Christine Traxler

Beyond Measure: What Counts can’t be Counted is the second education documentary from Vicki Abeles, the same lawyer-turned-filmmaker who took on NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and Race to the Top in her 2009 film Race to Nowhere. Her rhetorical word play is rivaled only by the “Official Selection” accolades the film is beginning to garner at film festivals across the country. Beyond Measure will soon be the darling film of project-based learning advocates everywhere.

The film’s premise is simple: The American education system is deeply flawed. It promotes conformity through standardized tests, narrow offerings, and a fractured day as students move from room to room every 45 minutes, six to eight times per day. Teachers are burdened with test prep; students are bored and disenfranchised; parents nurse stressed out sick kids; and social injustices are on the rise.

Instead of promoting the strengths and interests of our students, our country’s focus on common core standards promotes a “narrow view of intelligence” and “pathologizes differences,” quips Sir Ken Robinson. In another interview, Stanford’s Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond claims that the dominant system creates students who are “passive consumers” of education, rather than active co-creators of that education.

The film makes it clear that we need students who are innovators rather than followers, creative problem-solvers rather than imitators. Instead of passive workers, we need students who can adapt to rapidly changing and technologically challenging situations. Now.

We also need educators and communities who are visionary enough to make permanent, sustainable changes necessary in their schools. Abeles takes up the banner for grassroots solutions in this film, with a spotlight on such changemakers.

Garfield High School in Seattle plays a central role in the film for its teachers’ bold refusal to administer a standardized test called the MAP test. The director airs footage of students, teachers and parents banding together to protest the culture of testing, and documents the beginning of the Seattle Opt Out movement that emerges from this initial act. Garfield teacher Jesse Hagiopian argues that high stakes tests “reinforce inequality with test scores” by labeling some kids failures.

Abeles documents two additional schools that decide it is time to make some big changes. Meet Trigg County High School, located in a Kentucky community fighting unemployment and college dropout rates and the University of Texas School of Engineering, headed by a visionary professor who thinks his students deserve more. Along with Garfield High School, educators from these communities decide to visit schools that are doing some very cool things. For the rest of the film, these out-of-the-box institutions are the stars of the film.

Beyond Measure opens with a day in the life of High Tech High School students as they buzz around the open layout school creating elaborate physics, robotic and humanities projects. With a steampunk aesthetic and an equally Victorian sense of adventure, High Tech students bustle about with the confidence of Shackleton and his crew on their way to the Inside Passage. The camera pans through the open, airy building to reveal art covered walls, musicians rehearsing and intense conversations erupting in every corner. Instead of boundaries, classrooms, lectures and homework, students work on collaborative interdisciplinary projects in art, philosophy, humanities, math and science.

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Both teachers and students are learners in a culture of trust and zero isolation. Everyone has to reach out for help and answers, often from people who are unfamiliar. According to the school founder Larry Rosenstock, the purpose of public education is to “create a public” and he sees his project-based, group model as a “vehicle for social justice.”

In the New York Consortium schools students spend four to six months researching a project, testing scientific hypotheses, and gathering and analyzing data. During final presentations, students are shown delivering grad school, thesis-style defenses that are presented to a panel consisting of students, teachers and outside experts in the field. Students are confident as they demonstrate proficiency, defend research, and reflect on their extensive revision processes. Because the consortium began when these schools received a waiver from the state to bypass high stakes tests for evidence-based projects, Garfield tours the high school in the film to learn how to enact change. According to representatives from Garfield, the biggest barriers to restructuring schools are the bureaucratic hurdles of local, district and state administrators and policy makers.

The Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrier, Massachusetts is an example of what can happen when those same administrators listen to students. Sam Levin, a high school student, met with his administration and proposed a way for students to follow their own specific passions while meeting general academic targets centered around skills of analysis, writing, inquiry, and facilitation. Admin listened and the IP was born. The film reveals a small cohort of students who pose questions and facilitate weekly philosophical and analytical discussions, work diligently on their own projects (one student writes a grant, travels out of state to conduct research and finishes a novel about a guy on death row) and discover passions that typically result in students knowing exactly what to major in during college.

Speaking of college, Abeles takes her critique to HigherEd, implicating HigherEd for much of the way secondary schools are taught. It’s no surprise that she highlights Olin College of Engineering in Boston for its visionary design-thinking learning model. In a reverse of “the way things are done” model with classes first, practical application later, Olin students solve real-world problems, learning the necessary math and science along the way. Failing is part of the learning process at Olin, which encourages students to take intellectual risks. The film depicts articulate college kids having a blast in gender and ethnically diverse groupings.

When educators from Kentucky and Texas bring back the project model to their schools, they find that it is not easy for either teachers or students. Teachers wonder what role they should play when students are in charge of directing what and how they learn. They worry if their curriculum will be taught. Students who have been told what, when and how to learn for eleven to thirteen years struggle with the prospect of unstructured time and limited teacher involvement. Abeles does not shrink from reporting the growing pains at these schools as they set out to implement an entirely new way of doing business.

But the data emerging from these alternative programs is impressive: increased high school and college graduation rates for all demographics; and better college acceptance rates.

If the data holds, the future of education is happening. The question is, who will be on the forefront of this revolution? Who will have the courage to enact changes despite policies driven by fear, compulsion and conformity? Despite the growing pains?

“The more we trust young people, the more trustworthy they become,” reflects High Tech High founder, Larry Rosenstock. Over one hundred years after John Dewey articulated his democratic, social justice, project-learning creed, American education is finally having its aha moment. Beyond Measure shows us the way.

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Christine Traxler teaches AP English Language and English 12: Cultural Studies at Woodinville High School in Woodinville, WA. Follow Christine on Twitter, @t_fiddler.


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