On PBS, Two ‘Frontline’ Reports and a ‘TED Talks’ Special on Education

By Mark Walsh — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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PBS’s Spotlight Education week continues Tuesday night with a doubleheader: “Frontline” and “TED Talks: Education Revolution.” And the “Frontline” episode has two separate education stories, so it’s three for the price of one.

“Frontline” is up first at 9 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings) with segments titled “A Subprime Education” and “The Education of Omarina.”

The first is “Frontline”'s latest report on the for-profit college industry, and it couldn’t be more timely. Correspondent Martin Smith starts the report by recapping key elements of his 2010 “Frontline” episode, “College Inc.” This was a time when a for-profit institution such as the University of Phoenix was opening campuses like Subway was opening sandwich shops.

But that 2010 report detailed the problems that were encroaching on the industry, including interviews with nursing graduates of one for-profit college who never set foot in a hospital and were unable to find jobs in the field.

“Since I last reported on the sector, a lot has changed,” says Smith. He recounts the political battle over the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to crack down on the industry through its “gainful employment” regulations, which eventually took hold last year.

And Smith probes last year’s closing of Corinthian Colleges Inc. and the takeover of some of its campuses by a new, non-profit organization that until then had specialized in debt collection. One homeless man who had borrowed heavily in student loans to attend a Corinthian campus tells “Frontline” that all he got out of his Corinthian education was “a $16,000 T-shirt.”

Smith’s report gives a nod to the more recent news about the closing of another for-profit provider, ITT Technical Institutes, after the Education Department barred it from enrolling new students with federal student loans.

All in all, “A Subprime Education,” which takes up about 40 minutes of the hour,” makes for a good primer on the for-profit college issue.

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The other 20 minutes of this week’s “Frontline” is devoted to “The Education of Omarina,” which is the show’s third visit with Bronx, N.Y., native Omarina Cabrera. Like the for-profit college report, this segment spends some time recapping from two previous reports: In “Middle School Moment,” from 2012, Cabrera was an example of students who have a make-or-break moment in middle school, when troubled students either shape up and get on the path to college or sow the seeds of dropping out of high school.

In “Omarina’s Story,” from 2014, Cabrera made it to the private Brooks School in Andover, Mass. She confronted challenges there and family troubles back home. The new material shows her overcoming those challenges to graduate from Brooks, as well as the dramatic scene when she receives news about her future in higher education.

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TED Talks: Education Revolution,” set for 10 p.m. Eastern time (again, check local listings), is a one-hour special based on the non-profit TED organization’s aim of spreading ideas mainly through short, powerful talks.

The special is based on a single event filmed at The Town Hall Theater in New York City. Hosts Baratunde Thurston and Sara Ramirez introduce five main speakers, as well as three short films and a few other elements.

The first speaker is Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, the online educational content provider. If you didn’t know much about Khan, his short TED Talk here doesn’t do justice to his work, and you would do better to look up his 2011 TED Talk or Sanjay Gupta’s “60 Minutes” profile of Khan Academy in 2013.

But in this fast-moving hour, there’s time for the next element, which is a short film by Greg Whiteley called “Modern Classroom,” which draws on themes about the organization of U.S. high schools from his acclaimed 2015 documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” The other films are “Freedom University,” about an alternative college program for undocumented students in Georgia, which bars such students from its top public universities; and “Unconscious Bias,” about racial expectations in schools.

The other speakers are Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult, who speaks about getting parents to treat their children less like bonsai trees and more like wildflowers (see the clip below); Victor Rios, an author and educator who talks about restorative justice; Nadia Lopez, the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., that gained viral attention last year from the “Humans of New York” photo blog ; and Anna Deavere Smith, the actor, educator, and author, who powerfully performs some segments of her recent work based on interviews with young people in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

“TED Talks: Education Revolution” was probably more powerful for those who saw it in person at The Town Hall theater. As television, it’s a sprightly mix during a sometimes-heavy week of educational programming on PBS.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.