Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to screen one of a number of documentaries about U.S. education that have been produced within the last ten to fifteen years. This one, like those that have come both before and after it [see: Race to Nowhere (2010), Beyond Measure (2015), Waiting for Superman (2010), etc.], railed against the current state of education in the United States, made several compelling arguments about why our educational system must be reformed, and offered examples of classrooms where students are not being taught “to the test,” but instead are being taught to cultivate their curiosities, to think critically, and to create and/or innovate under the gentle guidance of their teachers.
I take no issue with the conclusions that have been drawn by the makers of this particular documentary (Most Likely to Succeed). As an educator with more than fifteen years’ experience, I too believe that U.S. schools have, for far too long, been foolishly hyper-focused on content versus on students; on products versus process; and on achievement versus learning. That is not to say that these concepts are mutually exclusive of one another (except, perhaps, for achievement versus learning), but I think most of us who work directly with teachers and students on a regular basis can agree that if we hope to nurture a future citizenry that is engaged, creative, compassionate, and capable, then we ought to be focusing much less on content, products, and achievement and much, much more on students, on process, and on learning.
However, I do take issue with how Most Likely to Succeed and its celluloid cousins frame their proposed “solutions” to our over-measured, over-tested, and under-nurtured educational system and its effect on students (and by extension, our future). In almost every one of these films, there is an overabundance of talking heads–the majority of them male, despite the fact that the U.S. public teaching force has always been overwhelmingly female– telling the audience that we must help prepare our students for the “future,” the “real world”–that we must help them find things that they are “passionate about” and “engaged in” and use these as the basis for “projects” or “inquiries” that will ultimately lead to deeper learning, greater joy, and ultimately, a better, more authentic learning experience.
As I said–I, too, believe this. In fact, I work as a literacy specialist in one of the few public schools in this country that lives and breathes this kind of philosophy daily. In my K-6 school, students are encouraged to ask questions, to take “healthy risks” in their learning, to wonder, to notice. Their “noticings” and their “wonders” are used to develop curriculum, and their engagement in the work that they do–and their willingness to persevere in and reflect on this work–are proof of this. As our principal, Kate Lucas, has noted, our students act almost as though they believe that their brains are “unstoppable”–that they can learn, be or do anything.
The students in these documentaries seem to believe this about themselves, too–at least, they do by the time the credits start to roll. But in the vast majority of cases, these students–and the schools and classrooms in which they learn–are not “typical” students. Their schools are not “typical” schools. In the vast majority of these films, the shining examples of schools that are shifting the educational paradigm, are flipping our educational system on its head, are decidedly atypical. In Most Likely to Succeed, for instance, the focus of the film is almost exclusively on High Tech High, a California public charter school that looks like something out of Silicon Valley (close enough, I suppose). In Race to Nowhere, it’s on Blue School (a NYC private school) and Venture School (an independent study school). In Waiting for Superman, it’s on a variety of charter schools, most notoriously the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy.
As someone who works in a public school–not a public charter, not an “independent” public school, but a public school–I know first-hand that we can be the change that we want to see in our U.S. schools. I know that we can subvert policies that were not made with educators or students in mind. I know that we can work hard and long and tirelessly to transform our educational environment to make it more authentic, more meaningful, and more joyful. So why are public schools like mine almost never featured in these films?
What happens when we focus on schools like High Tech High, and Blue School and the like–all seemingly incredible schools, but again, atypical–is that the audience is given license to sigh, wipe the few tears that have fallen from their eyes, and, as the theater’s lights come up, say, “Well, that’s all well and good for them, but it definitely won’t work for us.”
If we want the public perception of American education to shift–if we want teachers and administrators and parents and students to truly believe that the seismic shift that we need to happen can happen–then we need filmmakers to be willing to tell the messy stories of public schools that are currently making it happen. That are accountable to their local Boards, their communities, their families, their students, their states, and the nation at large. That hold no lotteries, place no caps on student enrollment. That do the best they can with taxpayer money (and a smidgen of out-of-the-box thinking). For whom there are truly–to use a sullied phrase–“no excuses.” These are the stories that need to be told. Because while these are the schools that are often deemed the “least likely” to succeed by education reformers, they are also the ones that, in my view, are most likely to sustain.