Documentary films and videos to help rethink high school

Documentary films and videos to jumpstart community conversations about how to redesign high school and create schools where all students thrive.

These thought-provoking films and videos showcase the unique challenges students face — and how parents, educators, and the whole community can help teens forge a purposeful path in a complicated and rapidly changing world. Use this list to host your own education film festival (in person or virtual) as a way to bring your community together to explore the issues and begin a conversation about how your high school can better reflect the values of your community. We’ve included questions to help facilitate your community discussion.

Four areas that are core to positive high school transformations:

School design

2 Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution

(Film, 54 minutes. Available on Vimeo for $8.95; trailer free on YouTube.)
This film looks at how two students each from the U.S., China, and India spend their two million minutes of high school. Seeing how the American school system compares to both the Chinese and Indian systems shines a sobering light on how the U.S. is falling far behind in preparing students for life after graduation.

Questions for discussion:
• Do you think U.S. students are prepared to succeed after high school?

Most Likely to Succeed

(Film, 90 minutes. Available to rent on iTunes; trailer free on YouTube.)
This film asks us to question what we consider “normal” about our education system, which was created for a 20th-century workforce. Ninth graders at San Diego’s High Tech High show us an innovative approach to education by taking on project-based challenges that promote critical skills over rote memorization. The film offers a new learning model that may be the key to success as we face automation, global competition, and social and economic inequity.

Questions for discussion:
• Did this film change what you think high schools should prioritize?
• What parts of this approach could work well in your community?

Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

(Video, 19 minutes. Free on
Creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a compelling case for radically changing how we educate our students to cultivate creativity and support various types of intelligence.

Questions for discussion:
• How could your school apply Robinson’s approach to education?
• Does your school cultivate and promote creativity?

TED Talks Education

(Video, 60 minutes. Free on
This special TED Talks program brings together some of the top experts focused on transforming education. Inspirational education thinkers include Rita Pierson on the importance of the student-teacher connection and Angela Lee Duckworth on the importance of grit.

Questions for discussion:
• What are the top three ideas you’d like to see implemented in your community?
• Which theme(s) about how to transform education spoke to you?

The power of positive school culture

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
How everyone treats each other at a high school has a huge impact on learning. This is how to spot a positive school culture.

Questions for discussion:
• Does your school have a positive culture?
• What could be done to improve your school culture?

Exceptional educators share what they look for in a high school

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
Get tips on what to look, listen, and feel for as you tour a potential high school for your child.

Questions for discussion:
• What would you see if you toured your high school today?
• Does your child’s high school remind you of your own high school?


Linda Ciatt-Wayman: How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard

(Video, 17 minutes. Free on
Ciatt-Wayman, a Philadelphia public school principal and teacher, shares the surprising lesson she learned about what students need at schools labelled “low-performing and persistently dangerous.”

Questions for discussion:
• How could Ciatt-Wayman’s lesson about helping students help your school?
• What other misconceptions about what students need are holding your school back?


(Film, 90 minutes. Available on Hulu (fee to subscribe), trailer free on YouTube.)
“I’ve seen so many of my peers drop out and they are smarter than me.” “We as students don’t really feel safe with school police, seeing school police on campus. It can be really triggering for students of color.” These are among the voices of a group of determined teenagers in the Oakland Unified School District who are moving into adulthood amid a worldwide pandemic and nationwide racial and social unrest. The teens fight for change within their high school, district, and community.

Questions for discussion:
• What might the district have done differently?
• What lessons does this offer your school community in encouraging and nurturing student involvement?

Making sure every student gets a chance

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
Here’s how high schools can successfully support at-risk students.

Questions for discussion:
• How are students identified as at-risk at your school?
• Does your school support at-risk students? If so, how?

Culturally responsive teaching is…good teaching

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
From helping kids relate to their schoolwork to limiting bias, learn more about culturally responsive teaching.

Questions for discussion:
• Is your school practicing culturally responsive teaching? If so, how? If not, what would you like to see?
• Does your school community have forums for open and honest discussions about bias and racism?

Mental health & stress

Race to Nowhere

(Film, 85 minutes. Available on Amazon (fee to rent or buy); trailer free on Youtube.)
This film asks the audience to look at the American high school rat race. The students profiled in this documentary are over-tested and over-scheduled and trained to be “little professionals.” Their physical and emotional reactions to such chronic stress include depression, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, cutting, and suicide. The question we are left with: Is the pressure from parents and society worth the enormous physical and emotional toll on students?

Questions for discussion:
• Are the students at your high school on a race to nowhere? Why and why not?
• The film depicts the high school experience as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. What is your school’s definition of success? How should it change?

Permission to Exist

(Film, 105 minutes. Available on Indie Doorway (fee to subscribe); trailer free on YouTube.)
This dramatized documentary offers an intimate portrayal of four South Korean high school students working up to a nine-hour senior year test that will determine their future. South Korea has one of the world’s highest test scores in the world and a high rate of acceptance to Ivy League schools. It also has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide. What can we learn from this ultra-competitive, perfectionistic school system that puts succeeding in school — and the grueling hours of studying it entails — above students’ physical and mental health?

