Sean Slade

Race to Nowhere: The Start of a Community Conversation

On Tuesday night, close to 300 people attended a screening of the Race to Nowhere documentary hosted by Alexandria (Va.) City Public Schools, the Alexandria PTA Council, and ASCD. Probably more remarkable than all these hardy souls venturing out on a very wintry night to view the film was the fact that they stayed for more than an hour after the screening to start a discussion.

The film reveals an issue that has widespread effect on our children's health, growth, and learning: In many communities, we have reached a saturation point in the amount of work, study, and practice our students can do and the amount of content knowledge they can absorb, understand, and make useful in their lives. And, as was stated by ASCD Executive Director and CEO Gene Carter in his welcome address, "In many cases this saturation point is being reached by our children before they enter their teenage years."

One of the key reasons ASCD became interested in the film—besides its support of a whole child approach to education—was the film's producers' determination to have the film catalyze conversation and, in particular, community conversation. We started this community conversation in Alexandria Tuesday night. It was a dialogue that involved parents, students, teachers, administrators, many Whole Child Partner organizations, local PTA, and local school board members. We were also fortunate to have not only Carter, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman, and Alexandria PTA Council President Karen McManis in attendance, but also the film's producer and director, Vicki Abeles, the film's educational consultant, Sara Truebridge, and our local Congressman and whole child supporter Jim Moran.

The conversation began last night, but we want the conversation to continue. To this end, we are posting many of the comments made last night in response to a series of questions we posed. From here, we want the conversation to continue—at a minimum—online.

Race to Nowhere screening

Question 1: Is stress and overscheduling a problem?

  • Many kids exhibit a pressure to be perfect.
  • Many kids feel the pressure to cheat.
  • A sudent in kindergarten expressed stress that he didn't do well on a quiz.
  • Why are we proposing an extended school day?
  • Proposing a longer day does not mean we are proposing more work or more homework.
  • A longer day can provide greater time to think and discuss.
  • The issue is what we do with the time.
  • We need greater emphasis on physical education, individualized instruction, and study time.
  • We need to connect kids with counselors.
  • We need increased attention on how we interact with each other and the children.

Question 2: What currently works to alleviate stress, or what would help to alleviate stress?

  • Our children need to be outside and play in the fresh air.
  • We need to teach our children how to solve problems through negotiation.
  • We as adults don't do a good job with conflict resolution or negotiating, and our children look to us to learn how to manage stress.
  • Some of us don't know how to relieve our own stress!
  • We tell students to sit down, shut up, etc., but they are in school ALL DAY long.
  • We say teach, teach, teach: but we have to model what we want for our children.
  • I appreciate the film tapping into the early education piece—tapping into the entire child.

Question 3: Should we focus most attention on reducing the stress involved with schooling (proactive) or increasing avenues to deal with stress (reactive)?

  • We have to start modeling the behavior we want our children to have.
  • I didn't see the issue of cyber bullying highlighted, but that's a huge stressor.
  • This is a time to consider how to help the entire child by having more time in the day.
  • We can do things with the time; make better use of the time we have (e.g., kids sit for 30 minutes in the morning in the gym while kids in other countries do yoga or physical activity).
  • Kids need to valued for what they are good at; forcing every kid down the same path is just wrong.
  • Why don't we test for multiple intelligences? How do we move in that direction?
  • Most of the progressive, so-called high-performing nations (Singapore, South Korea, Finland) are approaching the focus on learning entirely different than the United States. They are moving away from where we are headed.
  • Schools are reflections of what their communities expect.
  • It's not just the responsibility of the school; it's also of the responsibility of communities they serve.
  • School plays a vitally important role in providing the appropriate learning experience for each student.
  • School is only responsible for a segment of the learning experiment.
  • ASCD is focused on learning, not schooling.
  • If a child is not doing well, he or she deserves the opportunity to be reassessed (don't say "retested").
  • Our education system is upside down, and it won't change from the top down.
  • The U.S. Constitution [indicates the rights to] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: school is rarely about the third.
  • We need a greater emphasis on the first five years of life.
  • The desire for change needs to come from communities, communities such as Alexandria.

The following questions were not asked last night due to time but are posted here to elicit responses.

Question 4: Are there things that we could focus on in each family, classroom, or school?

Question 5: Are there things we could focus on at a local, state, and national level?

Read the questions. Read the responses. Submit your comments. Continue the conversation.

Comments (7)


January 14, 2011

[...] Race to Nowhere: The Start of a Community Conversation [...]

