Most Likely to Succeed is a documentary about students at High Tech High, a school in San Diego that strives to make students prepared to get jobs in the future. The filmmakers talk about how the current school system is still preparing students for a job market that no longer exists: one where a college degree nearly guarantees a job. High Tech High does not use textbooks or the usual subjects. Instead of preparing students for exams, students design a major project that is showcased at a gallery event. The kinds of projects ranged from putting on adaptation of a classic play with an all female cast, to creating a wall of cogs.
High tech High also puts a focus on “soft skills” such as self-confidence and communication skills. The female student who was chosen to direct the all-female play was shown to grow much more confident in her abilities through the film. At the beginning her teachers described her as someone who was very engaged in her classes but was quite shy, and at the end she was shown to be a leader for the other students. Another student missed the gallery walk because his project was not done on time, and he was shown working through the summer to complete it. By the time it was done it was a very impressive series of pre-programmed cogs, and told a story of history.
The documentary opens with Greg Whitely’s daughter crying in a parent-teacher conference with her mother and 4th grade teacher. The teacher told her that if she applied herself in school she would do well on tests and succeed in getting a good job. The scene was intentionally uncomfortable to watch, and it was effective in setting up the film’s portrayal of the conventional school system’s shortcomings. The teacher comes off as uncaring and inflexible. In contrast, the teachers at High Tech High are shown to be guiding the student’s ideas, encouraging open debate and teaching their own passions instead of typical high school subjects.
Currently in the US (and Canada, although the documentary was focused on the US) young people are graduating from University and are unable to get employment in their fields. Whitely blames the lack of jobs for graduates on computers taking over jobs that were previously filled by people. He mentions store check-outs and factories — jobs that never required a university education. In my experience, university graduates end up working jobs that they are over qualified for (such as retail or other close to minimum wage positions). So, the premise of Most Likely to Succeed did not fit with my own perception of the problem.
Most Likely to Succeed presents High Tech High and other alternative schools as a solution. However, this school simply replaced tests with an equally high-pressure form of assessment — the gallery walk. It also hired teachers on one-year contracts, meaning less job security (something it’s teaching its students to want in their own future employment). In addition, while High Tech High is able to offer an alternative form of education, it’s students are ultimately trying to get into a traditional college or university, which is where they will be qualified for their chosen field. This left me wondering if high school is even the right place to start this change.