Questions for discussion:
• What do students at your high school have in common with these South Korean students? What is different?
• Why do the parents push their students so hard when they see the toll it is taking on their kids?

Successful practices

Geoffrey Canada: Our failing schools. Enough is enough

(Video, 17 minutes. Free on
Why haven’t we fixed our schools yet, Canada asks? The answer is to drill down on the science of learning until we get it right.

Questions for discussion:
• This video came out in 2013. Do you think schools have made the kind of progress Canada is suggesting?
• How do you see the science of learning incorporated at your school?

Sal Khan’s TED Talk: Let’s teach for mastery, not test scores

(Video, 11 minutes. Free on
The founder of Khan Academy asks: Would you build a house atop an unfinished foundation? Of course not. Why, then, do we rush students through education when they haven’t always grasped the basics? Khan shares his plan to turn struggling students into scholars by helping them master concepts at their own pace.

Questions for discussion:
• Does your school practice the kind of teaching that Khan promotes?
• How could your school use mastery-based learning to help students learn more effectively?

A brilliant way to teach advanced English

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
This IB English teacher has developed a surprisingly simple way to teach complex literary analysis.

Questions for discussion:
• Is this method of teaching English something your school has done?
• Is this something you’d want to see implemented at your school?

Celebrating progress

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
It’s easy to focus on the kids who are falling behind or flying ahead, but how can schools support the forgotten middle? This school found a way.

Questions for discussion:
• How are students recognized at your school — and for what?
• Do you think a program like Lion Strides would be appealing to students at your school?

What if all students got accommodations?

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Legally, every child with a learning disability receives accommodations, such as extra time on tests or access to audiobooks. But this innovative school gives them to all students.

Related articles: Accommodations for everyone

Questions for discussion:
• What accommodations are available to students at your school — and how do students access them?
• Should access to and availability of learning accommodations be expanded at your school?

What is early college high school?

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
These public high schools give students the opportunity to complete up to two years of college while still in high school.

Related articles: What is an early college high school?, How dual enrollment can fuel college success

Questions for discussion:
• Are there any early college high schools in your area? How about an active dual-enrollment program at your high school or a neighboring high school?
• Are these programs well known or well-kept secrets? How could schools let parents know about these opportunities more widely?

Innovations that will outlast the pandemic

(Video, 4 minutes. Free on
During the pandemic, educators found amazing ways to reach students. Some of those innovations are so great, they’re here to stay.

Related articles: Covid innovation series

Questions for discussion:
• Did your school adopt any successful innovations during the pandemic?
• Which would you like to see continue?

The power of giving students voice and choice

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
When students get a say in what they learn and how to show it, they become more deeply involved in their education.

Related articles: Giving students voice and choice

Questions for discussion:
• List three ways students at your high school have a say in their education.
• If students don’t have a voice and individual choice, how could this begin to change at your school?

The importance of real-life learning and career pathways

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Learn how hands-on learning in high school gives kids purpose and sets them up for success.

Related articles: Does your child’s high school offer internships?, How high school pathway programs help students get on the right track

Questions for discussion:
• What real-life learning and career education is offered at your school? Is it effective? Available to all students?
• How could real-life learning and career pathways be better fostered at your high school?

Advanced academics for everyone

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Great high schools give all students access to advanced classes, not just some. Learn how Advanced Placement (AP), honors, dual-enrollment, and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses and programs can transform students’ learning and futures.

Related articles: The role of Advanced Placement classes in high school, How dual enrollment can fuel college success, International Baccalaureate

Questions for discussion:
• Does your high school offer advanced academics to all students? If so, is there support for students who need help?
• If not, what barriers exist? How could this be changed?

Why student-centered education should be the norm

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Want a high school where every kid finds their unique learning path? Allow students a way to use their voice and exercise choice.

Related articles: Giving students voice and choice, Understanding the power of project-based learning

Questions for discussion:
• How could you use this video (and related articles) to help steer your school’s students to find their unique path?
• Are there efforts to provide student-centered learning at your school now? How effective are they?

The value of student-staff connections

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Research shows that positive, meaningful relationships between high school students and teachers or other staff members are primary reasons for a student’s motivation and their ability to master materials at school.

Related articles: The most important class in high school isn’t what you think, 7 ways schools can help teens suffering with mental health issues

Questions for discussion:
• How would you rate the overall student-teacher relationship at your child’s school?
• How could student-teacher relationships be improved?

Why college counseling matters

(Video, 2 minutes. Free on
Here’s what to look for in a good college counseling program.

Related articles: College counselling in high school

Questions for discussion:
• How accessible, available, and strong is college counseling at your school?
• How could college counseling at your school be improved?

How to make better teachers

(Video, 3 minutes. Free on
Teachers at your child’s school should be learning, too, and professional development (PD) is the strongest factor in improving student learning.

Questions for discussion:
• Does your school support ongoing teacher education? If so, how? And how could they do more?

• If not, how can teachers get more professional development support?