Sundance Film Festival: Education documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” doesn’t show its work


As a documentary about life in an alternative charter school in San Diego called High Tech High, Greg Whiteley’s documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” is fun and engaging. As a documentary about how America needs to talk about reinventing its education system to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy, it raises interesting points.

But when it suggests that state and federal governments shouldn’t be setting education standards? Show your work, movie.

Like the similar “Waiting for Superman” from a few years back, “Succeed” paints traditional public schools as the disease and education reform as the cure. In public schools, rote memorization and “teaching to the test” are too prevalent, while charter schools and private schools like High Tech High are allowed to innovate.

Fine, except that, on average, charter public schools don’t produce any better results than public schools in general. Whiteley (“Mitt”) admits that there’s no long-term data to support the idea that these new schools are more effective. And there is plenty of innovation going on in American public school classrooms. I know this, because my oldest daughter is sitting in one of those classrooms as I write this.

I don’t want to review the argument, I want to review the movie. And the movie is well-made, and certainly makes a lot of thoughtful points about the state of our education system. Our current system — separate grades, separate subjects, memorization — was first designed over a century ago to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. If students can read, write, do basic math and not get bored learning about the Louisiana Purchase, they might be ready for a lifetime job on the assembly line.

But those jobs are vanishing in the New Economy and the age of supercomputers. The skills needed in the economy of today (and tomorrow) are so-called “soft skills” — collaboration, experimentation, reflection, social skills.

And High Tech High is certainly an invigorating example of this, where the bell never rings and students spend all day working together on big projects instead of final exams. The projects cross disciplines; in a class on civilizations, one group performs an original play set in modern-day Pakistan, while another builds a giant, intricate wheel sculpture to visualize how civilizations rise and fall.

I think this is a great idea. But it’s an experiment, not a prescription for what ails the American education system. And “Most Likely To Succeed” never makes a clear or convincing case that such experimentation has to happen outside the traditional public-school model. Why can’t you build “soft skills” into the curriculum? And when the film is so insistent on this particular point, one wonders what’s really going on here.

To his credit, Whiteley does a good job raising and addressing the “Yes, but” questions that a skeptic in the audience might come up with. “Most Likely To Succeed” is starting a good and necessary conversation. But it’s a conversation where everybody needs to be called on to speak, not just a few loud voices.

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