Jane Page

January 14, 2011

The middle school years is an ideal time for children to step out of the classroom and see what they are capable of doing themselves.  Computer programming, sustainable farming, rebuilding an engine, teaching younger children how to read and do math, cooking, creating, doing.  Instead we tell them to sit down and be passive, a trait we cannot afford to nurture when our world needs people who can think on their feet.

Michael Rulon

January 18, 2011

If we are going to help kids with these issues the answers to the questions are going to be complex. One of the elements to the answer is a comprehensive health education offering for all students.
We cannot accept health classes that rely on read the text and answer the publishers questions. Good health education looks as content as one piece, and skills, such as decision making and goal setting as others.
Coping with Stress should be a major component of all health education.
Unfortunately in our current educational environment of AYP based on discrete knowledge, recall, and a limited application of any skill, we find ourselves at a time when districts are eliminating health education all together, let alone making sure the health education is of high quality.

Jim Mills

January 18, 2011

One thing that we all know contributes to stress is having to perform in an environment that we are unprepared for, that we did not select, or that is not appropriate for our temperament and abilities. Now, as adults, we have to do that quite often in the work world. But is that kind of disconnect between the environment and the individual what we want for our children when they are young and trying to learn? Individual children are different, and they have different needs and capacities at different times in their lives. Yet we have a system where students and their families have very little choice about their school or learning environment. Unlike what we expect in almost every other domain of our lives, we tolerate education being delivered largely through geographically defined monopolies where “one-size-fits-all” is almost a bureaucratic imperative. We reserve school choice largely for the well-to-do and students who win lotteries. Stress is not limited just to the students who are trying to accommodate unreasonably high expectations. We also find stress among students who want to do better and must deal with incompetent or indifferent adults in school systems that are sometimes shockingly ineffective. We see stress among students who are uninterested in the “college track”, but have the energy and talents to succed in a number of other endeavors, if only someone would help them pursue viable alternatives. (Look at our college drop-out rates, which are as high or higher than our HS drop-out rates. How many of those students got pushed through to college, when another avenue might have been better for them?) More than in any other area of our lives, our educational system shoehorns students and families into settings that they did not choose. Sometimes we can adjust, and it all works out. But when the setting really is wrong, and it doesn’t work out, well then we just say “tough luck”. Perhaps offering those families more choice in the first place could be part of our solution.

Jeanne Osgood

January 21, 2011

One readily available solution to the problems described in this film is social and emotional learning (SEL), which supports the development of the whole child and adds balance to an otherwise academic curriculum.

SEL builds interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that have been shown to support academic learning in measurable ways. But along with supporting students’ academic growth, SEL fosters relationships between students and adults, develops problem-solving and decision-making abilities, improves students’ attitudes about themselves, others, and school, and relieves emotional distress.

A meta-analysis of over 200 studies involving more than 200,000 students reports on the benefits of SEL programming in the upcoming issue of Child Development. See The Impact of Enhancing Students’
Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-analysis of School-based Universal Interventions (authored by Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, and Schellinger).

SEL also encourages schools and families to work together to foster learning and development so that children have the skills they need for learning and for life. We all know that the skills needed to succeed today go beyond just academics, and SEL has the capacity to help children learn to handle themselves and their relationships with integrity and ultimately be effective learners and workers.

You can learn more about what SEL means to learning and human development and how it is most effectively taught from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning,

Donna Gold

January 24, 2011

I appreciate the film because it made me reflect on my role as a parent in keeping grades and school work in perspective.  I also had been concerned that my daughter was not getting any homework in middle school. The film made me glad that she doesn’t get that much.  However, I fear that there will be a dramatic change when she arrives in 9th grade and that she will be unprepared for that, so I hope as a system we can consider how much homework is too much in the high school grades and throughout.

The pressures on our students and the people that work in the school district to perform for the tests has created an untenable situation.  I would like for federal and state policymakers to take a look at this film and then reconsider what is appropriate in the name of accountability.  I’d like to see us encourage community service at ACPS so it’s not about producing academic automatons but incorporates an opportunity for kids to feel themselves as part of and contributors to the larger community.

Barbara Viney

January 26, 2011

I concur with the thought that we need to consider Social and Emotional Learning and reach out to kids through their learning styles.  It may seem like a dauning task to identify different styles of teaching but there are too many kids and too many left behind to not consider their social and emotional needs in relation to the diverse set of familial circumstances and experiences with which they enter the school learning environment.  They need trusting and uplifting relationships with their teachers and administrators, information presented in such a way that they want to know more.  The desire to learn stuff that won’t have an impact on the trauma many have experienced in their young lives must be teased out of them.  They have to want to learn, it has to be more dramatic and exciting than the stuff they experience outside of school, and it has to help them feel powerful and powerfully linked to the world.

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