Fourth-grader Scout is struggling to keep her composure during a parent-teacher conference as the teacher expounds upon the character-building aspects of having failed a math quiz. She fixes her tearful gaze in the distance. "I know that face," says her father, filmmaker Greg Whiteley. "That face is saying, 'This is bullshit. This whole thing called school is bullshit.'"
Whiteley's latest documentary, "Most Likely to Succeed," delivers a message Americans need to hear, and desperately: our schools are failing our children, leaving them unable to think critically and contribute to an innovation economy.
The educational system is broken. Or at least outmoded, says Larry Rosenstock, founding principal and CEO of High Tech High, a network of schools upending the current framework in California. "We have a system that was created over 100 years ago and everyone has a mental model that says that's the way it has to be," he told The Huffington Post.
For too long, the primary focus of education has been the acquisition of knowledge, explains Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab. "The whole idea is: [if] you know more stuff, you're going to be better off, for whatever sets of reasons. And the only way to get it is through the teacher," he says in the film. "You don't have to do that anymore. Today, content is ubiquitous, it's free, it's on every Internet-connected device, and it's growing exponentially and changing constantly."
High Tech High's methods eschew the traditional instruction of what educators call "content knowledge" -- equations, dates, facts. Instead, the schools strive to foster creative problem-solving with a multidisciplinary curriculum. In lieu of tests, students present collaborative projects that require artistic vision, mathematical prowess and historical understanding. As in life, failure is not a letter grade.
But success is what most students find. Boasting a 98 percent college-matriculation rate among graduates, High Tech High warrants a closer look, and Whiteley's documentary devotes a full year to examining the project.
"The film derives its strength from Greg [Whiteley], a caring father who starts on this thinking we should have more testing and longer school days, and he makes the same path and the same journey as he wants our audience to take, " says executive producer Ted Dintersmith. "I spent 25 years in venture capitalism, and I could see a few things very clearly: one is how quickly routine jobs are going to be replaced by automated solutions."
Stressing the urgency of changing the education system amid America's lousy job market, he added: "The only surviving skills that will save young kids are creative and innovative. As the current school system is now, for 12 of 16 years, you're not in an environment that brings that out of them."
Rosenstock strives to uncover educators who connect student work to the practical world. Mark Aguirre, a humanities teacher at High Tech High since 2001, is a prime example of the type of educator Rosenstock seeks out. "You've been trained to raise your hands," Aguirre tells his students in the film. Out of character for most ninth-grade teachers, Aguirre employs Socratic seminars, instructing his students to imagine a classroom without his presence: "You need to talk to each other and get used to that instead of always looking at me."
As often as parents and students embrace Rosenstock's model, others communicate uncertainty, particularly as High Tech High's unconventional approach relates to teaching math skills.
"We're not for everyone, and parental anxiety about math is most common," said Rosenstock. "Parents think, 'If my kid's good at math, they're smart; if my kid is bad at math, they're not.' We know that's not true. Anxiety about a child's math ability slips off around ninth or tenth grade, when the level of math that the child is doing is still what the parent can handle. After that, it's no longer math that they can do themselves because they don't use it because they don't need it." By focusing on application, High Tech High dispenses with rote memorization.
During our conversation, Rosenstock stepped into the hall at High Tech High to read aloud from a prominent banner scrawled with Campbell's law: "The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
"Most Likely to Succeed" implores viewers to consider the human consequences of education. "The question is," said Rosenstock, "who do you want your child to be?"
"Most Likely to Succeed" is featured at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.