Race to Nowhere

We had our mock exams today for math. There are a pair of exams students take so that they get a feel for what their real exams will be like in May. At the end of the first exam, we had a break, and during this break, one of the students came up to me as I set up the room for the next set of exams.

“Mr. Wees, I left a note on the test paper I want my teacher to read,” she said tears in her eyes.

I looked at her and could see how upset she was so I asked her how she felt.

More tears came to her eyes as she said, “Not so good. I’m sure I totally failed that exam.”

“Well, it is a mock exam,” I started, but she cut me off.

“But the universities will look at my results from this exam!” she complained.

And there it was, the concern that her lack of preparation for this one exam was going to ruin her life.

I wanted to give her a hug and reassure her, which is what I would have done had she’d been my child. However, I decided a hug would be imprudent and chose to reassure her with my words instead.

“It is going to be okay. You will get into university,” I started. I consoled her and tried to make her feel better about her future. “Remember,” I continued, “universities don’t just look at grades, they look at the whole person. You helped plan a conference! I’m sure that has to count for something.”

“But everyone plans a conference!” she nearly yelled. In her eyes I could see her thinking, Everyone I know is doing such amazing things. How do I stand out?

I challenged her on this statement, “How many people really?” remembering that people often believe their own hyperbole. “How many kids your age have planned a conference?”

“40 or 50,” she said quietly, realizing the ridiculousness of her earlier assertion.

“Out of thousands of students.” I responded, “What you have done is amazing, don’t sell yourself short.”

She seemed a little bit better. “Yah okay, you are right.”

I talked about my own history of being accepted to university late. It wasn’t until June that I received my original UBC acceptance, and not until August 9th that I received acceptance to my teaching degree. I remember the day exactly because it was the same day I went into work and quit my warehouse job.

What I wanted to say was that it doesn’t matter, that she should judge her personal success by her ability to get into university. That there are other ways to be successful, and that many people survive happily in life having never stepped foot in a university. 

Our students today put so much of their focus on being successful, and on standing out from the crowd. Students compete to try and outdo each other, always feeling like it is never enough. Just today one of my students complained that his parents had it easy. “They only had a C average and got into university!” he said.

I watched the movie Race to Nowhere recently. It was a very powerful experience, and it spoke to me on many levels. Here’s a trailer which describes the movie.

The movie shows lots of examples of how US students are over-worked, and most of those examples speak to the Canadian experience of school as well. Kids are developing symptoms of stress very early in life. They lack the time to actually do everything they are expected to do because they are being over-scheduled, and over-burdened with work early in life.

When will it be enough? When will we decide that our emphasis on competition for limited college seats is unacceptable? When we allow our children to just be, and not have to worry about competing for their future?

We need to tell our students that the notion that there are limited pathways to their future success is a myth. We need to show them that success comes in many forms. We need to give them the opportunity to live their lives, rather than our failed dreams.

There are some things we can do we can do as educators and as parents.

  • We can give less homework or end the practice completely. Homework at the elementary and middle school levels is fairly pointless anyway, and at the high school level only shows a modest correlation with success (at least how we measure success in schools currently). Parents can talk to other parents about the harmful effects of homework and take back their family time.
  • Governments can scale back our bloated curriculums. Rushing through content a “mile wide and an inch deep” does no one any good. You cannot learn deeply about that which you are rushed through. Our children are being force-fed content, but are often intellectually malnourished.
  • We can recognize our kids for who they are, rather than for who we would like them to be. Instead of asking your child about school, ask them to join you in doing something, ask them to talk to you about the world. Find out how they feel, and really listen to them.
  • It is crucial that we end the competition. Educators can do this by abandoning failed metrics like traditional grading systems, and parents can do this by advocating for their students. Grades don’t measure what we think they measure in most cases anyway.
  • We need to stop over-scheduling our children. Find a couple of things they really like to do, and give them more free time to just play. Play outside with your children, and learn how to be a kid again. Go camping, ride a bicycle, have some fun. We should not abdicate our responsibility to raise our children to a worksheet or a computer.
  • We should fight for more arts and experiential learning opportunities in schools. It is unreasonable to expect every child to become a scientist or engineer when they grow up. Artistic and creative people are exceptionally important to our well-being as a society. Without the arts, life would be very bland and not really worth living. Imagine if the next generation had no music, no theatre, no movies, no art of any kind? Can you imagine living in a world without art? We need to recognize that for many children, this is very nearly their reality.

What other specific suggestions do you have?



  • Sheila Stewart wrote:

    This is great, David! I relate to your writing in so many ways (a parent with these same viewpoints and guiding 2 teens in this current ed. system)!! You have added to my already great day! May comment more later! But for now, my hubby said I could say that I am married to a “C” student who managed to become an engineer…back when! We also know that our youngest daughter, especially, will not be happy if she cannot find a “place” for her creative and artistic expression to flow….and we know that she is not the only one! Our oldest is in university now….but guess what keeps her inspired….her vocal music elective and her own self-initiated hobby in photograpy….ah, we learn so much from kids! But mine are getting a little tired of me telling them to take a walk in the sunshine and fresh air everyday….:)

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hopefully every parent, teacher, and government officials of each state that are dictating the academic curriculum and structures not only on our teachers but most importantly on our children will see this documentary film and open eyes to what the adult world is imposing on these kids. What is literally causing our children to learn how to cheat, how to feel not good enough, and basically pushing them to meet unrealistic expectations for the college acceptance or status quo of what is a “supposed” norm, is instead stress inducing, self esteem destructive, and ultimately a non-effective way of learning. Kudos to the mom film maker who brings to light the truth of our children and the reality of today’s academia. Perhaps this film shall be the catalyst for change in America’s schools across the board, if not maybe, just maybe it will cause every parent, teacher, administrator and state official to take a closer look at exactly what our community and society is doing regarding education. Life skills, hands on learning, creativity, and honing in on our students strengths is paramount, not what is unfortunately an unhealthy method to finishing the race to nowhere.

  • I don’t think it is just the US or Canada. The same thing is undoubtedly true in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and is definitely true in South Korea (where there were teenagers with grey hair studying 16+ hours a day)

    One thing I would tell that student is that world is run by B students. John F Kennedy got a B- for his government paper!

  • I saw Race to Nowhere last week and totally agree. I have two young sons and have already been dreading the fight I will have once they enter school. I have already started looking into alternatives to public education, but am not really satisfied with any of them either. It looks like i will be putting in a lot of time “working” with the schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *