Crossing the finish line.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.

Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. 🙂 The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.

These are my take-aways:

On happiness:

  • Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
  • We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
  • Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.

On accountability:

  • We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
  • Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
  • We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
  • Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
  • Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
  • Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
  • The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.

On homework:

  • “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
  • There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
  • We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.

On passion-based learning:

  • Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
  • Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
  • “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
  • What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.

I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?

There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?

The president of my parent-teacher organization approached me about the film and asked if I thought it would be beneficial for her to view. I agreed it would be, and she is taking a group of our parents to see the film in a few weeks. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?
One of my colleague principals had a chance to view the film, and I feel it’s important for us to share our thoughts with the rest of our administrative team. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.

We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.

There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.

15 Replies to “Crossing the finish line.”

    1. Great question, Rob. I have not encountered any elem. schools that have eliminated it completely. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. A sampling of schools that have eliminated homework:
      Bloomfield MiddleSchool, Bloomfield, MO
      Grant Elementary School, Glenrock, WY
      Helendale Elementary and Middle Schools, Helendale, CA
      Van Damme Academy K-8, Aliso Viejo, CA
      Oak Knoll Elementary School, Menlo Park, CA

      Visit for more information and resources.

  1. Lyn,

    As always, I am so thankful for this post – I have yet to see the film, but I really appreciate your notes and thoughts. I would really love to see a film or some document celebrating what is going well. What are we doing right? What too many people ignore or don’t realize is that, by amplifying what is great, we create conditions under which more teachers, admin, students, etc… will take risks in their learning, feeling safe and supported and recognizing their own value and worth. As long as we continue to outline what is broken and wrong, we shut off so much potential for growth. Thanks, Lyn – another great post!


    1. Shannon, thanks as always for your support and reflective comments! I think those of us that share our successes freely “get it” and those people that are far removed from the trenches (like the creators of this film) tend to focus on the negatives and what’s wrong with the system instead of appreciating and building upon the structures, settings, and characteristics we know can positively influence student learning!

  2. “‘There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.)” according to the author.

    Thank you for the post. I have been doing research and work on intellectual engagement on the topic of ‘homework’. I am glad you found this line your favourite because it alines with the book”Rethinking Homework”. Saying this in absolute terms maybe an overstatement but I feel the overall intention is correct.

    In High School. I am paying attention to the idea of”Flip Thinking”, I only focused on a poiny from your article but found the overall presentation very interesting.

    1. Appreciate your comments, Jack. Homework is such a touchy subject. I think if even just take the time to more deeply reflect on how the homework we’re assigning is truly impacting learning, we’d make great strides in this area.

  3. Lyn,

    Thank you for your post. Your ending really resonated with me – “We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.” I agree that connecting through our PLNs allows us to do this as a collective. I, too, would love to see a movie done about the positive influence that is being made day in and day out across the country. I would then like to see it get as much press as the negatives in education have gotten lately!

  4. Lyn,

    One word: Wow!

    What you wrote really resonated with me and you capture so much of what many of us feel. I’m definitly going to watch the film with my staff. I’m certain we’ll have some deep discussions and reflections afterwards. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Be Great,


  5. Lyn-
    Thank you for taking the time to contribute to the dialogue. Our schools are a microcosm of our culture, and while layers of change are needed, it’s going to start with all of us changing our mindset and creating a new dialogue on how to educate the whole child while also valuing and supporting educators.

    There is a social action campaign connected to the film, and we are encouraging everyone to share and celebrate what IS working in our schools and communities so that others can learn and be inspired to make changes big and small. Please visit There you can also form a group for your local community, continue the dialogue and even survey the group. There’s also additional information there about homework. (See the advocacy tools page under Resources)

    As as part of our ongoing commitment to create a more satisfying and inspiring learning experience for our nation’s children, we are working on a book which will serve as a solutions-based road map for far-reaching cultural and educational change. We are looking for communities interested in contributing to the book. If you are open to taking the lead, please let me know and I will provide further details on how students, educators, and parents can participate by way of written or video contributions.

    Kind regards,

  6. I have hesitated to see any of these movies simply because of the media devices (emotional appeals) they use to hammer home half truths and the hidden messages of the financiers and producers. That being said, your review has made me want to see this movie. There is no doubt our schools are off balance. The phrase that resonates with me is “an inch thick and a mile wide.” We must develop the courage and the mechanism(s) to fight the continued push for standardization and constant measurements that the national movements are espousing! At the high school level, the pressure to do well on the “one shot” test is promulgating the use of methodologies from the turn of the 20th century. We are not in the industrial age anymore. Our kids do not respond to the information assembly line at all. I am selfish, my kids are in the middle of their public school careers and I want something better now!

  7. When I watch or read reviews of these types of media presentations regarding our education system, I can’t help but think of what might have been going through Ben Franklin’s mind during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Throughout the debates about the future of our country and the type of government it should have, he was torn by the artwork on the back of George Washington’s chair. He was unable at times to determine if the artist intended it as a rising or setting sun. Only at the conclusion of the Convention, as the last signers affixed their approval to the document did he come to a conclusions: “…but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”

    I, like you and everyone else who finds themselves caught up in the debates about the future of education, find myself wondering the same. In the end, will the future of our kids be greeted by a rising sun or a setting one?

  8. Lyn,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. You hit all the issues that are so important to many of us.

  9. Hi Lyn,

    Thanks for such a though provoking post which came at such a pertinent time for me. We have just moved from a very innovative International school in Asia with a 1:1 laptop program into the US Public School system. I am a Post 16 ( UK term, for High School and Adult Ed) Literacy and IT teacher and I am passionate about a 21st Century education for my own and everybody else’s children.

    I am still learning a lot about the US Public Education system and I am lucky that my children currently have two wonderful teachers but I am nervous for the future. My son is not a ’round peg’ and I am already tired of standardized tests that will never reflect his ability as a well rounded kid. He needs a more creative and flexible environment where he can start to control his own learning as he gets older.

    So, thanks again, your post was very interesting as I continue to learn more and join the conversation about the future of education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.