Beyond Measure

The Village Free School hosted a showing of Beyond Measure, a documentary about some of the schools, both public and private, attempting to move away from the 19th-century model of education used predominantly in our public schools and explore some of the alternatives. I expected it to be inspiring, and it was. I didn’t entirely expect the visceral reaction I had to some of the individual stories of disengagement it explored, although in retrospect I probably should have. There were moments that were difficult to watch, not just at the beginning, but even toward the end — the film didn’t shy away from showing how difficult it can be for teachers, parents and students to move to a different model from the one in which they’ve spent most of their lives. It’s one thing to boycott a test (way to go, Garfield High!) but quite another to actually shift the focus of schooling.

Overall it was well made and I came away with mixed emotions. As far as our little family is concerned, I see enough opportunities that I have no fear for our own children — we have the means and the motivation to make sure they’re in environments consistent with our goals and values. But for the leviathan that is the American public school system, the possibility of change seems… daunting.

Dave and I have been debating since then the avenues that change might take. Systemic change of the current system from a grass-roots movement seems possible but slow, potentially taking multiple generations and by no means inevitable. Online collaborations offer another possibility in that people are no longer quite so bound by their geography, but I think for most people face-to-face interaction is still important. Private schools offer alternatives, but only for those who can afford them. Charter schools seem like a way to create options less dependent on the individual family’s wealth, and I’ve only begun to look into that option. Another idea is the “school within a school” concept — one of the programs in Beyond Measure was a small project-based group which functioned within the school in which it was created.

And of course this is what a good documentary should do — not give a simple answer to a problem which manifestly doesn’t have one, but just get its viewers thinking.

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