When we meet Matt Whalen, we hear how he was put on Ritalin in fifth grade and secretly spit the pills out. By ninth grade, he seriously considered dropping out of school. Later, he joined his high school's new Independent Project in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and we watch him describe how this changed his life. As Vicki Abeles' outstanding film, Beyond Measure, draws to a close, Matt notes, "My involvement with the Independent Project taught me how to focus on what was important to me and the ways in which I can be important in the world."
Matt is one of the heroes in the most powerful film that I've seen in many years about what's needed -- and possible -- in American education. Beyond Measure stands as an insightful and provocative response to the monumental failure of top-down and testing-driven initiatives. This is reinforced throughout the film but isn't the central theme.
Powerful, Instructive, Engaging
Beyond Measure rises above the other recent films about American education for two reasons. First, while it captures the problems, it focuses on five schools that solve them. These schools are both instructive and inspiring in how they implement alternative educational approaches. Secondly, it's emotionally impactful and cinematically superb, with great directing, editing, and photography. Like the best fictional films, it focuses on heroes with whom we resonate emotionally, and features engaging dramatic action in the changes that these heroes help initiate. And unlike so many films on American education, it leaves us hopeful and inspired.
You couldn't write a fictional script with more affecting characters or lead actors whose dedication, courage, wisdom, and openness stay with you hours after you've left the theater. And the camerawork establishes an intimacy that leads us to love these people for what they are doing and for restoring our hope.
As director/producer Abeles notes, "We set out to challenge the assumptions of our current education story." Her film does just that by taking us into schools where personal growth is valued over test scores, where passion matters more than rankings, and where change comes, not from the top down, but from parents, teachers, administrators, and students working together. And all of this is done without sacrificing high academic quality.
We watch what could be the beginning of a revolution brewing in schools from rural Kentucky and Seattle to El Paso, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and New York City -- schools that are shaping a new vision for our classrooms. These schools see critical thinking, exploration, project-based learning, experimentation, collaboration, flexible scheduling, personalized learning, and creativity as the keys to good education. They are schools that are dramatically improving outcomes for children of all backgrounds. Each school is characterized by individuals with vision, commitment to change, and courage. In this post, I'll focus on just two.
Sam Levin is a precocious student who started the Independent Project in Great Barrington's Monument Mountain Regional High School. Sam exemplifies the value of including student voice in the process of educational change.
"I liked school," he says. "I did well. I got good grades. I liked most of my teachers. I never struggled. What happened was I began to struggle with what I saw around me, and that was mostly that I felt my friends weren't engaged, that they weren't learning, that they weren't happy, and that started to wear on me." With the encouragement of his mom, he decides to start his own school-within-a-school and begins by speaking with his guidance counselor, Mike Powell.
Powell, who already has great respect for Sam as a young man combining vision with action, agrees to help. With the support and leadership assistance of Principal Marianne Young, they help make Sam's vision a reality.
The program blossoms and, as Sam notes, "You see kids who were doing OK before or even really well . . . but then they come into the Independent Project, and they realize that they had never really challenged themselves, never really pushed themselves to their limits."
Principal Young concludes, "Colleges and universities . . . want to see . . . really strong people, people of conviction, people with minds, people with interests. So if our part is to create this idea that they can find their individuality, they can be role models and inspirations to others . . . they'll be the group of students who walked out of here with this sense of self that carries them a long way."
Yearning for Transformation
Travis Hamby is another hero that we meet. He's Superintendent of Schools in Trigg County, an economically depressed region of Kentucky. The film lets us truly get to know this wonderful man, see him with his family, experience the depth of his feeling for children, and share his intuitive sense that something is wrong with his schools. He begins a journey to look for schools that are "doing some really great things for kids."
This leads him to High Tech High In San Diego, a wonderland of alternative education, a national leader in project-based learning and in demonstrating the best new approaches to education. Hamby's intensive experience at High Tech transforms his vision of education. He asks, "Why can't we do this? Why can't a public school in Western Kentucky do this for our kids? I want my kids to come home with that enthusiasm every single day because they've been engaged, because someone's cared about them."
Back home, Hamby introduces fifth-, eighth-, and ninth-grade problem-based learning and begins dramatically transforming his county's schools. He also describes the obstacles to change in an existing school and expresses a long-term view of the process they have begun.
A Call to Action and a Guide to Revolution
The talking heads in this film are some of the most effective and articulate proponents of effective educational change, Sir Ken Robinson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Tony Wagner among them. Their comments are on point and brief. For example, Robinson tells us: "If you're a teacher and you change what you do in your classroom, you are, for those students, the education system; and if you change your practice, you have changed the education system for your students; and if enough people change, that becomes a movement. When enough people do it, that's a revolution -- and that's what we want." And that's what Vicki Abeles wants.
The book that accompanies the film, Beyond Measure: Rescuing An Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, provides stories of additional schools and is a helpful guide for initiating change. It complements the film in providing greater breadth and depth on the subject.
The film closes with a call to action for communities to transform their schools. Abeles wants parents, educators, and students to see the film and initiate change on a grassroots level. The film, book, and educational community screenings all around the country are part of a larger and exciting movement. There's still a long way to go, but I'm happy knowing that people are initiating important positive changes in education across this country, and that with the help of this film there will be more. I've put aside my depression about our policy makers and become part of what could be the beginning of a low-key, nationwide revolution.
Watching Beyond Measure, I felt hope and excitement at the possibilities of renewing our educational system. Administrators, teachers, and students are enacting changes that are an inspiration and guide for educators everywhere.