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What is Channel One Really Doing For Our Children?

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Channel One, the 12-minute news-and-information program with commercials produced by Whittle Communications Inc., continues to be under fire. In yet another critical review, a study by Michael Morgan of the University of Massachusetts, released last fall, shows that Channel One is most often found in schools with higher concentrations of poor students. (See Education Week, Oct. 27, 1993.)

The reason? According to some critics, poorer schools are more likely to need the equipment that Whittle offers in exchange for the schools' promise to air the program. In other words, schools subscribing to the newscast are motivated more by the "video equipment'' than by the educational value of the news program.

While most Channel One arguments center on whether schools should allow television commercials into the classroom, this study focused on a critical point that has been noticeably downplayed in the Channel One debate: Namely, whether, regardless of the commercials, Channel One has any intrinsic educational value. The answer appears to be no. For more students than we probably care to imagine, the broadcast means a 12-minute TV break, offering little more than what commercial networks now provide them on a typical Saturday morning.

Of course, this is not what Whittle Communications would like us to believe. According to the company's vice president, William Rukeyser, Channel One offers a powerful tool to "help teachers remedy the woeful ignorance of American teenagers about current events, geography, and related subjects.'' And while schools are required to show the broadcast on 92 percent of all school days, Whittle reminds us that teachers are then free to use the equipment for other purposes. Whittle is also quick to defend the commercials, saying they are necessary to pay for providing such a wonderful product to the schools. Our beef with Channel One, however, is not about the content, the contracts, or even the commercials. On the whole, we agree with many teachers who have praised the program for its educational qualities and high production values. Our problem lies with the way the program is used in the schools, and, perhaps even more important, Whittle's apparent complacency about it.

We believe that Channel One is being switched on every morning for students with little thought as to how the program might fit with the school's educational goals. Our opinion is driven by more than speculation. We arrived at this conclusion after spending more than a year and a half observing a Channel One high school, code-named East River High. For endless weeks, we spent time in the school, stalking the halls and listening to conversations in the library, cafeteria, and teachers' lounge. We visited classrooms, informally interviewed teachers, and observed how the broadcasts were viewed by teachers and students.

What we found is that Channel One was much less of an educational tool than we had ever anticipated. Even the fact that the newscast was geared toward an adolescent audience was not enough to insure that East River teens would actually watch it. Students were rarely required to view, and when they did, they seemed to cue into "teen'' features, such as movies, fashion, cars, and sports, rather than "hard'' news. A good "crisis'' event, such as a fire or an earthquake, would surely garner their attention.

But as a curricular tool, Channel One barely made it into the classroom. Aside from a few social-studies teachers, teachers rarely incorporated the newscast materials into a planned class activity. Many teachers reported reading the Channel One teachers' guide and the accompanying lesson plans that Whittle provided, but few moved beyond the "reading'' stage. Rather, the newscast would come while the students sleepily plodded into the 7:25 A.M. homeroom. While some students would watch, others would catch up with homework, talk to their neighbors, or put their heads down on the desk. During this time, the homeroom teacher would take roll, work at his or her desk, talk to other teachers in the hallway. Some homeroom moderators would comment on the program and point something out to the students, but most would continue with their own work. After the newscast and school announcements, the bell would ring, and the students, suddenly awake, would scurry to their next class. Rarely was there time for discussion or comments on the material presented.

For all its hype, Channel One has failed to offer U.S. students anything more than they receive from commercial television networks. What is disappointing is that it doesn't have to be that way. The Channel One newscast is a sound production, well designed and produced. Its sheer depth in the educational community means that is has the ability to reach American teenagers like no other educational product has done before. But Whittle has failed to capture the one market that is most crucial to Channel One's success: the teachers. Without their commitment, Whittle cannot possibly hope to establish a toehold in the educational activities of the classroom.

Teachers, however, will not be easily convinced by showy materials and educational advertisements. Rather, it will take a concerted effort to develop ways to integrate informational programming meaningfully into the curriculum. It's certainly not an easy task. But neither was signing up 10,000 schools to show commercial television. We believe that Whittle can, and should, do better for our nation's children.

Donna Celano is the supervisor of the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Project at Temple University. Susan B. Neuman, a member of Temple's college of education faculty, is a visiting professor this year at Boston College.

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