Exposing the Dark Side of Success
Shortly after Vicki Abeles, JD '86, started filming her documentary Race to Nowhere, a 13-year-old in her Northern California community committed suicide. The straight-A student had been distraught over a failing grade in math.
The tragedy strengthened the first-time filmmaker's drive to expose the "dark side of America's achievement culture," as the documentary is subtitled.
"I was determined to figure out how we had gotten to a place where our kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under and where a 13-year-old girl had taken her life," says Ms. Abeles, a former corporate attorney and mother of three.
Through dozens of interviews with students—including her own children—teachers, administrators, and education experts, Ms. Abeles depicts a world in which young people are struggling to perform. Overloaded by homework, extracurricular demands, and the pressure to get into a top college, students resort to cheating and drug abuse and succumb to a range of stress-related ailments.
"School is so much pressure, I wake up every morning dreading it," says one student in the film. Another student stopped eating because she found it helped her stay up all night to finish her homework, while another started taking Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat attention deficit disorder, to keep up with her activities and schoolwork. Others thought about dropping out.
What's more, high school students are arriving at college unprepared. In the test-driven high school culture, the film argues, many have learned only to regurgitate material committed to short-term memory. Critical thinking and creativity are not fostered.
"The system isn't serving young people," Ms. Abeles says.
It's a problem that has hit home for Ms. Abeles. One night in 2007 she found her 12-year-old daughter doubled over in pain and rushed her to the emergency room for what turned out to be a stress-induced condition. Ms. Abeles says it was a "wake-up call." Soon after, she began interviewing experts and students. She made a short film that was well received and then spent the next 22 months creating Race to Nowhere.
Since its release last year, an estimated 100,000 people have seen Race to Nowhere at more than 500 screenings at schools, community centers, and theaters nationwide. Each one is followed by a community discussion. While the film will be eventually available on DVD, the dialogue is a critical component of the viewing process, Ms. Abeles says.
The film is helping to inspire grass-roots advocacy for change in the education system, Ms. Abeles says. While there is no simple solution, she says one key to improving education is eliminating the competitive way resources are allocated to public schools. Valuing and compensating teachers more and affording them more flexibility in the classroom are also essential.
When it comes to parents, she says it's important to "change the conversation to focus less on grades and homework and more on what interests students in school." Parents should also protect sleep at all costs—even if it means homework is not done on time. And they should defer conversations about college until their children's junior year of high school, she says.
Ms. Abeles is now working on a companion book for Race to Nowhere and other documentaries about women and children, including one on bullying.
Her biggest fan and supporter is her husband, Doug Abeles, MD '87, a fellow GW alumnus and self-described "groupie" of the film. "I've seen it 25 times," he says.
Dr. Abeles, an orthopedist who specializes in spine surgery and sports medicine, shares his wife's passion for education reform and concerns about the current system. "It got to the point where my seventh grader had more homework than I did in medical school," he says.
The two met at GW in the 1980s on a ski trip to Pennsylvania that Dr. Abeles had organized. Both say GW prepared them well for their future careers.
"I loved law school," says Ms. Abeles, who cites John Banzaff as one of her favorite professors. "GW and D.C. were the perfect place to be."