When Vicki Abeles noticed her children’s attitudes toward learning and school changing from enthusiastic to apathetic, she started to pay attention. And when they began to complain about not feeling well during times of increased pressure—loaded up on tests and homework—the Lafayette mom sensed there was something fundamentally wrong with their educational experience. A former Wall Street lawyer, Abeles started to explore the problem—only to find lots of Bay Area kids suffering from school-induced anxiety and depression.
Abeles documented what she observed in her 2010 film, Race to Nowhere, sparking a movement among parents and educators to reinvent the definition of success in schools. To keep the conversation going, she has followed up with a new documentary and a New York Times–lauded book, Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, and Underestimated Generation.
Taking a break from writing an op-ed for the New York Times and conducting her ongoing crusade, Abeles talked to Diablo about what parents and schools can do to redefine success and help students learn to live full lives.
Q: You went from being a lawyer on Wall Street to a documentary filmmaker. Why did you make that leap?
A: My daughters were in middle school, and my son was in third grade. He was turning off to learning and starting to hate school. My daughters were turning off to learning, too, but I had also become concerned about their well-being, as they started getting headaches and stomachaches.
Then, one of my daughters was diagnosed with a stress-induced condition, and at the same time, I felt that my family had become hostage to homework and school-sponsored activities and tutoring. It was a challenge to manage my family’s balance, well-being, and life.
So I started talking to people in our community and then in communities across the country, and discovered that depression and anxiety among adolescents is an epidemic in this country. And the suicide of a 13-year-old girl in Danville furthered my resolve to get the film out.
I knew there was an important story to tell, and I thought the film [Race to Nowhere] could be a way to bring people together to talk about these issues.
Q: What concerns you the most about schools?
A: I’m concerned about the health issues. If our kids are depressed, if they’re overmedicated—as more and more kids are—it’s not a good indicator of a lifetime of wellness and success.
The reality is that healthy people are much more likely to be successful, and parents need to begin to recognize that.
Q: What is the biggest challenge students face today?
A: High school students are managing the expectations of teachers on top of their parents, coaches, and tutors, and so their need to develop as healthy human beings—to socialize and to do things that teenagers are wired to do—is pushed off with these demands on their time.
A principal in Palo Alto [where there have been a number of student suicides] is working toward putting together an advisory program to address these issues and foster good relationships in her school. She’s doing a lot to encourage teachers to be flexible and to give students flexibility to manage their schedules and the expectations of the very well-meaning adults in their lives.
Q: Why are schools turning some kids off?
A: If every day you go to work and you’re told you’re not measuring up, it becomes part of your identity: You feel that you have nothing valuable to contribute.
In school, most of what kids learn is totally disconnected from anything they will ever do in the real world, and I think that really deprives them of purpose and meaning. And that’s one of the other big contributors to the unhealthy outcomes that we’re seeing. When our experiences are devoid of meaning and purpose, that’s a really simple recipe for depression, anxiety, and disengagement.
Q: Do you think some parents tend to focus more on checking in about school and less on checking in with their kid?
A: Yes, but I don’t fault the parents for that because they are responding to a hyperextreme situation.
Many schools want parents to constantly check in on their kids and their assignments, keeping track with online grading systems. I would like to shut all of those programs down. Because I trust my kids, I talk to my kids, and know how they’re doing. We want our kids to know that we treasure them irrespective of how they’re doing at school—that the world won’t fall apart if they don’t do so well on that test.
It’s a weird thing. In the whole education discourse, parents are blamed if they’re helicopter parents or if they’re uninvolved, and there is no middle ground. We blame parents, we blame educators, and I think we pathologize kids, rather than changing the system.
Q: What can parents do to help an overwhelmed child?
A: Parents are the keepers of balance. We want to encourage our kids to pursue their interests while avoiding academic overscheduling, and to value things like family time and rest and play, which are not just for young kids.
We are seeing that too much grading and testing is having a negative impact, so we can opt our kids out of testing or certain homework assignments. Or if they’re in high school, we can encourage them to do that on their own.
We also have to see the child in front of us. What works for my son is very different from what worked for my older daughter. As parents, we want to emphasize growth and the process of learning, rather than grades, test scores, and measurements.
Q: How else can parents get involved?
A: Parents need to become advocates in their school communities. We need to reclaim time [for our kids]. And that’s one of the biggest reasons we’re seeing unhealthy outcomes for kids. They are sleep deprived and feeling the way so many of us adults feel. We are stretched and feel we aren’t doing enough to keep up with our work, but as parents, we need to model balance ourselves.
Q: Since you launched this movement, have you seen parents begin to take back time?
A: Absolutely. I have seen pockets of this community opting their kids out of tests. In Oakland, at Hillcrest School, the principal screened Race to Nowhere and together with the parents created a process to address the issue of homework. There is no longer homework in the lower grades. That was a total collaboration between educators and parents.
Q: What’s wrong with homework?
