“A way to privatize the system is, first of all, make it non-functional: underfunded, so it is not functional, and then people don't like it so it is handed over to what are called charter schools ...That way you get rid of the general commitment of the public to solidarity and mutual support: the thinking that I ought to care whether the kid across the street can go to school …” – Noam Chomsky
Most Likely to Succeed is a deceptive documentary about High Tech High, an innovative charter school in San Diego, funded (in part) by Irwin Jacobs, the billionaire founder of Qualcomm. The Qualcomm website puts it this way: “Nurturing young minds is important to Jacobs, who funds High Tech High, a growing network of schools focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.” According to the film, Qualcomm was unable to find qualified workers for its expanding business, so it decided to create schools that could produce such workers. This is portrayed as an enlightened and benevolent development in American education.
The film develops a strong argument against the mind-numbing classroom atmosphere that results from a focus on standardized tests. It then presents an educational format that replaces such tests with creative, student-based approaches. Most of the film shows students at work on creative projects, with teachers standing to the side, guiding at times, never lecturing. Students are shown to be much more than passive receptors of information. This aspect of the film is convincing: for students to be successful they must be engaged in their own education.
One review says, “Each teacher is given complete freedom in the classroom separate from state-mandated requirements such as standardized testing.” The movie sure makes it seem that way. However, High Tech High does pay attention to Common Core. The film presents a test-free atmosphere, while the school website shows otherwise.
In addition, the film briefly mentions that the teachers rely on one-year contracts. I would argue that no employee who relies on being rehired annually can truly feel that he or she has “complete freedom.” I suppose one could also claim these teachers have “complete freedom” not to have a union, a hallmark of our charter schools. The United Federation of Students explains: “Corporate elements like the New York City Charter School Center and the New York Charter Schools Association, funded by Wal-Mart’s Walton Foundation and various hedge funds, have captured a significant portion of the charter school movement and are using it to promote their ideological goals: privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions.” The film depicts content and motivated educators, with no complaints about their below-average salaries.
This leads us to the role of Bill Gates and his foundation. In the q&a session after a recent showing of this film in Seattle, I asked the director, Greg Whiteley, how High Tech High is funded. In addition to saying something about each student receiving eight thousand dollars in public funds, he said the Bill Gates Foundation donated one million dollars; he then shrugged that off, saying that money is actually being spent on other schools.
Whiteley’s response is disingenuous, at best. A Businessweek article about the Gates Foundation and education discusses “the $17 million their foundation has sunk into San Diego's High Tech High since 2000.” Why does this film, promoting the wonders of charter school education, hide the influence of Bill Gates?
Most Likely to Succeed is, at best, a series of lies by omission or, at worst, a skillful work of propaganda for charter schools.
My sense is that it is the latter: propaganda for a corporate-based form of education.
The idyllic version of charter schools, as presented by this manipulative film, is simply false – not to mention the fact that they brag about not having books. Is that the future – a STEM education that eliminates culture and attempts to turn our young people into good workers? In one quick scene of the film, there is commentary on how useless it is to know Shakespeare; in another, there is the suggestion that High Tech High is better for a student’s “soul.”
High Tech High – aka Qualcomm Prep – may have some benefits, as long as your kid is one of the few who are able to win the “lottery” that allows entrance into the school.
If your kid loses that lottery, there’s always Wal-Mart High. Or maybe McDonald’s will create McHigh, where your sons and daughters can learn to work the friers or articulate, “Can I take your order, please?”
There might even be a public school, with books, sports and music, a school that your neighbors can all attend without relying on the luck of the lottery.