School Wars: A New Hope

“What is the purpose of school?” I asked a gallery full of concerned citizens. It was an honor to moderate a frank community discussion after viewing the film, “Most Likely to Succeed”. This was a premiere showing in the Bay Area, initiated and paid for by Marianne Kearney-Brown of  Whatever It Takes (WIT) Academy, who brought this film to my hometown of Vallejo, CA. We were all there for the same reason that night. The school system in this country as we know it has been broken and is failing our greatest asset, our children.

The film was enlightening as it broke down and simplified the history of how U.S. public education came to be what it is today, still based on a 124 year old premise. Other interesting research and commentary in the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed” by Greg Whiteley, shared startling facts about how machines have not only claimed many blue collar jobs over the years, but ever since 1996 when a computer named Deep Blue beat world reigning chess master Garry Kasparov white collar jobs that once guaranteed gainful employment to the middle class will continue to be siphoned by rapidly evolving technologies. The objective of the film calls for radical change. There was a time in this country when a college degree guaranteed employment, that is now history. The model of study hard for steady work and a paycheck is no more.  “…within ten years time, we will have a population of over 50 million chronically unemployed young Americans.”  The film was bankrolled by American venture capitalist  and philanthropist Ted Dintersmith who has made his money by investing in software start-ups since 1996. He feels the school system as we know it has failed and he calls for radical reform. So, how do we prepare our kids for the future? Dintersmith and the film advocate for project based learning in the form of charter schooling as we follow a ninth grade class at High Tech High in San Diego, CA for most of the documentary. Teachers at this particular school don’t just dole out directives at their students all day, they simply act as guides. Each student within their grade level is assigned a team to work with and class project to be completed and presented by the end of the year. The goal is to prepare them for the “real world” while learning the common core standards along the way by being immersed with hands on doing and working collectively and collaboratively as a team.

A culture of grades, grades, points, and scores. “Teaching to the test” is a reality most of us are aware of by now. How do we define success? During the discussion some expressed the importance of a college education in order to succeed in life. In the film they go to a traditional high school and a math teacher asks a group of advanced math students if they would rather be prepared to do well in life, or get into a good college. He was shocked that without much thought most immediately stated that getting into a good college is what mattered most.

When I got up to the mic to speak after the film I implored the audience to raise their hand if they were a parent. I then inquired any educators to raise their hand. Most arms were up in the air. A man looked at me and then looked around and exclaimed, “Anyone who is a parent is an educator. It begins at home.” It was great, the discussion took off from there, I didn’t stick too rigidly to Q&A sheet we were given, it became organic, real. I shared a bit of my experience in Vallejo public and private schools and my quick jaunt junior year of high school when I had the opportunity to attended New Technology High School in Napa, CA. New Tech High in Napa was very similar to the high school showcased in “Most Likely to Succeed.” I stated my claim in favor of project based learning. Personally, I learn heuristically and thrive in a hands on cultivated atmosphere. New Tech High defiantly prepared me for what lies beyond academia. Enriched with computer skills, dynamic presentation know-how, and team building readiness; that year and half prepared me to survive beyond high school.  

We found immediate common ground. We all agreed that transformation  will come from grass roots efforts, building consensus to empower a culture of change in order to address the needs and desires for our kids. A renewed culture that chooses critical thinking and team work over the current tradition of test scores and grades based on rote memorizations of facts and figures.

So, what is the purpose of school? Nobody spoke when I asked, no one knew. You cannot set or achieve goals without purpose. A cultural shift needs to take place for reform to happen. Hope is out there and change is happening. “Most Likely to Succeed” set out to inspire and empower communities across the country for change. There is hope too in the form of passionate individuals. Hope in people like Marianne Kearney-Brown who’s after school program, WIT Academy’s goal and mission is to prepare students to succeed in math classes in high school and have each student think logically and independently while being able to possess the understanding and confidence to succeed in high school and beyond. Be the change you want to see.
WIT Academy Website:
“Most Likely to Succeed” Website: