this one mold, and the kids hate every single moment of High School now,” said Susan Kaplan, a teacher at Palmetto High School in Miami. “They hate being at school.”
School stress causes physical as well as psychological symptoms.

Lindsey, a student at Tam High school in Mill Valley, says in the documentary that she was so stressed all of her joints swelled, “and I couldn’t walk without pain. I want to get into a good college, get a job I like to be ultimately happy, but if I’m not healthy none of that really matters. It just doesn’t seem to add up.”
In another interview, Jarreu, a Stanford student, points out another problem. “When I got to college I was burnt out from all the stress in high school,” says Jarreu.

At a “Race to Nowhere” panel discussion at Stanford University on Dec. 2, Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist, reported that students nationwide are showing signs of stress.

“The latest statistics show depression across the country, regardless of socio-economic status, has doubled in the past five years,” Levine said in a transcript of the discussion posted at a conference at Stanford.
”Depression is being shown in different ways, whether it is concern about grades or concern regarding money, or worrying about passing the exit exam and passing AP courses, there is a high level of stress.”

When asked if there is a high level of stress at Urban, history teacher LeRoy Votto had mixed opinions.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I would say students have expectations, and some of those expectations come from their parents. There’s internal stress from students’ expectations of the quality of their work.”

To avoid stress, Suzanne Forrest, Urban’s assistant head for academics, suggests students sign up for classes that they are actually interested in taking, not classes that will build a resume or impress others.
“If what you are doing is meaningful, whether it’s taking a class you enjoy, or doing something after school, it will help you manage the stuff you are doing for duty,” Forrest said.

“Race to Nowhere” also suggests that students have the power to control stress and pressure. Getting plenty of sleep, spending time with family and friends, and signing up for classes one is interested in will help manage anxiety.