Our review of Most Likely to Succeed education film being shown in Wellesley

Most Likely to SucceedA crowd of mostly parents of school-aged children gathered last week at Schofield Elementary School for a screening of Most Likely to Succeed, the latest “it” education documentary comparing today’s current system of education that divides students by age, ability, and subject matter with a more progressive, project-based model used at High Tech High in San Diego. The crowd of about 50, themselves looking rather like the Most Likely to Succeed types, gathered in the gym, curious to learn more about the direction education could take.

The movie, named by Education Week as “among the best edu-documentaries ever produced,” kicked off the Sundance Film Festival last December, has been making the rounds all over the country, and has landed in Wellesley for now (see the schedule and get ticket information here). In fact, all Wellesley faculty will see this film on their professional development day the Monday after Thanksgiving (known as the long weekend to you and me).

The film starts out by painting  a bleak picture for college graduates, saying that they are in the unique and unenviable position of entering a workforce that first needed fewer people due to a massive shift in technology that devalued muscle power, and now needs fewer people as technology takes care of even skilled tasks. On the muscle power side of things, there’s no call for a guy to move a ton of canned goods from one end of the warehouse to the other when on the storage floors of today, robots can manage just fine. On the skilled side, computers are taking over jobs that once were considered the domain of humans, such as technical writing. According to Most Likely to Succeed, in today’s job market, mental power and creativity count. So it stands to reason that our current education model, developed to give birth to a literate population, and then later to create good factory workers, is outmoded.

One of the film’s talking heads says, “It used to be that you could graduate from high school and get a perfectly average job, purchase a perfectly average home, have a perfectly average life, and have a perfectly average funeral. Now, that high school diploma will not guarantee you any of that. And neither will a college diploma.”

Sobering, unless you are a mover and shaker such as Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal of High Tech High, who has set out to prove that if teachers are given total intellectual freedom and students are taught to work together and talk to each other rather than constantly look to the teacher every step of the way, the result will be creative learners who have the critical thinking skills to thrive in the modern workforce. Teachers at the school are on a one-year contract, no chance of tenure, because it doesn’t exist. In exchange for that level of career instability, they teach to their passions and run their classrooms as they see fit. Students, 50% of whom come from low income families, get in through a lottery system. 

When schools use the current model of education, High Tech High teachers say that curiosity has to be flat-out shut down. The Advanced Placement (AP) History course (which is not taught at the school) was used as a prime example. There’s so much material to get through in that course, the movie claims that some AP History teachers tell students that there’s just not time for questions and discussion, that they must plow ever onward in each class to get through the subject matter so that they can score a 4 or a 5 on the AP exam, so that they can get into a good college.

A class like that just wouldn’t fly at High Tech High. Teachers, who readily acknowledge that they cover only 40% – 60% of the content that other schools do, say that depth of knowledge, not breadth, is what’s important. To that end, a good score on an AP exam simply isn’t a priority at the school. The High Tech High philosophy that all students learn in different ways and that hands-on learning is more effective than rote memorization and “learning” to achieve on a test, only to soon after forget material that was supposedly mastered.

High Tech High families are told not to expect classic feedback in the form of test grades or student mastery of state capitals or the rules of grammar, something that can rattle parents who are wondering where the content is, exactly, and where’s the proof that their kids are learning. Not in quizzes and tests.  There are none. Not through letter grades on essays. There’s lots of writing in the curriculum, but it doesn’t get graded. One parent, stressing about her child’s preparedness for the SATs says, “I don’t want him to have any doors closed.”

Doors are opened at the school to the entire community once a term, the only time anything close to the idea of “testing” happens there. At that time, families, friends, and community members are invited to see the students’ work, which is largely project-based work and collaborative, as in many of today’s workplaces. The idea is that preparation for the way the workforce operates now should be taught and experienced by students now, in their classrooms, every day.

Watching the students collaborate and plan and get results was what the movie was all about. It generally profiled students who were comfortable and experienced with the way the school worked, and they came across as mature, thoughtful, seekers of knowledge. But are these “typical” kids? I mean, could garden-variety kids (as in mine) work like this?

Well, yes, we can count High Tech High students as  garden-variety kids, and because their plot is fertilized properly, they grow in their environment. It’s tempting to look at the High Tech High kids as some sort of West Coast miracles, but the truth is, like kids everywhere, they are real students with real challenges. They procrastinate. They laugh during the serious part of the play during dress rehearsal, frustrating the director. And I even caught a little adolescent eye rolling that snuck through the editing process when a student would get a little too intense, a little too earnest, or revealed him or herself as a bit too much of a true believer to be cool.

I expected them to triumph on exhibition night, and most did, but there was a group that tanked. The viewer could see that it was utterly predictable that this would be this group’s fate, and it was utterly frustrating that no one swooped in there to save that group from itself and its feckless leader. But that’s not how things work there. There is no adult rescue operation swooping in. (((It was a really tough lesson for the entire group, and the viewers, when the group’s project flat out didn’t work on the big night, mostly because the team leader procrastinated, dug in his heels, made excessive changes too close to deadline, and was in denial about how bad off things were, right up until he was faced with the hard truth: the group project didn’t work. ))It made me wonder how the teachers could let one kid be so instrumental in the failure of the project. Why didn’t they step in and say, you know, I think you need to step back from this and try so-and-so’s ideas?

As a parent in town, I doubt I would jump ship from our Wellesley schools even if High Tech High showed up in charter school form in a nearby town. Things seem just group-y and collaborative enough around here already. I have bought into our current system financially and emotionally, and it’s a system I have counted on to make my kids ready for college level work. As far as beyond goes, well…I admit, I’m more like one of those not-quite-all-in families they interviewed who took on more of a first things first attitude. First, let’s get through high school, THEN we can think about all that outside world collaborative stuff.

High Tech High would prefer that I look around a bit more and realize that, as the late poet Maya Angelou notes, “…nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” They believe their way of looking at education is more real-world: Get kids thinking together, working together, and making mistakes together, and there’s nothing they won’t be ready for, in high school, and college, and beyond. In the world according to High Tech High, they are teaching their students to grow into citizens who will be out there in the mix, thinking critically and creatively, and getting things done together.