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Aurora Institute

Most Likely to Succeed is Almost a Great Film

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity, Learn Lessons from the Field

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Class in language” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.

I had the chance to watch the film Most Likely to Succeed recently. It is a fantastic film in so many ways and is going to be so helpful in our efforts to engage parents and students…in some communities. It is also a deeply disturbing film in its white-washing of history, raising questions about the purpose of the filmmakers.

No matter what, the film is a great way to engage communities, parents, and students in conversations about personalization, the purpose of education, traditional grading practices, and how college admissions processes shape our high schools (there is a great scene where a student says they would rather learn how to ace a test than learn). It will be invaluable in engaging parents and students who are successful in the traditional system (i.e., that group of students who are highly motivated by adding another tenth of a point to their GPA).

The film challenges the design of the traditional education system in today’s information-over-loaded world and makes the case that in today’s rapidly changing digital economy, many of the jobs college-educated young adults might seek are disappearing. It argues that those so-called soft skills of problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration are what is needed. It does a beautiful job at explaining the development of the education system from Horace Mann’s trip to Prussia and the roots of militarism of our school system, which resulted in organizing schools by age, subject, and ability. It also explains how the Committee of Ten created the way we organize academic subjects one hundred years ago that still remains today.

Focusing in on two students at High Tech High, it then explores how robust project-based learning helps develop those important skills — leadership, analysis, creativity, time management/professional responsibility and collaboration. The juxtaposition of the filmmaker’s daugher being asked to persevere through math classes when she doesn’t understand the content and isn’t receiving adequate support and that of helping a student whose vision is larger than his skills persevere through months of working to complete a project is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!

My only concern with the educational message of the film is that it confuses fact with knowledge, thus under-valuing deep knowledge of the disciplines. Yes, more facts than we can possibly absorb are at our fingertips in the digital age, but understanding and being able to use mathematical and scientific concepts are equally important to any soft skills. If you use the film to engage your community I’d be prepared to have someone with high levels of credibility be able to speak to this issue so folks don’t walk away thinking that students don’t need to develop academic knowledge.

My big concern with the film is its shocking whiteness. In telling the story of the traditional education system, the filmmakers used historical clips of students in schools, people at work in fields and in factories, and an “average” family in the 1960s – all with white people. It feels almost tribal in its approach, as if the filmmakers can’t see any world other than a Caucasian one. All the experts interviewed are white, as well. They do a bit better later on in the film when it is based in High Tech High, but by that time I had started wondering: Is this film really just for white people and what they need to do in order to maintain their economic advantage?

I do think all communities should see this film, but I would advise apologizing upfront for the limited understanding of America demonstrated by the filmmakers so people can stay focused on the educational message of the film. I would also be prepared to have the conversation focus as much on race and race relations as well as what we want for our children and the types of schools that will help develop a much broader range of skills. One thing you might be able to do is focus the conversation on the types of skills that are needed to engage and prepare Native American, African-American, and Hispanic students, given patterns of institutional racism and discrimination. These conversations can include such topics as cultural competency, bridging different cultures and code-switching, political and community organizing, and the importance of having the leadership skills to lead a multi-racial, multi-cultural country. Just think about it – bilingualism would actually give some students a competitive advantage while also valuing the heritage and culture of families. As you might expect, none of these skills are mentioned in the film.

I also encourage the filmmakers to make some changes to the film before they invest any more time in their campaign to get it into communities. The simplest revision is to add a few clips of Native American children, African-American children, and Hispanic children sitting in rows of chairs and perhaps find some pictures of African-Americans in factories or better yet, find some pictures with diversity of workers. I would then insert two interviews. Pedro Noguera could certainly speak to the themes in the movie, as he has been a long-time advocate for developing higher level skills and could describe how children of color are so often taught at the lower level skills (remember tracking!). Van Jones could enhance the film by explaining how the compliance culture of the traditional system is related to our policy of mass incarceration, highlighting how boys of color are often suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates, often for behaviors that challenge the culture of the schools.

Even if the filmmakers make no revisions, I really do think it is an important film for everyone to watch – even if you want to throw up the whole time at this distorted sense of America – because the message is important. The world is changing and our schools need to change with it.

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