NAIS Report: Frozen Out in Boston

Well, I won’t mince words: NAIS blew it. When offered the chance to have a “Design the Revolution” conference-sponsored showing of Most Likely to Succeed, the new documentary on innovative responses to the present and future education design landscape, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) gave the offer a quick sniff and turned the opportunity down. And that’s a shame. Sure, the conference was over a year in planning and shifting the program around to accommodate the film would have been daunting; I mean—good lord!—the programs were already printed. But shouldn’t NAIS model good teaching and adaptability? And really, doesn’t every good teacher seize special moments, change the plan, and invigorate the educational environment when opportunity knocks?

Fresh off a spectacular premier at the prestigious Sundance Film FestivalMost Likely to Succeed would have been a perfect conference buzz booster, particularly since Arctic-shrouded Boston offered little respite from the dark winter most of the attendees had faced. We all needed something other than the usual swirl of pre-alcoholic networking. But the NAIS bureaucracy seems wedded to the traditional conference menu of talking heads. Prestige and important people were everywhere. There were college presidents, professors, trendyauthors, and go-getters who marched on stage, stood behind podiums, or sat in clubby arm chairs, and do what such speakers do: talked a lot, telling stories, giving insights and such. And some were good and worthwhile (Neri Oxman, John Maeda and Paul LeBlanc in particular), and some not so much; but none offered the impact and edifying experience that Most Likely to Succeed would have. So, the NAIS bureaucracy moves forward, and the program for next February’s San Francisco conference is probably headed for the printers even as I write this.

Enough of that. I would point out that indeed there was light and truth in Boston, even if it was off-site (and sight) from the conference. On the Wednesday evening of the conference, more than 200 independent and public school educators braved the bitter cold, navigating Boston’s six-foot high snow piles to converge on the nearby Loew’s theater complex. This night was one of the first screenings of Most Likely to Succeed since the film departed Utah and before it begins a second round of regional film festivals and targeted viewings through the rest of the year.

The heart of the film focused on a year of ninth grade education at San Diego’s High Tech High, but this part underscored the first third of the film: our time-honored and traditional approach to primary and secondary education has to change. Starting with a poignant portrayal of a bright 4th grade girl (the filmmaker’s, Greg Whiteley’s daughter) losing her interest in learning to the point that she hated school, we are given a strong and specific example of the failings of the current educational model: teacher as authority and content supplier. Standing in front of long rows of the standard chair-desk layout, the girl’s teacher holds up a thick math book and proclaims its virtues as if it were a sacred text with the teacher as high priestess. From there, using a variety of experts from many fields, Most Likely to Succeed first explains and shows why we have the education and schools that we do; then presents compelling facts, statistics, and predictions that the current model is failing and needs a new direction—even if there is disruption in going there.

In fact, dealing with disrupting experiences, with failure and confusion, is the new normal in the Most Likely to Succeed world. At High Tech High, teachers may set students to a task, but do not themselves stand in front of the class or enter the process; students in this school are owners of their learning and builders of their own skills. Even if the teacher gives them a map, the student must not only follow it on his or her own, but also master the tools to do so. So we watch as boys and girls bring together humanities and technology by creating plays and complicated models with all the attendant details. As students build, collaborate, rehearse, and push toward deadlines, some of their parents worry that abandoning the traditional tasks and evaluation tools of homework, tests, quizzes, will leave their children vulnerable to the realities of our test-and-score driven society. The film even visits a Colorado high school where students reluctantly endorse the AP testing system they don’t like because they admit to being focused on the short-term goal of college admission. Yet High Tech High students do well on standardized tests and almost 100 percent go to college.

The 87-minute movie ended to appreciative applause and a lively question-and-answer session with Most Likely to Succeed’s Executive Producer Ted Dintersmith, and education advisor Tony Wagner, Harvard professor Eric Mazur, and GLP founder Stephanie Rogen (who served as educational consultant to the movie). Mazur in particular discussed his own challenges trying to change the standardized testing status quo. Still, the key question was asked: where can you get enough principals and teachers to run amazing schools like High Tech High? And the answer must be the creation of schools as exciting and purposeful to teach in as they are to learn in.

Back at NAIS, the seminars, hour workshops, and general sessions continued, and on the last morning there was a general session with an audience of over 5,000 educators. To be sure, many of these sessions/workshops were thoughtfully conceived and artfully presented, and as usual the discussions and networking afterwards was worthwhile. However, Friday’s main event was a college president panel discussion—though it was really a series of individual statements—presumably on the advertised topic: the future of higher education. In general, it felt in part like listening to some school trustees handwringing about issues like sustainability coupled with a college admission night for junior parents. However, one speaker, Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, sounded a note that would have fit right in with Most Likely to Succeed: higher education, he proclaimed, is broken. From there, President LeBlanc went on to enumerate and flesh out, with facts and statistics, both the problems and the potential solutions being pursued to turn around the declining state of American higher education. His analysis and vision (“We are seeing the uncoupling of higher education with a person’s coming-of-age.”) invigorated the panel and provided a healthy splash of cold water to the lofty language so often heard when educators offer opinions.

In a similar vein, what Most Likely to Succeed offers is neither vague nor soaring, but specific and real. In the months and years ahead, this film will continue to offer to the thousands of new viewers a clear, attainable vision of a successful education model. And that is hopeful stuff.