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The Race to Nowhere Comes Home

July 17, 2013

The documentary film, “Race to Nowhere” is described on the film’s website as, “Featuring the heartbreaking stories of students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve…” It was nearly three years ago that the film came to the Princeton-area community, thanks in large part to Jess Deutsch. Today she reflects on the experience, sharing some answers to questions she’s been asked over the years.

How did you hear about “Race To Nowhere”, and why did you lead the effort to have it screened at Princeton High School?

JD: The short answer is that I watched the film at a very small venue, and decided on the spot that a much larger audience needed to see it. So I made it happen. The long answer is that I had become gradually aware, both in parenting circles and in my work with students at Princeton University, that the culture around raising and educating kids was getting out of hand. The film concretizes the excesses– too much homework, too much structured activity, too much pressure and emphasis on college admissions expectations, and too much parental anxiety about getting it all right. I hoped RTN would get people to pause and reflect a little.

Did anything change? What happened after the screening?

JD: I definitely think it struck a chord (or several). An audience of perpetual-motion-parents sat still after the film ended and engaged in a discussion that could have gone on for days, expressing concerns about the relentless pursuit of achievement, the lack of sleep, the imbalances of athletics and academics and wellness. Some parents told me they felt relieved that the cat was out of the bag. Many realized for the first time they were not alone, for example, in being uncomfortable trading family time for organized sports, or letting kids play a zero sum game between sleep and homework. We hosted a couple of follow-up conversations; I created a Facebook page called Princeton Balance to share relevant education and parenting articles; and the Princeton Public Schools created a speakers’ series on various topics related to well-being.

In response to RTN, our superintendent and school leaders expressed a broad commitment to the well-being of our children, though we need to keep working to make sure that policies and practices reflect and affirm that commitment. We have to pay attention and we have to speak up – I would love it if we could take even bolder steps to free up our children and teachers for truly innovative, healthy, engaged learning.

Ultimately, I think RTN was the tip of the iceberg for a cultural shift to be more reasonable, self-aware, and smart about the way we raise and educate our kids. I really do. Groups like Challenge Success are taking it on brilliantly. Wise, saavy thinkers like Madeline Levine, Paul Tough, and other balanced thought leaders have a strong foothold in the national and social media. I believe ending the race to nowhere will happen at the individual level – in our homes, one choice at a time about what really matters.

What do you say to the cynics who believe that economic, social, and academic realities require students to keep running as fast as they can? Is there really a choice?

JD: I think RTN brought into focus the idea of balance as an equal partner to excellence on our public radar screen. The takeaway is not about lowering standards, slacking off, or ignoring economic, social or college admission realities. It is about defining authentic success; recognizing what science tells us (about the importance of sleep and the limitations of standardized testing); and encouraging parents and teachers to trust their instincts, not unspoken rulebooks about what is really best for kids. The “race to nowhere” is fueled by well-intentioned, but misguided anxiety. I am hoping that calmer voices will prevail – our own calmer voices – because life is a marathon, not a sprint. For our kids, and for ourselves, we really need to conserve energy for the long haul.

What is the alternative to a race to nowhere? What would you recommend to a parent who wants to create more balance for her kids during these summer months?

JD: Let them be bored for a moment – that’s the genesis of creativity. Let them hear themselves think—they’ll get to know and trust their own voices. Let them decide what they want to do –they learn how to manage unstructured time. Let them explore. They will learn how to find their way. Truly. We’re not doing them any favors if we don’t prioritize such experience.

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