A: If you think about it, kids sit for 35 hours a week in the classroom, and then we ask them to sit even longer to work on homework. Instead, let’s look at the way those 35 hours are spent in school.
We can do much better at integrating classes and giving students time during the school day for independent work, when they can practice in the presence of a teacher, and then we can look at taking homework off the table.
I would advocate for homework to be the exception rather than the rule.
Q: Choosing a college also seems to add to the problem. How can parents ease the application process?
A: That’s a big driver of stress in our kids. We need to do a lot of work to look at the experience of college and to look at colleges that are aligned with what the kid is interested in, rather than make decisions based on the reputations of the colleges.
One way is for parents to talk to their kids about the different paths the adults in their lives have taken and how they didn’t all get to where they are because of the name of the college they attended.
As a parent, I am much more interested—and I believe other parents are much more interested—in our kids leaving our homes ready to be independent and to contribute to college in meaningful ways, and to engage in meaningful learning experiences.
Because of the demands on students, we’re always driving our kids toward getting through the process rather than being present, and we do them a disservice by doing this. So I’m much more interested in the life skills that my children develop at home and at school, and the values that they take with them to college.
Q: You now have two daughters in college. How did you help them choose a school that would be the best fit for them?
A: It was really about encouraging both my daughters to keep an open mind, do the research, and not become too set or focused on one campus.
So rather than continuing the path I was on when they were in middle school, worrying about anything that wasn’t an A or a B, I allowed my daughters to take the lead in their college searches without getting caught up in the names.
Q: The college visit is becoming very popular. What do you think about that?
A: If there are schools in your area, go visit to get a feel for what your kids like in a college. Do they like a large university or prefer a smaller environment? Do they want to be in the city or a smaller town?
But I feel like the emphasis is to go out and visit schools. Instead, steer your kids toward figuring out what they want in their post–high school experience.
I’ve encouraged all my kids to take a gap year. A gap year is great for self-discovery. It’s great if kids have the opportunity to do something different, and then they can go back to school to really see the purpose of going.
Q: Does this type of discovery fit into our current model of education?
A: Unfortunately, no. Most of our schools only value a certain type of achievement that works for the set of kids who are high performing—and even those kids are not thriving in the current structure of schools. They are anxious and sleep deprived. And the students who don’t feel they measure up end up leaving school thinking they don’t have anything to contribute, and we’re really losing a lot of potential because of that.
We are our kids’ most important teachers, and we have to teach them that they can thrive post–high school in ways they never imagined they could.
Q: How can high schools help change the perspective on college?
A: While many schools and parents might say we can’t do x, y, and z until college admissions change, I actually think high schools can do a lot. Schools can redefine success and reimagine what learning can be. One way is to put a maximum on the number of AP classes students can take or put a cap on the number of extracurriculars students can be involved in.
We are finding that a handful of schools across the country are doing that. There is a high school in Michigan that places a cap at three AP classes per year, and the students are still getting into the same fabulous colleges. And that also means students are not cutting corners, they’re not cheating to get there, and they’re not getting sick because they believe that they have to take six or seven AP courses.
Q: Are you seeing changes in our community?
A: One is happening right in our backyard. A new school just opened last August called Tice Creek School, which is part of the Walnut Creek School District. It’s an opt-in magnet school, currently with kindergarten through sixth grade. The school is all about project-based learning and the four C’s of 21st century learning [collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication].
And then last spring, the San Ramon Valley School District piloted a night off of homework and got the schools in the Dougherty Valley area on board. It was meant to be a symbolic gesture about the balance that needs to come back into kids’ lives.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I am continuing to help communities that are interested in creating change. In a few areas, we’re collaborating with a pediatrician to identify stress and depression in students, and working with schools to prioritize wellness and learning.
I’d also like to focus on positive stories of change to get that out to the world to inspire people to play a role. We’re working to create a network of champions to carry on the message and bring people together from different communities to inspire a change in the cultural mind-set—from superintendents and teachers to community members and industry leaders.
And then, I’m working on a film about math education that will be the third in my trilogy of education films. We’re working with a Stanford professor who’s hoping to change the way math is being taught. So many stressful experiences in school revolve around math. Yet math, in many ways, is a gatekeeper: If you don’t get the math you need in high school, it can limit your opportunities in college. So we’re working on that.
Q: What is your hope for Beyond Measure?
A: I hope that this new film continues where Race to Nowhere left off. Often missing around the conversation on education is the voice of the people closest to the system: the educators and most importantly, the students. So I hope the film continues the conversation while inspiring people to talk about education and take action. beyondmeasurefilm.com.
Advice for Parents Entering the System
1. Trust your instincts. Get to know your kids by having conversations.
2. Make time for play, sleep, and experiences.
3. Become familiar with the research around educational practices, and advocate for those things in your school.
4. Add your voice to the conversation by going to PTA and school board meetings.
5. Understand what the test scores really mean when planning where you want to live and where you want your child to go to school.