PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — For all the hand-wringing about the American education system, for most families, the problems only become evident when it hits the home. At least that was the case for director Greg Whiteley ("Mitt") who saw his vivacious, bright and engaged daughter nearly give up on the system in fourth grade.
"She decided that was it. She sat me down and had a very serious talk. She said: 'Look Dad, I just don't think I need to go to school anymore,'" Whiteley said.
He and his wife shrugged it off as a typical phase of adolescence and kept their daughter in school, but then things worsened. "As I forced her to go to school and just complete these math worksheets, I could see that something was dying in her," he said.
In a somewhat fortuitous coincidence, around this time, Whiteley met longtime venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, who then introduced him to "The Global Achievement Gap" author Tony Wagner.
Whiteley's mission became clear: The problem was in the system, not the student.
In his film "Most Likely to Succeed," Whiteley focuses in on an arbitrarily antiquated American education system that was designed for a very different economy and workforce.
"We're setting ourselves up for national disaster," Dintersmith said.
"For all of human history, the primary focus of education has been about acquiring more knowledge," said Wagner in the film. "Today, content is ubiquitous. It's free. It's on every Internet-connected device."
Drawing on a combination of expert opinions and an examination of the history of U.S. education, Whiteley finds hope in one San Diego, Calif., high school: High Tech High, which focuses on project-based learning and not just content memorization.
At Sundance, Dintersmith and Whiteley attended a community screening of the film with 500 area students. Much to their surprise, all were engaged.
"We were worried they'd be bored. Documentaries don't usually resonate with high school students. But watching from the back, no cellphone ever came out, no kid left to go to the bathroom, no side conversations happened," Dintersmith said.
When the film concluded, the audience then engaged in a 45-minute video conference Q&A with the High Tech High class that the film focuses on. "It looked like every hand was up," Dintersmith said.
"In talking to the kids after the screening, it's clear they're desperate for this film," Whiteley said.
"Our strategy from the beginning has been to make a movie as viewed and as powerful as 'An Inconvenient Truth' but not botch the follow-up," Dintersmith said. The filmmakers are hoping to inspire community screenings and show the film throughout the country later this year.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr