Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary that speaks to the need to change educational models, particularly at the high school level, was screened last night at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater. An editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe previewed the film, and was written by Ted Dintersmith who “organized, funded, and helped produce [it].” Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film this past January. Find it here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/succeed-sundance-review-767812. You can also read the book with the same name (by Dintersmith and Tony Wagner) on which the film is based.
Dintersmith’s editorial claims, “The biggest obstacle to advancing education is that we cling to [an obsolete] model. Students shuffle from subject to subject in class periods punctuated by ringing bells. They memorize, cram, and drill on low-level material. They jump through (increasingly expensive) hoops, and develop skills for jobs that no longer exist.” He contends, “In the innovation era, we should be educating to our strength. We need to…reimagine our schools. Help our kids develop essential characteristics for the 21st century…Trust our teachers to bring compelling learning experiences to our students. Set high standards and hold all participants accountable...”
The movie centers on San Diego charter school High Tech High (http://www.hightechhigh.org/), which uses a project-based learning model of education to inspire innovation and entrepreneurialism. Classrooms are designed to be student-centered with collaborative decision-making; employment of learning in the interest of producing a tangible outcome; teachers as mentors, coaches, facilitators, and resources; and appreciation for each student’s humanity. A class of freshman students, selected teachers and administrators, and occasional parents are interviewed over a period of one school year, and clips of interviews with educational gurus like Salman Khan, Tony Wagner, and Linda Darling-Hammond are interspersed. Elements of teaching and learning culminate in the “final exam,” a public display of the year’s efforts.
My take on the film:
· Fascinating to watch project-based learning in action; the passion of educators; and the dynamic among, and energy and commitment of, students.
· Why were all the interviewed staff members men and all the parents women? Was the application of the female lead’s talents in fine arts and the male lead’s talents in engineering purposeful or coincidental?
· By virtue of being an 86 minute film, a lot was left on the cutting room floor. What did groups do when members didn’t get along? How does a student demonstrate capability to a college admissions office? What was the rate of attrition back to traditional schools? How many students were ELL/LEP or had special education needs? Although 98% of students were accepted to college, what is their persistence rate?
· For being an 86 minute film, a lot was included that fairly and honestly questioned the process. Parents wondered if enough content was provided. Teachers are on year-to-year contract. (My question: does that lead to retention of high quality staff and are they around long enough to provide continuity of teacher collaboration and the support of a professional culture?).
· As NYT Book Reviewer Lisa Miller notes in her 8/18 review of the book, “Less convincing is the assumption that undergirds this whole tract: that every person can – or should – be molded into an entrepreneur.”
· The film’s follow-up panel discussion featured Dintersmith (a Partner Emeritus with Charles River Ventures), MA Secretary of Education Chair Jim Peyser, and Russlyn Ali (Executive Director of XQ: The Super School Project, funded with $50M by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs).
· The business community wants workers who are employable and fill their skills gaps. Young adults need to be prepared to work in jobs that do not yet exist. Parents want their children to succeed. Government needs to abide by the Constitution and provide the structure and money to enable a society that aligns with our country’s values.
Elephant in the Room…charter schools and traditional public schools, right? So here are my thoughts:
· Parents deserve choices about their children’s’ schooling. Complete comparison data must be provided that allow making those choices. Parents who don’t have the time or understanding or language skills to access choice must not be penalized in favor of those who do. And there shouldn’t be judgment of parents once their decisions are made.
· Schools must be provided equitable flexibility to craft change, because adding mandates on some schools while removing mandates from other schools doesn’t allow constricted schools to employ the changes necessary for student success. Any school that is innovating and proving that it results in better outcomes for students should be rewarded with less oversight and more funding. (It’s like parenting – scaffolding responsibility as children successfully meet appropriate benchmarks results in opportunities to achieve greater responsibility.)
· Students are the only ones who deserve entitlement. They are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” They are entitled to attend a school that is physically, emotionally, and educationally safe. They are entitled to be educated beginning where they are and brought to where they should be without judgment or labels. They deserve to be challenged, nurtured, coached, and mentored. And they deserve the support to grow into well-adjusted people who can work together, play together, mourn together, and laugh together. It’s our job to work together to support their entitlement.