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Documentary Probes Stressed Schoolkids

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Documentary Probes Stressed Schoolkids

Documentary Probes Stressed Schoolkids

Documentary Probes Stressed Schoolkids

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From getting good grades to keeping up with extracurricular activities, American schoolchildren are under considerable pressure. Filmmaker Vicki Abeles noticed how stressed out her pre-teen daughter had become and didn’t understand why. Her new documentary, "Road to Nowhere" profiles the anxious lives of students within the education system. Host Michel Martin speaks with Abeles about the film.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, young entrepreneurs tell us how they got out of the rat race and wrote their own tickets to success by not going the usual route from graduation. And they tell us why others in their generation should follow suit to create jobs, not just get a job. That conversation is next.

But first, we wanted to take a look at young people still in high school, junior high, even elementary school, who seem to be under an ever more intense routine of schoolwork, homework, after-school sports, extracurriculars and volunteer work. Our guest believes many are burning out in the quest for the perfect grade or for the perfect college resume.

Vicki Abeles saw her own preteen daughter battle with stress, and decided to take a closer look to talk about why. The result was the documentary "Race to Nowhere." It's selling out venues across the country, where it's being screened by parents and teachers and kids alike. Here's a short clip.


U: You start out in like, kindergarten.

U: You have to get into the top schools.

U: You have to take tests and do interviews to get into public high schools.

U: And then AP, and then a four-year college.

U: If I don't get into college, you know, I - my mindset is basically like, you know, I'm screwed.

U: And then graduate school.

U: So how are you going to get into top-tier medical school or law school?

U: And then what? People get caught up in this like, race to nowhere.

MARTIN: That's from the documentary "Race to Nowhere." AP, of course, means advanced placement classes. The mom behind the film, the brains behind the film is Vicki Abeles, and she's with us now from Berkeley, California. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thanks for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you started out because of what you saw happening with your own daughter. Will you tell us a little bit about that?

MARTIN: Sure. This film started in my home several years ago when my daughter, who was then 12 years old, became physically sick from the pressure she was feeling. And at the same time, I questioned what I saw as a quantity driven, test-oriented education system. I saw both of my daughters no longer excited about school, sleep-deprived and, as I mentioned, physically sick.

And as I started speaking to other parents and educators in all kinds of communities, what I found was an epidemic of kids who were anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, and disengaged with school and learning. Many were showing up in college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. And I knew this was an important story to tell. And decided a documentary would be the vehicle to bring communities together, raise awareness, generate dialogue, and create the political will to transform what we're doing in education today.

MARTIN: Now, you call this a national crisis. And clearly, a lot of people agree because, as I mentioned, that this film with very little publicity - really, word of mouth - sells out auditoriums wherever it's being shown. And it's generated a lot of discussion.

On the other hand, though, there are a lot of people who say the national crisis is the opposite - when if you look at these international rankings of where the U.S. - you know, kids in the U.S. perform relative to other economies, other countries on some of the - on international tests, they say the U.S. is falling behind. These are very different - so it seems like there's two, parallel dialogues going on here.

MARTIN: That's right. But what I would say, Michel, is that the people closest to the education system - the educators, the schools of education across the country, the students know that today's system and paradigm isn't working. It's not working in terms of health outcomes. And as you just mentioned, it's not working in terms of educational outcomes.

You raise an important issue just around the PISA test scores. And as Deborah Stipek says in the film, one of the reasons that we're not doing well on this test is because we're teaching to the test. So a country, for example, that stands out in this test is Finland, where the curriculum was developmentally appropriate. Children aren't starting school until they're 7. Teachers are valued and supported as professionals. So, many differences.

MARTIN: We're talking to filmmaker Vicki Abeles. She's behind the new documentary "Race to Nowhere," where she challenges the high-pressured, intense educational experience that many people feel that their kids are experiencing right now.

You know, in the film you talked to mostly middle-school and high school students, who talk about how much pressure they're under; how much work they have to do; and how many things they need to pile on. But one of the surprises of the film is how young kids are, who seem to start feeling that pressure. I just want to play a short clip of a third-grader in the film named Zack. And here it is.


ZACK: A lot of people say that you have to do well now so you can get into a good college someday. But I'm in third grade, so I have a long time.

MARTIN: Were you surprised by this, to see kids that young who have already absorbed this message?

MARTIN: No, I wasn't surprised. And as we go around the country screening this film for all kinds of communities, we're hearing reports from educators and parents that these pressures are starting as young as first and second grade. And, you know, I think we live in a competitive culture, and we need to think about the fact that our schools are just a microcosm of the larger culture.

MARTIN: By now I'm sure you've heard of Amy Chua, who's a professor of law at Yale, and who's written a book that's getting a lot of attention also. And it's a very different message. I don't know if you've read the book. But we spoke with her last week. It's called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." And she defends what she called a very kind of rote learning, heavy on the memorization, heavy in the discipline style of parenting and of education. And I'll just play a short clip from our conversation with her last week.


P: It's really about early - instilling this kind of work ethic when the kids are very young. So I think there might be a gap in the West when they're really young, between the sort of more nurturing - oh honey, don't worry about it; just be happy; don't worry about grades. And then there's this gap when you suddenly - they hit high school, and there's all this pressure, and they're told they have to get good grades to go into college. And there's all this competition. And at that point, you know, those kids, those poor kids, they're not prepared. It's like - shell-shocked.

MARTIN: And the book has - actually has a more nuanced argument than perhaps many people understand because what she's saying in the book is that her kind of intense, tough style worked well with one of her children, but it did not work well with her other child. But she still...

MARTIN: Exactly. And I think a lot of people have missed that point on the book.


MARTIN: I haven't read the whole thing, but I am aware of that. Michel, here's the thing. I think that her thesis flies in the face of growing volumes of research on learning, indicating that an authoritarian approach will not turn a normal, inquisitive child into a successful, well-adjusted, healthy adult. I think we have to look at both the psychological damage, and the fact that the approach isn't supporting innovation and independent thought.

And so, I think what we want to do is to offer children the opportunity to discover their innate capacities to create a system where a health of a child matters, a system where kids have the opportunity to be challenged as individuals and learn to work collaboratively, and a system where creativity and critical thinking is fostered, rather than suffocated.

MARTIN: And that was going to be my last question - which is, what do you hope will happen as a result of the dialogue that you have started here, at least - you're certainly capturing here. And we do want to ask how your daughter is doing now.

MARTIN: Right. No, all my children are doing really well, Michel, and I appreciate your asking. And I think that just points to the fact that parents can actually make a lot of changes in their home that support their kids' health and well-being and their education. And so when parents ask me what can they do, you know, first and foremost I say, protect your child's sleep because I think so many of the unhealthy consequences that we're seeing are the result of sleep deprivation.

I think that you want to defer college discussions until at least junior year in high school. And then importantly, I want to encourage parents everywhere who care about these issues to bring this film to their community.

MARTIN: Vicki Abeles is the filmmaker and the mom behind the documentary "Race to Nowhere." If you want to figure out how you can see the film for yourself, we'll link to it on our website. Go to Go to the Programs page and click on TELL ME MORE. And there you'll also find some - research supporting Vicki Abeles' thesis behind the film. There's extensive documentation on her site, which you can find there. She joined us from Berkeley, California. Vicki Abeles, thank you so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thanks, Michel.

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