Back To The Future

August 17, 2001 3 min read

The past is present in a new PBS documentary about school.

A lone, dark-suited horseman traverses the trackless woods of early 19th- century America. Despite the harsh terrain, he travels from town to town, visiting fledgling schools on a mission: to pressure taxpayers into funding and caring for the facilities, which have yet to garner much support. The scene, depicting Horace Mann’s pioneering work in Massachusetts, is one of several dramatizations that takes viewers into the educational past in a new PBS documentary.

But School: The Story of American Public Education is not just a history lesson. It attempts to put current controversies about public schools into the context of concerns that go back more than a century. The four-part series, which premiers September 3, “is aimed at parents who’re trying to sort out where to send their children, but it’s also for public educators,” explains Bethesda, Maryland-based co-producer Sarah Patton. “There have been dozens of TV news programs offering prescriptions and sounding moral alarms but no real history of the public schools that gives perspective on why people are arguing.” In contrast, the work of historians James Anderson, Carl Kaestle, David Tyack, Larry Cuban, and Diane Ravitch forms the backbone of School .

The idea for the documentary came from director and co-producer Sarah Mondale’s father, a former American studies professor at George Washington University. Patton and Mondale had worked on other documentaries together, including one about the mentally ill, and were intrigued by the many controversies swirling around public education. Kaestle says he agreed to participate because he was impressed with the producers, “who were well- informed and well-read about the history of education.” And, he says, he thought they had enough “chutzpah” to make the project work.

Beacon Press is publishing a companion book, and the producers hope the broadcast, narrated by Meryl Streep, will be a catalyst for discussion groups. To that end, they’re working with the Waltham, Massachusetts-based media organization Roundtable Inc. to host School-related events in dozens of cities, including gatherings of teachers and parents at bookstores, where participants will get a chance to contribute their notions on how best to preserve the integrity of the public school system.

The series follows a chronological order, opening with “The Common School,” which portrays the 18th- and 19th-century struggle for universal education (provided by stern, low-paid headmasters) fought around taxation and control. Part two, “As American as Public School,” presents, among other topics, the Americanization of immigrants, the birth of Catholic and Jewish schools, and the move toward progressive education and nonacademic programs to mold well-rounded citizens. Part three, “Equality,” traces the role of schools in black America’s struggle for desegregation, the Great Society’s education programs, the Hispanic awareness movement of the late 1960s, women’s equality, and the 1970s battles over busing.

The documentary wraps up with “The Bottom Line,” which looks at recent developments that threaten to remove the “public” from public schools. The episode explores how shifting the emphasis from equality to excellence, launched by the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk report, begot standards and accountability, vouchers, privatization, charter schools, and today’s high-stakes testing.

If anything is given short shrift, it is the instructional debates, such as the math wars and phonics battles. The reason, says Mondale, is that the broader thread that runs through the program is the swing between traditional and progressive learning types.

Mondale went through a swing of her own while researching and editing the tricky final episode. “When I started out, I thought the schools were a mess and was skeptical,” she says. “But after I traveled and talked to a lot of teachers, I sided with the argument that the schools have largely been successful.” Patton expects some critics to say the film is not balanced. “If both sides are mad, then we’ll know we’ve done the right thing,” she says. “Every generation sees schools as the embodiment of what’s important to its parents. We hoped to show the greatness of an institution that has managed to adopt and meet all the demands placed upon it.”

—Charles S. Clark