Film Reveiw: Beyond Measure

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“You can’t put ten, twenty, sometimes forty kids in a room and expect them all to learn the same material, at the same pace, with the same structure. Everybody has their own learning style.”

This opening observation sets the stage in the provocative and powerful new documentary Beyond Measure. It’s spoken not by an educator, but by Monument Mountain Regional High School student Matthew V. Whalan, who at various points was failing classes, facing getting kicked out and considering dropping out.

The film was produced and directed by Vicki Abeles, a former Wall Street attorney turned passionate education advocate, as a follow-up to Race to Nowhere.  That award-winning documentary, which Abeles co-directed, explored “the pressure-cooker culture dominating America’s school.”

Award-winning director and Potero Hill resident Jeffrey Friedman edited Beyond Measure, which features a compelling soundtrack by composer Mark Adler. 

Abeles coauthored End the Race: facilitation guide and companion resource to the film Race to Nowhere.  In conjunction with Beyond Measure’s opening this month, Abeles’ new book, Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, will be published by Simon and Schuster.  She served as associate producer on the films Miss Representation and Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Bearish.

The expertly edited documentary features interviews with articulate students, teachers, parents, guidance counselors, principals, and academic researchers.  All agree that students learn differently, and that no one approach works for everyone.

The film follows several schools across the country engaged in different educational initiatives, including a successful boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress test by Garfield High School in Seattle and implementation of new programs at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Educators from Trigg County High School in Kentucky travel to High Tech High Charter School in San Diego for inspiration. Also profiled are the University of Texas in El Paso, Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts and the New York Performance Standards Consortium in Manhattan.

The scenes of students — of various races/ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds — eagerly engaged in team-building, inquiry-based and project-oriented learning are exciting and unexpectedly moving. These scholars are highly motivated, even ones who have been identified as dealing with learning differences. The programs profiled in the film aren’t, as one of the interviewees insists, about throwing money at a school, but a matter of re-evaluating priorities and making resources work in different ways.

Beyond Measure offers a variety of alternatives to the “test and punish” policies of the 19th century, all of which have the same goal put forth by many educators. “We’ve got to create a better learning environment for our kids,” said Trigg County High School Superintendent Travis Hamby.

Beyond Measure will be screened at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 8 through 18,