“Most Likely To Succeed”

I thought this video recently presented for the public at Oak Bay High School,  was going to be about the entrepreneurial mindset and education.  Not exactly.

But it was about expecting students to graduate from high school (in this case, one of the  High Tech High charter school franchises)  prepared for the Uber / Trump entrepreneurial life of unrelenting competition in which “creativity” counts for more than knowledge, and “boredom” ( a student asked to define what that is, could not) is not to be tolerated.

High Tech High hires teachers after stints with  Teach For America, or with no teaching  credentials at all, on  yearly contracts as long as their “passion” rating  satisfies whoever the evaluator is when contracts come up for renewal.

The featured school is the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in San Diego.

Faced with a shortage of workers for the locally strong high tech and biotech industries, the group wondered why the local school system was not better able to produce more qualified workers. 

Which demands (not “begs the question” ) that we, as public education champions,  examine  the purpose of public education. Is it to turn out workers, coders and LNG pipefitters being the BC government’s current “passion”?  This film discredits the so-called “factory model” which will “turn out compliant workers who can read”. But turning out workers for high tech  industries is the exact purpose Gary and Jerri-Ann   and forty others referred in developing  developing this school – apparently, workers who can cope with constant noise, chaotic environments and demands, unrelenting competition, and precarious employment. It’s not called “High Tech High” because it’s awash in tech. It’s because its purpose is to turn out workers for the high tech industry. 

The High Tech High approach also  justifies itself by using such predictions as “McKinsey predicts by 2020 40-60 percent of skilled labor will be contract/contingency based”. Is that acceptable? It is unionization that built the middle class, not contract labour afraid to be supplanted if they don’t work 20 hour days for the lowest wage an employer can get away with.

Tom Vander Ark   (“education adviser and advocate” at HTH) in his blog “Education Week” says:

With stubbornly high levels of young adult unemployment and underemployment, the film explores the broken bargain that diplomas equal employability. Greg outlines the core premise, “Enduring school to get a job may not be true anymore.” (Tom gives a sort of grudging admission that liberal arts need to be given some space  somewhere, in this post

For supporters of public education, Tom is interesting on his own:

After years spent directing the distribution of more than $1 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into hundreds of schools across the nation, Tom Vander Ark set his sights on the New York area, with a plan to create a network of charter schools of his own…. But after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.

“Greg” is Greg Whitely, from Provo, Utah, educated at Brigham Young University, from the “our schools are broken” camp, director.

This “documentary” was funded by billionaire venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith,   partner emeritus with Charles River Ventures, a venture capital firm. He has a PhD in engineering (Stanford). In  2012, Dintersmith was appointed by US President Obama as an alternate representative of the United States to the Sixty-seventh Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where Dintersmith focused on global education and  entrepreneurship. 

He discussed his vision in a book he co-authored, titled, “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age,” and he funded and produced a compelling documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed,” which goes into a California school, High Tech High in San Diego, where the project-based educational future he wants to see is already here. You could call it the antithesis of “Waiting for Superman,” the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary which presented an often misleading account of public education and how to improve it.In fact, Dintersmith said, “Waiting for Superman” inspired him to do something very different.

[Diane Ravitch on WFS here.] Dintersmith does say “Business people need to understand that not all phenomena in life conform to the free-market model.” (I imagine he might add, “sadly”.)

The film opens by setting up the often used straw man, a favourite of US school reformers: “Our school system (US) was designed in 1893” voiceover comment is accompanied by still black and while photos of kids from c. 1900, along with statements that imply – or outright state – that students now are learning in exactly the same way becasue teachers re teaching in exactly the same way.

That’s outrageous.

I spent a long time in school, and I liked most of it. (I’m still there, sort of, as an elected  public education Board of Education trustee.)  Along the way I met many excellent teachers, in my own studies, and while teaching. I  met a few who were less than inspiring. That’s humanity. Not all of us are awesome at what we do.  Still, I came away from this “documentary” feeling as though every hardworking public school teacher I’ve known had been insulted, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Yes, it was also about Project Based Learning, not a new idea, but one that has come around again, and has a lot going for it – some students are obviously engaged by  this approach. But to view this film as being “about” PBL is to miss the important and consciously selected context that brings up  questions about content in schooling, the purpose of education, the future  of work, social justice and worker protection, and more.

Regardless of disclaimers, this film glorifies free market capitalism – which has led to the hollowing  out of the middle class via the race to the bottom even though Salman Khan says it’s not about China, and America has to win.

Win what?

High Tech High students come away from their school  year(s) with 40%-60% less content knowledge than peers in “regular” schools. Does content matter?

Fundamentally,High tech High seems to be  based in many instances on promising students that everything they do and every idea they have is “creative”, that they are destined for a life in which what they want to do in the moment is primary every minute of the day,  and that if they are bored, it’s someone’s fault and that needs to change right away. ( I’m not extolling boredom, but…… )

A study guide (below) was provided for post-film discussion. The discussion was whatever evolved post-film in random small groups, or 1:1, in the foyer of Oak Bay High School.

Worth considering in the discussion: David Brooks in the New York Times:

Most Likely to Succeed” is inspiring because it reminds us that the new technology demands new schools. But somehow relational skills have to be taught alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.


Most Likely








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