Local Commentary

Editorial: ‘Race to Nowhere’ Strikes Deep Chord

It’s a pretty gutsy move on the part of the Falls Church School Board to sanction the showing of the eye-opening documentary film, “Race to Nowhere,” that includes the suggestion that too much homework and excessive pressures to perform placed on middle and high school students in the U.S. are driving some as far as suicide, and leading to epidemics of cheating, depression, lack of motivation and, for many teachers, burn out after five years.

The film was shown in the George Mason High School auditorium Tuesday night to a couple hundred mostly parents, and involved commentaries by students of varying ages from schools throughout the U.S. It seemed a perfect commentary for a high-performing school district like Falls Church’s, where pressures on students to take International Baccalaureate classes and degree programs often extends beyond students that have appropriate skills and interests.

Authors of books such as “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” regaling the merits of free time and play for students after school, and “The Case Against Homework,” on a similar theme, comment frequently in the 90-minute commentary, which organizers from the Falls Church Parent-Teacher-Student (PTSA) Tuesday night followed with a live panel of local teachers and students.

Among the words of advice to overtaxed and stressed students, “Make sure you get enough sleep.”

A tragic case of the suicide of a 13-year-old girl, as told by her mother in the film, was apparently due to nothing more than her failure to achieve an expected level on a math test. Otherwise, the mother said, there were no signs of anything out of the ordinary that would tip off her true frame of mind. “It’s frightening,” she said.

The documentary’s narrator remarked about the increases in pressures on teenagers to devote greater and greater time and energy to school work, including school extracurricular activities, that first began to escalate following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, but then abated during the more free-thinking era of the late 1960s and 1970s, only to come back with a vengeance in the 1980s and especially with the adoption of the “No Child Left Behind” policy of the George W. Bush administration in 2002.

A teacher noted the priority on education in Singapore, where the top students in each high school graduating class are singled out, set aside and offered free rides and other incentives to become teachers. That a sharp contrast to the U.S., where the economic hurdles facing those who wish to become teachers are becoming increasingly insurmountable, and the pressure to produce standardized test scores are not only numbing students, but a teacher’s passion for the profession, as well.

To the incredibly long hours required of students for school, sports, tutors and homework, and to the lack of sleep, are added the pressures to learn by rote memorization in order to perform well on tests. The ability to discover and explore creative interests is dashed by such conditions.


(Correction: the title of the movie was incorrectly noted as “Road to Nowhere” in the editorial. It has been changed to the correct title “Race to Nowhere”)