Public Education Past and Future Explored in Most Likely to Succeed

For parents planning their children’s future, the school search and encouragement of academic engagement can be a daunting task. Many leave their children’s formal education in the hands of an institution for years, in hopes that skill development or content memorization will translate to a better life down the road. In the 20th century, standardized public education was reliable in setting up students for the job market after college. Now, a college degree is no longer a guarantee of employment.

This concern plaguing parents of today is reflected by filmmaker Greg Whitley in his documentary, Most Likely to Succeed. The film opens with a scene of his fourth-grade daughter in a stressful parent-teacher conference as they discuss her declining classroom attention.

Whitley’s documentary explores why the change in the school-to-career path has taken place, documenting possible solutions in an emotionally engaging narrative. The film stays away from political arguments around education reform, rather showing historical trends and the effects of technology to our economic market in arguing for a systemic evolution.

Around the late 90s, while the median income rose but job availability declined, fewer people were required for certain positions as automation took hold. One of the film’s premises is that technological evolution throughout the 20th century into the late nineties played a role in this shift as quicker and smarter computers replaced reliable middle class jobs. However, the U.S. public school system has remained mostly stagnant since the late nineteenth century through these drastic economic, job market, and technological changes.

The film briefly summarizes U.S. education history, including Horace Mann’s Prussian education reform and The Committee of Ten, significant moments in reform that fueled the early industrial revolution.

Although interviews with experts and discussions about theory are included and informative, what separates this documentary is the up-close narrative of a semester at High Tech High, a San Diego public charter school system founded by Larry Rosenstock in 2000 that enrolls students through a lottery system. The system structures its curriculum around building skills like collaboration, confidence, and creative adaptability, with mixed-topic student-driven projects and broad-subject seminars that reflect the skills required for more creative human-driven industries. According to the film, this methodology gives students more responsibility and guidance in helping them to shape their own learning rather than a more strict memorized curriculum that you might see in an AP history course.

Whitley films a collaborative history and mechanics course as student groups create a general theory of why civilizations rise and fall while representing that in a mechanical diagram piece to be exhibited at the end of the term (pictured above). Teachers are given freedom to create their own curriculum under short-term contracts while guiding students on how to approach their own projects, shifting away from the more traditional model of heavy content memorization in specific topics.

The sample size for High Tech High schools is simply too small at this point, so there are few statistics on how these new programs prepare students for a more successful college or professional life down the road. This is echoed in the film by some parents hesitant to enroll their kids in experimental programs when the traditional education system has proven its reliability as a national standard. However, some students profiled reflect the potential success with this type of K-12 learning.

The film’s access to respected experts, students, and their personal lives creates an inspiring and informed argument for national reform. It doesn’t simply provide black and white answers, but documents people who are taking action and asking the right questions about the future of education.

Upcoming showings and information can be found on the film’s website.

Nate Leese

Nate Leese

Nate Leese is an Emerson College senior journalism student focusing on long term photography projects and visual media. Growing up a third culture kid he enjoys learning about relationships between cultures during times of change.