August 08, 2001 1 min read

Education Story: The traditional American ideal of having a common school for all is being challenged by the increasingly diverse strategies being employed to educate the nation’s children, according to “School: The Story of American Public Education,” a new documentary to be aired by the Public Broadcasting Service next month.

The four-part series covers that change, and many other issues surrounding the evolution of public schools in American society.

In the first one-hour segment, the show—narrated throughout by the actress Meryl Streep—illustrates how the common school was used to forge unity among Americans earlier in the nation’s history. Covering the years 1770 to 1890, it profiles the crusades of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and others to create a common system of tax-supported schools that would mix people of different backgrounds and reinforce the bonds that tie Americans together.

The second segment examines the public schools from 1900 to 1950, including the years when they assimilated millions of immigrant children, offering them a chance to become part of the American dream.

Issues of equality in education that emerged in the 1950s are taken up by the third installment, which advances the story to 1980. The segment includes interviews with Linda Brown, the Topeka, Kan., schoolgirl who gave her name to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case striking down desegregation, and other equal- rights pioneers, including those who later struggled for gender equity in schools.

The final piece, which covers 1980 to the present, examines the fallout from the 1983 federal report A Nation at Risk, which shook public confidence in America’s schools and sparked a new wave of policies intended to promote reform. And it explores the free-market experiments that ensued.

The series—a production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. in Glen Echo, Md.—will be marked by a public education campaign and community forums hosted by some public-television stations. It is scheduled to be broadcast Sept. 3 and 4, but viewers should check local listings for broadcast dates and times.

—Andrew Trotter

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week