By Marsha Sutton
Who was it who said it’s a shame to waste a good crisis?
The popularity of the independent film “Race to Nowhere” would seem to indicate that its theme has touched a raw nerve. We may be witnessing the emergence of a long-buried, newly-unearthed crisis in secondary schooling that has been plaguing children for years.
Wasting the momentum and outrage this film has generated would truly be a lost opportunity to restore some measure of sanity back to our high schools.
“Race to Nowhere” skillfully, and depressingly, highlights the world of highly competitive high schools, over-achieving students, demanding parents and limited college access – all of which combine to create stressed-out kids who often suffer from physical and mental ailments. Throw in a healthy handful of cheating, substance abuse, sleeplessness, eating disorders, bullying, self-mutilation and even suicide, and we have all the ingredients needed to serve as a catalyst for a decent revolution.
“Race to Nowhere” hit its target market with recent showings at La Jolla High School, Canyon Crest Academy and Del Mar Hills Academy, where every screening was sold out. And still there are many, many parents with children of all ages clamoring to see the film.
The problems are not isolated in the public school arena but also exist in full force in private schools such as Cathedral Catholic, San Diego Jewish Academy, Santa Fe Christian, La Jolla Country Day and The Bishop’s School – where a highly competitive college-going culture has their students running the same manic race.
At a panel discussion held last week after the showing to a sold-out crowd of about 400 people at Del Mar Hills, questions and comments from audience members indicated a somber understanding of the depth and complexity of the situation. The questions left me both hopeful and despondent.
One parent commented, to the audience’s general agreement, that where we attended college years ago makes little difference once reaching adulthood. But it does matter to the kids when they’re in their environment – just ask them about the buzz when acceptance and rejection letters start arriving in March. It’s a frenzy, to find out who got in where and who didn’t. They compare and talk among themselves and put pressure on each other. And kids see themselves as a reflection of how their peers view them – as successful or failing.
By the way, parents may not be concerned with the college they or their colleagues attended all those years ago, but many of them sure do care about which colleges their kids attend. Boasting about where “my kid” goes to college has become a fine art in local communities. Just look at license-plate frames and bumper stickers sporting the names of elite universities on the cars on our streets.
If parents aren’t pushing their kids to over-achieve, the kids are doing it to themselves and to each other. In some circles, if a student isn’t taking at least four AP classes a year, they are considered academically challenged.
Because many kids feel internal pressure not to disappoint their teachers, counselors, parents and peers, parents with good intentions who try to limit their children’s extra-curricular activities and AP or honors classes may find it’s not that easy.
The topic in the film that resonated strongly with parents and teachers of kids in all grades was the discussion about homework. A high school student on the panel shocked listeners when she said that some teachers seem to compete with one another by assigning so much homework that that teacher’s subject becomes the student’s focus just because the work load is so intense.
One teacher in the audience said excessive homework also means hardship for teachers with large class sizes who don’t have time to properly grade homework and provide meaningful feedback, especially on essays. Yet some parents complain when teachers don’t assign enough homework.
It’s disrespectful of the students when children are told to spend hours doing repetitive math problems, and their teachers only glance at the work or have the work graded by other students during class time. As adults, how would we feel if a supervisor assigned us a presentation and the boss either asked another worker to evaluate it or simply glanced at it without appreciating the effort it took to do the work?
How did we get here?
The question of what can be done to extricate children and parents from this madness requires peeling away layers and layers of conditions implemented over time. With unrelenting pressure on students vying for a limited number of openings at competitive universities, high schools have gradually established a new standard for normality. Yet today we find ourselves so far away from “normal” that nothing short of a massive seismic shift may be the only thing that can bring the system back from the edge and offer relief to our frazzled kids.
A frog placed in a pot of boiling water will jump right out. But if the frog is placed into a pot of cool water which is heated slowly, the frog will boil. Our children are the frogs, being slowly boiled to death over time.
The challenge now is to transform the popularity of this movie into a powerful grassroots movement that can effect change.
A united coalition made up of parents and teachers representing Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, San Dieguito and all the private schools serving these high-performing communities would be a great start. When one voice speaks for so many, such an organized group focused on a common cause would have real power.
By way of example, consider the San Dieguito Alliance for Drug-Free Youth which formed when enough parents were so distressed about the dangers of substance abuse to local teens that they coalesced into an organization that could speak with one voice and bring about policy changes and action that carried weight.
Consider also the recent movement in La Jolla to create a viable La Jolla Cluster Association, which brings together representatives of all five La Jolla schools (three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school) to share common interests and needs and to present ideas and proposals to the school board.
The cluster structure is one way to form an empowered coalition that can lobby effectively for less homework, later start times, less pressure to take AP classes and other ideas that place a higher priority on student health and happiness over building the perfect resume.
It was disappointing that no one from the San Dieguito Union High School District would participate on the panel discussion. Because the district was unwilling to discuss these serious issues publicly, it appeared defensive about its programs and policies. Nevertheless, San Dieguito can be a good listener when enough people come together in an organized way to present the case for measures that would benefit students.
After the film was shown to teachers and staff at the Del Mar Union School District last week, Jim Peabody, DMUSD superintendent, said many teachers viewed it as more relevant for the later school years, although for Del Mar, as an elementary school district, “it was that homework piece” that hit home.
He also said teachers had mixed reactions. “Some felt that they didn’t think it went far enough,” he said.
Peabody predicted that the face of education will change soon, with “a move towards a more project-based education where they can put what they’re being taught into real-life situations and do problem solving and critical thinking and those kinds of things – and not have to jump through hoop after hoop to become quality thinkers.”
The film gives parents and teachers a way to start meaningful conversations that may change how education is delivered in the future, he said.
“The tapestry that we have called education is starting to fray at the edges,” Peabody said. “We have to weave a new tapestry as quickly as we can and make it vivid so that families and children can have a new look at what quality schooling looks like.”
But let’s not delay, else the moment will be lost.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at