A review of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary film

The Apocalypse; or “Most Likely to Succeed”
A review of the documentary film awarded Audience Favorite at the Fort Myers Film Festival

WARNING:  This is long.  There is also profanity.  You may wish to “opt out.”  

On March 25th, the Fort Myers Film Festival kicked off with “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary that showcases High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego. High Tech High, according to the film, emphasizes development of soft skills such as innovation, leadership and creativity over the acquisition of a broad, albeit more shallow, field of general knowledge and rote memorization.

This film wound up winning the festival’s Audience Favorite Award, and I am not surprised.
Such awards often sink to the lowest common denominator.

I found the film dangerous, dishonest and emblematic of the culture of entitlement as well as the intellectual collapse of this country. I also group the testing opt- out movement in this indictment.

The film opened with a scene of a fourth grade parent/teacher conference. As a teacher droned on about the daughter’s lack of engagement in her school work, the camera paused on the little blonde girl’s tear-streaked face. The voice over: “This is bullshit.”

The audience exploded in cheers. And it wouldn’t be the last time the audience failed to conceal its glee.

The film’s central argument was , given the nature of technological progress, today’s schools are tasked to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Those jobs, in this information-based economy, demand creative thinkers and innovation, not mere wheel-cogs. Traditional American school systems that originated in the late 1800s and have changed little, systems that revolve around textbooks and testing and just prepared students for factory work, were ill-equipped to succeed in this mission.

Now, that’s the real populist bullshit. Where to begin?

At High Tech High, school population about 550, kids create projects that are exhibited in an open house. When kids know that the whole community is going to show up, they have a greater incentive to produce, one teacher argued.

Kids work in groups, and the film highlighted two teams. One class was going to create a large display of wood and moving gears to illustrate different economic theories. Each group of students was going to build a section. A second group in another class was going to write and produce a play about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot by the Taliban.

I was perplexed. This was the only student work visible in the film along with a scene of a beginning Socratic seminar where students were expected to arrange the chairs and define the word “boring.” What did these kids do all year? What did the teachers teach? What did the kids read? What did they write?

If you look at the play-producing team, it didn’t appear that the kids did too much. A common scenario in group projects is that one kid winds up shouldering the bulk of the responsibility and work and the others hitch a ride. That appears to be what happened with this play. Although the filmmakers chose to focus on the workhorse girl, a careful viewer would see that the other kids in the group were goofing off. Instead of addressing this, the filmmakers decided to show how successful the project was because our central girl was coming out of her shy shell (what usually happens by the end of ninth grade), and she developed leadership skills. The play was performed, but not everyone in the group was responsible for that success. How were the others graded on this failure?

It was the same scenario with the wood-and-gears display. The team did not complete the project in time for the open house. The project leader reflected on his mistakes, and, much to the audience’s approval, he stayed alone late after school (6 p.m. was clear on the wall clock), and he even worked alone through the summer to complete the task.

Good for him and only him.

Don’t get me wrong.  Leadership, innovation and creativity are all valuable aptitudes, but they are not independent of content knowledge, nor are they necessarily skills that can be taught rather than nurtured, nor are they absent in traditional high school settings.

The filmmakers emphasized that the school population was determined by lottery, therefore the student body was representative of the community. Anyone who works in education knows this is not quite right. Yes, ethnically and economically, the school was somewhat diverse.

But were the kids academically diverse? How many kids in that school were reading and performing mathematical calculations on grade level upon entry? Yes, the lottery is random, but the selection of kids whose parents place them in the lottery in the first place is not necessarily academically diverse, nor is it representative of typical public school general populations.

The one parent with the most screen time appeared to be the mother of the girl directing the Malala play. Her concerns centered mostly on college, and she named Cornell and other elite alma maters in her friendship circle. If this parent is a typical High Tech High parent, the student body cannot be described as diverse.

It’s an easy workday for a teacher who doesn’t have to provide remedial instruction nor be accountable for helping kids with extreme academic deficiencies in writing a complete sentence. But, dang it, those projects were so pretty.

The filmmakers noted that there were no conclusive data to indicate High Tech High offered a superior education when compared to a more traditional setting (whatever that means). But what was puzzling was when the film claimed a victory by declaring that High Tech High’s standardized test scores were ten percent higher (yawn) than the average scores in the district.

Wait a minute. This is a film that dismisses standardized testing as worthless (a point when made in the film brought cheers of approval from the audience), yet when scores support something they like, suddenly test scores are valuable yardsticks? Misfire, filmmakers, and this supports the hypothesis that since teachers don’t prepare the kids for tests or even address them, the student body was most likely already high-performing academically at the start.

So, is standardized testing worthless? Yes and no. It depends on the test, and it depends on the teacher.

The FCAT Reading test is a traditional reading test that asks objective multiple-choice questions on main idea, vocabulary in context, inference, literary concepts and text structures. It’s not necessarily worthless, but it is absurdly narrow. There are many types of reading, and reading with the purpose of answering multiple-choice questions, some of which are designed to be misleading, is not a real-life skill anyone really needs professionally or personally. But it is still a skill.

Advanced Placement testing is different. Those tests are intellectually backbreaking, and the preparation for every subject test synthesizes critical reading, content knowledge and writing. The written responses are scored by professionals in the disciplinary fields to guarantee the integrity and rigor of the test. (In full disclosure, I am a scorer for the AP Literature Exam.) The filmmakers, in order to maintain the position that testing, all testing, was meaningless, focused only on trashing the AP History exam. The film’s complaint was that instruction on history rushed through chronological material without any meaningful depth. Shame, filmmakers. That is not a criticism of the AP History Exam but of inadequate and subpar teaching of history overall.

