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Filmmaker Vicki Abeles Takes Aim at High-Pressure Educational Tactics

Daughter’s school experience transformed Abeles into first-time filmmaker

By Susan Josephs
Fall 2011

Vicki Abeles used to identify with Amy Chua, who wrote about pushing her children to succeed academically in her now-famous memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But when one of her daughters became ill from the stress of keeping up with her homework, Abeles transformed into a first-time documentary filmmaker and nationally recognized advocate of education reform. Her feature-length film, Race to Nowhere, has now been screened in some 2,000 locations spanning all 50 states and 20 countries. Featuring interviews with burnt-out, harried students, frustrated teachers and a number of education experts, the film makes the case that today’s education system, with its emphasis on grades, test scores and building résumés for college applications, has created a generation of students coping with too much homework and unnecessary stress that ultimately leaves them unprepared for adulthood. A former corporate lawyer and mother of three, Abeles is working on a book about education reform while she runs her production company, Reel Link Films.

What inspired you to make the leap from concerned parent to documentary filmmaker?

As my daughters hit middle school, I started to see the pressures that school was placing on them and our family. And when one of my daughters became physically sick from the pressures she was feeling in seventh grade, I decided I needed to do something about it. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, but I wanted to create a vehicle where people could share their stories in a way that would raise awareness of these issues and galvanize change.

Did your background as a corporate lawyer help prepare you to be a documentary filmmaker?

If I had to relate the film to my legal experience, I’d chalk it up to when I worked on Wall Street in the 1980s. The first week I was working there, I was assigned to a client where I had to run a public offering in Alabama. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I wasn’t afraid to seek out the support I needed, and I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and grow. That attitude served me well when I set out to make this film.

What are some of the social factors that have contributed to our education system becoming so performance- and test-oriented?

How did we get here? You can trace it to 1983, when the “Nation at Risk” report came out, which said our country is falling behind. To me, this is really about fear that our kids won’t be able to compete in this global economy. I also think technology has played a role and so has the media, in terms of how we rank our colleges and our high schools. A lot of factors have come together to create the perfect storm. So it was important to me in producing the film that we not place blame on one particular thing or group.

Are some communities more prone to these academic pressures than others? Jewish communities, for example, have always placed great emphasis on education and professional achievement.

At my own synagogue, my rabbi asked me if I could show my film to parents of kids in the preschool. He said that parents tell him the school isn’t academic enough. But really, there’s pressure in every community, including the Jewish community. I would say that the Jewish community has been very receptive and supportive of this film. We’ve screened in a lot of JCCs and synagogues, and I think people there are seeing that today’s quantity- and test-driven approach to schooling is causing our children to suffer poor health and educational outcomes because of their harried, overscheduled lives.

The film shows boys and girls reacting differently to academic pressure. It seemed the girls suffered more from anorexia, depression and other physical and emotional ailments, while the boys tended to just give up on the system. Is this largely true?

In my own family, it’s more likely that my son, rather than my daughters, will say, “I don’t care,” as a coping strategy. And recently, we did a screening where all the girls in the audience seemed to be suffering from stomach issues. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t boys who are sensitive to these pressures in ways that are similar to girls and who are suffering from depression or eating disorders. We see all kinds of unintended consequences in all our children, ranging from medical conditions to cheating on tests to increasing remediation rates in college.

The film argues that all this emphasis on academic achievement has actually robbed children of their creativity and critical thinking skills. Can you elaborate on what isn’t being taught in schools today and what children aren’t learning?

We’ve compromised integrity, both in children and adults. People just do what they need to do and it’s no longer about the learning. It’s all about your standardized test scores and how you can solve a particular problem. So it becomes about finding the information on the Internet rather than allowing kids the time and space to be reflective of things they’ve learned. We’ve also compromised the ability to ask questions. Human beings are born curious, but I think schools, the way they’re set up now, are taking away that curiosity. We’re raising a generation of children to get the right answers as opposed to teaching them how to ask good questions.

So are we also raising a generation of children who don’t know how to take the initiative and figure out things for themselves?

This relates to the story I shared with you about when I was working as a lawyer and had to jump on a plane to handle this public offering. I just had to figure it out. No one was there to tell me how many paragraphs to write for one particular contract. This gave me a lot of confidence and the ability to do something new later on in life. So, yes, I think we’re compromising innovation in this country. There are people in Silicon Valley who say we’ll never have another Silicon Valley if education in this country continues on this path.

What can parents do to prevent children from succumbing to unhealthy pressures and habits?

We have to avoid overscheduling. We have to make the college search about finding the right fit rather than focusing on getting into a brand-name school. I think it’s important that parents separate their own unfulfilled dreams from their children’s dreams. I think it’s important to eat dinner together as a family, and don’t allow homework to take over your family life or prevent kids from sleeping. We all need to take breaks from technology and truly unplug, because the lines between work and home, and school and home, have been really blurred. I think parents need to form alliances with educators and other parents to advocate for community changes that better serve young people.

Susan Josephs is a writer based in Venice, Calif.

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