Those first two films deal with mostly low-income students in sub-standard public schools who are looking for a way out. Their goal is admission to successful charter schools. “Race to Nowhere” deals with the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, where parents and students are frustrated with education for other reasons.
These families live in places where, by any measure, there are excellent public schools. Lafayette, California, where the “The Race to Nowhere” was mostly filmed, is an affluent East Bay suburb where the median family income is $150,000 and the average home price is $1.2M. The film’s director/producer drives a Lexus SUV. These students aim for elite selective colleges and universities. They work constantly at homework, squeezing it in with other activities deemed necessary to success. They are pressured to the point of illness or desperation by the high expectations of their parents and the community.
As an admissions officer for a selective college early in my career, I was aware of the kinds of pressures that students endured in order to be admitted to a selective institution. I also have worked for less selective institutions where many students get an excellent education and have never worried to the point of insomnia or anorexia about their life choices. I think the anxiety over college and career choices portrayed in this film may be lost on many families. As blogger Jay Mathews points out in the Washington Post, a bigger problem for students may be the low expectations of parents and schools.
The pressure that most college-bound families and students do feel is financial, especially if they want to attend state-supported institutions where programs are being cut and tuition raised. They may worry that they are being pushed aside in favor of out-of-state students who are willing to pay higher tuition. They may be faced with taking out large loans to complete their degrees.
“Race to Nowhere” might have a selective message, but I think it will inspire some important conversation about social pressure to succeed and what’s most important about life and school. I’ll be there to watch the film, and moderate a panel discussion afterward. If you’re in Pullman next Thursday, please join us for the free presentation at 6 p.m. in the Compton Union Building auditorium.