There is growing consensus that our system of education is deeply troubled.
We focus too much on standardized tests. Rote memorization is prioritized over deep thinking, creativity and individual expression. Students too easily become anxious, bored or disengaged. Drop-out rates in high school and college remain distressingly high.
Much of what we’re doing simply isn’t working. Students know it. So do parents, teachers and administrators.
But what to do about it?
That is the question that the new film by Vicki Abeles of “Race to Nowhere” fame seeks to answer, at least in part.
The documentary “Beyond Measure: What Counts Can’t Be Counted” tells the story of some school administrators, educators and students from across the country who have taken on the challenge of creating new models of education. They have abandoned the archaic style of students sitting at desks while teachers lecture, in favor of more open, project-based, collaborative, multi-disciplinary styles of learning.
Let me just note here that when I first wrote about “Race to Nowhere” more than five years ago, I didn’t give it a wholehearted endorsement. I thought it was thought-provoking and on point with its depiction of stressed-out, sleep-deprived students robbed of meaningful education by our “drill-and-kill” and “teach-to-the-test” orthodoxy. Yet I also found the documentary to be a little unfocused and too reliant on emotional anecdotes about how schools were damaging our kids’ souls.
This time around I believe that Abeles has nailed it. “Beyond Measure” is must-see viewing for anyone who cares about education.
Abeles, a former Wall Street lawyer and mother of three, along with her collaborators on “Beyond Measure,” have given us not just a picture of how education can be done differently and more effectively, but also offers ideas about how it’s possible to get there from here. The change requires courage, commitment, hard work and perseverance, but this film shows us that progress can be achieved.
I’m not too proud to admit that I teared up at some of the heartfelt stories in the film: The Massachusetts teenager who had considered dropping out, but later wrote a book and earned a merit scholarship for college, thanks to his participation in an experimental “school within a school.” A group of brave Seattle educators who risked their careers by boycotting an unpopular standardized test. A San Diego charter school that eschewed a traditional structure, opting for a freer, student-led approach that now serves as a model for others.
The film is peppered with personal stories about students who struggled in a conventional school setting, such as a girl who wanted to be the first in her family to go to college but by eighth grade had stopped caring about school. It also includes remarks from teachers and educational experts, such as noted author and speaker Sir Kenneth Robinson, about the urgent need for reform.
By making education one-size-fits-all, “we’ve pathologized differences” among students and learning styles, Robinson argues.
All the schools profiled in the film have had different trajectories, but there are distinct commonalities. They have all chosen to break down classroom walls, transforming their campuses into open-learning environments, where teachers act more as coaches and facilitators than lecturers. The focus is less on testing and more on giving students difficult, multi-disciplinary tasks and projects, and encouraging kids to find answers to problems on their own. Homework is downplayed. Failure isn’t penalized, but viewed as a means to learn and revise.
To be sure, many of these ideas aren’t new. Indeed, I’ve been hearing about such concepts for years, decades even. The difference is that the educators profiled in the film have actually embraced a vision, gone all in, and stuck with it.
Some of those who have championed such radical change freely admit that the transformation hasn’t always been problem-free. There have been missteps, confusion and frustration among teachers and students alike as new models of education are adopted. But they’ve learned and made adjustments along the way and have experienced positive results such as higher graduation rates, test scores and college completion.
As I watched the film and learned about these schools that are turning students from passive receptors of information into active participants in their own education, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up again. I wished that my sons, the youngest now a senior in college, had been fortunate enough to be involved in such innovative programs when they were younger. I felt certain that they would have thrived in such environments.
But we can certainly do better for the students of today and tomorrow, and “Beyond Measure” offers a hopeful place to start. The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Regency Directors Cut Cinema in Rancho Niguel. Abeles will be there to answer questions afterward. She’ll also discuss her book, “Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation,” at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Laguna Hills Community Center.
I urge everyone to see this compelling documentary, and use it as a starting point for a discussion about how to improve our local schools. As Robinson states in the film, “If enough people change, that becomes a movement. When enough people do it, that’s a revolution, and that’s what we want.”
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.