Incidentally, the filmmakers harped on their disdain for “rote memorization” with testing, but standardized tests don’t test students on memorized material but academic skills such as critical reading and mathematical calculations.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate gripes about testing. There’s too much of it, and using the results to determine teacher pay and to grade schools is absurd, and it is impossible to be done fairly or even legitimately.

And, frankly, many teachers don’t know how to “teach to the test” effectively. When teachers openly denounce testing in schools, like the teachers I chatted with at the film festival opening night, the complaints are that the preparation is boring and strips the lifeblood out of what could be an exciting schoolhouse experience. What this means is that teachers are drilling practice tests. Having kids take practice tests over and over and expecting improvement is like expecting to lose weight simply because you weigh yourself every day. There is a difference between instruction and assessment, and the teachers who know that difference apply astounding creativity and innovation to help their students.

Yet, not every teacher breaks down the skills into manageable steps and strategies and delivers instruction in a cogent way to a diverse group of kids who are academically all over the map yet still sitting in the same room. That demands a relentless powerhouse teacher who can handle the pushback from kids as well as parents, who can navigate schools run by political administrators who only see their jobs as keeping their jobs, who can instill confidence instead of fear to combat the alleged insurmountable stress that is destroying the self-esteem of kids (snort) and, finally, this job demands someone who is paid well. Apparently the teachers at High Tech High are willingly paid less in exchange for a more fulfilling workplace.  Enter the “teacher as martyr not professional” stereotype.

It is a lie to say that our nation’s public schools are sinking in the muck and mire of a dead curriculum, and it is a slap in the face to all of the amazing teachers who create engaging learning environments even with the tests. The tests may be too frequent, the results may be misapplied, the content may be assessing less-than-relevant skills, but to claim that they have corrupted our classrooms is a massive libel of our teaching workforce. Additionally, traditional public schools are overflowing with project-based learning and hands-on activities in all classes including music classes, drama programs, athletics, digital design classes, Science Fair, History Fair, science labs and art. High Tech High is not alone.

So, if there are so many issues with testing, why does it exist? It’s simple — the corporate influence and manipulation of public policy. How many public dollars flow into the coffers of Pearson, ETS and College Board? In fact, the money is the only issue. The United States is under the collective delusion that government is making public policy when it is merely acting as a conduit for corporate profits. And it doesn’t stop with the testing. The economy that is described by Most Likely to Succeed, the economy that is now information-based and a system that can only offer a livelihood for innovative and creative problem-solvers who attach gears to wood, is the economy which stripped the American urban centers of manufacturing employment, the economy that pays full-time workers just enough to keep them below the poverty levels and bankrupts them with astronomical health care costs and a lack of affordable housing. Sure, this global economy still needs manufacturing, but corporations have moved the factories to countries where they can pay the workers less and pollute the environment at will.

The rallying cry from the anti-testing forces is, “Let teachers teach.” Okay, teachers. So, what would you teach in the absence of the “burden” of the tests? I have yet to hear a coherent answer, and this conversation gets crazed and politically charged.  It’s a question that existed way before the influence of testing, and it will remain after its demise. But, if you’ll have kids attach gears to planks of wood and do little plays about Malala fraught with all the aforementioned problems and nothing else, I’ll take the rigor of the tests and textbooks over that.

“Fine, so I’ll opt out of testing.” When I hear this, I only think back to the face of the snarky little blonde fourth grader and note the palpable sense of entitlement and anti-intellectualism. Has the United States become A Country Made of Ice Cream where everything is easy, entertaining and on demand? Stick out your tongue and flick off “the man” even though you’re flicking off the wrong man.

No one is going to tell you what to do. You don’t have to be informed, you don’t have to have any expertise, you won’t do any reading if it is assigned, you won’t do homework, you won’t be confronted with any information that challenges or perhaps questions your value system, and you sure don’t have to be disciplined.

All this begs the question: What does have value when it comes to learning? Is it the process or the product?

If the product doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter whether it is wood with gears, a play, the SAT, a vocabulary quiz, winning the state football championship, outmaneuvering a multiple-choice test or balancing on your hands with your knees touching your elbows. What does matter is cracking the process to achieve any goal after learning the necessary informational content and then executing those steps, evaluating and strategizing all along the way.

The 2002 documentary “Spellbound” got it right. This film follows eight kids as they relentlessly prepare for the 1999 National Spelling Bee. They study for hours each day, methodically drill vocabulary words, learn etymological patterns, explore foreign languages and read, read, read.

How traditional, but is it pointless? Who needs to spell logorrhea when there is spellcheck? And who even uses the word logorrhea?

But here is what father Rajesh Kadakia said about the middle school spellers of the National Spelling Bee: “The process of going through something that complex, that hard, and you still put in energy with passion… If they can do that with everything else they take in, those very qualities will make them successful and happy in what they do.”

One thought on “A review of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary film

  1. Laurel

    Well said. Extremes of any kind are dangerous–we should know that by now. Too much testing is destroying education, but is all project based the answer? I don’t know of any public school that doesn’t do projects and, yes, they are displayed at Science Night, Family Night, etc., etc.

    Moveover, my public highschool is taught near a charter project based school similar to the one in the article. And, many of the brightest are leaving back to the public school, realizing they were not getting the preparation required by the colleges. I remember helping one of there bright girls with her college essay. The most significant event she had to write about was making the poster for team project. Yep, and as my own daughter would complain about group projects in her public shool–that in a group of 6 she would do 5/6s of the work and the others 1/6th of so. Perhaps that is the real world: some will lead and succeed in high paying jobs’, while others will just follow. She went on to Berkeley and is now making a strong salary with a start-up. Sadly the group slackers haven’t faired so well. What lesson are we teaching them?

    Reply

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