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'Most Likely to Succeed' Leads Education Documentaries at AFI Festival

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When I first heard about the education documentary "Most Likely to Succeed," I was intrigued by a few lines in the film's promotional materials.

The film "examines the history of education in the United States, revealing the growing shortcomings of conventional education methods in today's innovative world," the press release states. That is a bit grandiose, which is hardly rare and not considered a serious offense in the world of film promotion.

While there is an interesting section in the film about the 1892 Committee of Ten and the organization of the modern U.S. high school, the film is by no means about the history or development of the broad swath of education in this country. It is primarily about an innovative school in San Diego called High Tech High.

But I can point to other language in "Most Likely to Succeed"'s promotional materials that is more on the mark.

"The film explores compelling new approaches that aim to revolutionize teaching as we know it," the press release continues. "After seeing this film, the way you think about 'school' will never be the same."

So, here is how I will put it: "Most Likely to Succeed" is one of the better education documentaries I have seen in quite a while because of the historical and modern perspectives it provides about high school; because it showcases a pretty interesting school; and ultimately because the filmmakers show some modesty by acknowledging that an innovative school like High Tech High may not be the proverbial "silver bullet" for everywhere else.

"Most Likely to Succeed" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and this week is one of the top education documentaries being shown at the American Film Institute's AFI DOCS festival in Washington and Silver Spring, Md.

Other education films from the AFI DOCS festival I plan to review in coming days include "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap," about efforts to get more girls interested in computer science; "First and 17," about a top high school football prospect and the challenges faced by him and his team; and "How to Dance in Ohio," about high-functioning teenagers with autism who prepare for a formal dance.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

Early in "Most Likely to Succeed," longtime "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings describes going up against IBM's Watson supercomputer on a special week of the game show a few years ago. Watson defeated Jennings and other past "Jeopardy!" champions.

"I felt like an 80s Detroit autoworker," says Jennings. In other words, obsolete. The film goes on to discuss the growing role of robotics and thinking computers in the economy, a subject of interest to Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist who is the executive producer of the film.

"There's no ambiguity that the skills needed going forward are going to be dramatically different" than the skills being taught in most U.S. high schools, Dintersmith said in interview. "Our school model today is explicitly designed to get rid of creativity in students."

Dintersmith sought out Greg Whiteley, the director of such documentaries as "Resolved," about high school debate," and "Mitt," about Mitt Romney, to make a film about the innovation needed at the high school level.

Whiteley said in an interview that his team visited some 20 schools and filmed at six or seven of them before deciding to focus on High Tech High.

"It was so different from any other school you have seen," he said.

High Tech High, which was launched in 2000, started as one charter school but is now really a network of several charter schools. The model disposes of traditional school periods and bells and seeks to promote grit and confidence among students. (Education Week visited in 2005 and again in 2007.) 

"Most Likely to Succeed" intersperses scenes from the San Diego school with interviews with such notable thinkers as Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and Salman Kahn, the founder of the online Khan Academy.

And then there is that history lesson: The film describes how the Committee of Ten, made up mostly of college presidents, issued a report calling for a standardized high school curriculum along the lines of a strong liberal arts education. 

Khan and others question educational priorities that were set so long ago. (Although the film doesn't take account of the fact that the Committee of Ten's recommendation that students of every ability and goal receive the same education was trumped by a 1918 blue-ribbon panel that set secondary schools on a course toward different tracks for college prep and vocational curricula.)

At High Tech High, we meet a mother nervous that her daughter will not be learning much from traditional textbooks. There is a production of Euripedes' "Trojan Women" adapted to a backdrop of modern-day Pakistan, which is critical to building the confidence of one freshman. And there is a big project involving teams of students building a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption. One student has to deal with consequences of his part of the contraption not working right.

One point that Whitely makes as narrator of the film stuck out. Despite High Tech High's above-average success rate on achievement tests and its 98 percent college acceptance rate, he acknowledges that the school is too new, and its sample size too small, to know for sure whether it represents a new model of education for the whole country.

"I think the strategy of the movie is that rather than provide some prescription that this is going to solve all of our troubles, this is an essay" about one approach, Whitely said in the interview.

That's a refreshing outlook, even if it's not the kind of observation that would excite a film publicist.

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