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Once Upon a Time

The more-is-better, bigger-is-better mentality begins to inform every decision, leaving students with full schedules and sleep deprivation in the name of "achievement" and "results."
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A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.
A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

In "Race to Nowhere," students and families share their experiences navigating the lane changes and intersections in the speedway that today's education system has become.

At last week's screening of "Race to Nowhere" at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, parents, educators and community members reflected on their own experiences as learners and discussed the broader cultural issues that inform how we educate our youth. As one parent expressed, fear drives our participation in a more-is-better culture, and causes many of us to question whether speaking out (and opting out!) of the education race places our children at a disadvantage with their peers. Does opting out of the race give our children a handicap in college choice? Career choice? After describing how much pressure is placed on extracurricular activities and sports in her school community, one parent wondered: Am I the worst parent in the world because I haven't signed my kids up for soccer practice yet?

One would be hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn't, at times, doubt the decisions they make for their children. Pampers or Huggies? Soccer or baseball? Dance classes or art? As children grow, such decisions aren't limited to "this" or "that"; rather, it becomes SAT Prep classes and AP classes. Tutoring and ballet. The more-is-better, bigger-is-better mentality begins to inform every decision, leaving students with full schedules and sleep deprivation in the name of "achievement" and "results."

Beyond the classroom, we see the more-is-better culture in almost every aspect of American life. Fast food restaurants and big box stores advertise bigger and faster goods and services, selling us on large portions and blowout sales. Law firms, doctor's offices and Wall Street banks --among countless other workplaces -- reward adults who put in long hours and sacrifice work-life balance for faster or bigger output. Professional athletes seek bigger stadiums, larger paychecks and more prominent endorsements. And now, our cultural fixation on quantity, speed, and assessment has infiltrated our schools. Our children learn early that school is a place to perform, and that more A's, more extracurriculars, more tests, more homework and more studying is the ticket to academic -- and life -- success.

How can we interrupt these cultural messages and set our children on a healthier path? By providing a new message. By telling a new story. We need courageous individuals who are willing to share their individual stories of educational triumph and create a new narrative for what works -- and what's possible -- in education. Changing education starts with changing the stories we tell ourselves about education.

Stories of hope are particularly powerful. One parent present at the Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley screening shared one of her own positive experiences from high school, for example. She recounted that in her first year of high school she was "flunking out and doing horribly." She moved to a small school where teachers embraced a "no homework" policy. The school gave students independent assignments every other day, had study hall periods where students had time to complete these assignments during school hours and provided the support of teachers who assisted students with questions and trouble-spots. "I went from failing school to a 3.5 [GPA]", the parent noted.

"[My problem] wasn't that I just wasn't smart enough," she said. It was that she needed a shift in thinking. A new approach. A less-is-more philosophy. A different story about what successful education looks like. Her experience now informs her advocacy of a no-homework shift at her own daughter's school. And her story provides an inspiring model to other parents.

Students have perhaps the most important stories to tell. At the screening last week, I recounted that in the early days, before I decided to make a film, I realized that students didn't have a voice in their own educational experiences. I wanted to respond to that gap by producing a film that reflected the experiences of students everywhere, in schools and communities nationwide. Taking up the challenge of making the film was made easier because so many students were willing to share their stories and I was inspired to keep going.

In connection with the release of "Race to Nowhere" on Home DVD, our team is launching a nationwide House Party Campaign and storytelling initiative that is intended to lend additional spark to this powerful storytelling impulse. When individuals come together to watch and discuss the film in the privacy of their own homes, their own stories can become part of the national "Race to Nowhere" conversation. In turn, this conversation can become a potent tool for information sharing, coalition building, and meaningful organizing for change.

Join the "Race to Nowhere" House Party Campaign to add your own unique voice to the chorus of people who support an alternative to the more-is-better educational culture that informs current school policy and practice. Learn more at We're listening!