Education Opinion

The Making of ‘To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children': A Conversation With Marshall Frady

By Thomas Toch & Marshall Frady — September 19, 1984 11 min read
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Yet, the number of people in the public schools that we found keeping the pulse alive amid all the superstructures and bureaucratic wilderness was dizzily surprising to me. It just suddenly made the project come alive, against what in fact were our initial expectations. But it is a battle that has to be fought constantly.

Titled “To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children,” the show was produced by ABC News’s documentary unit, Closeup. It focused in one-hour segments on three critical elements of the education system--students, teachers, and the tax-paying members of local communities.

Planning for the documentary began more than a year ago, network officials say, with conversations with leading educators and advocates of reform and preliminary visits to approximately 40 school systems. Last March, specific schools and communities “that would tell the story” of the documentary were selected and crews filmed in them through the end of the last school year. In all, more than 40 staff members, including 14 editors, were assigned to the project.

The correspondent and principal writer for the program was Marshall Frady, the chief Closeup correspondent. Mr. Frady joined ABC three years ago, following a career as a journalist for Newsweek, Harper’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. He attended public schools in South Carolina and Georgia.

Mr. Frady spoke last week with Associate Editor Thomas Toch about the experience of making “To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children.”

Education Week: What did you set out to do in the documentary?

Marshall Frady: Initially, our feeling was that it would be a much grimmer portrait, approaching an autopsy, than it turned out to be. Once we moved into the story itself and began looking at the school systems, it became clear, well before we began filming, that while public schools are deeply troubled and while the next decade would pose even more complicated, indeed massive, problems, an elegy on the institution would be entirely premature.

EW: What “story” did you find in American public schools?

Mr. Frady: We found mainly the consequences, the liabilities, but indeed the splendor, of the audaciously expanded democratic mission that has devolved upon America’s public schools in the last few decades. Partially imposed by governmental action, partially evolved from dislocations in the rest of society, the mandate to educate our students has widened almost to the breadth of American society itself. Other nations approach that degree of labor and commitment, but mostly with homogeneous populations.

The strains and the inevitable dislocations of that effort are in a way what is taxing--in some cases dangerously taxing--our public-school systems. As the mandate widens, public schools will inevitably become as troubled, as contentious, and as potentially fractured as American society itself, because they are public schools--the people’s schools. They reflect inevitably those communities, both immediate and larger, in which we live. To me, that’s fundamental, the source from which all other hazards and difficulties emerge.

Students in increasing numbers are coming from dislocated homes or from families that are not whole--that is particularly true with latchkey children. We were surprised at what seems to be the growing magnitude of that phenomenon. Everywhere we went, especially on the elementary-school level, educators said that it is beginning to loom as their single most pressing challenge. Robert Coles, [the prominent child psychiatrist] is considering making the latchkey phenomenon his next major field of study.

The schools are also faced with the brutal learning problems that the children of poverty, the children of the ‘underclass,’ bring to schools--especially in the inner cities. It is a problem that is apart from that of latchkey children, or ‘day orphans,’ as we began to refer to them.

Latchkey children tend to come from middle-class or upper-middle-class homes; in fact, the higher the educational attainment of the parents, the higher the odds that they will have latchkey children. But at least there are books in those homes and although there is not that sustained attention and care when they come home, there is a vision, an expectation that they will one day move into the mainstream of this nation’s life--and most likely they will.

Not so with the children of the disadvantaged. The kids in the nether regions of this society, through the precedent of generations, come to school having inherited little in the way of expectations, of assumptions as to where their place will eventually be in this nation. They come to school not only spiritually and culturally starved but already educationally gravely, gravely malnourished.

The struggle is to somehow--through what has to be an intercession from the outside, necessarily through the school--at least try to rescue them with a type of deus ex machina deliverance from those generations of defeat.

EW: Can schools really meet that challenge?

Mr. Frady: We were surprised to find that, amazingly enough, the school can break through that social imprisonment of those kids--with focused attention.

There was a running concern in the section on these students that we might leave, at least impressionistically, the sense that those kids were hopeless casualties of their circumstances and could not be salvaged. The statistics were so oppressive that it was hard to cite the dimensions of the problem without leaving that impression somehow. That was a consideration right up to air time.

EW: Did you do anything to alleviate that impression?

Mr. Frady: I don’t know if you remember that little girl at the blackboard in Kansas City. She gets the answer wrong and then she comes back and she gets it right. That scene--the look on her face when she got that answer right and the reception she got from her teacher--laid the hope that she--and, by projection, kids like her--can be rescued, salvaged. They are the exceptions, but by citing them we hoped that the impression of despair given by those formidable statistics could be transformed into one of hope.

Finding schools that are reaching these students was one of the most thrilling things to stumble across. But those programs are very scattered, isolated, and in jeopardy. They tend to be federal programs, and that federal commitment, because of the freeze on those funds, is effectively declining. You look at the absolutely bleak, blank, and in some cases abject communities from which those kids come, and then through those special programs, see what happens to them in school. Given those contrasts, it really approaches the miraculous.

EW: What did witnessing such situations lead you personally to think about schools?

Mr. Frady: The picture that developed was that to a profound degree the public school is emerging as the central social institution in American life, which compensates for the falterings and the fadings of all the others. As those secure, stable homes and even those secure, stable communities--those gyroscopes in children’s lives--which used to be taken for granted, have begun to wobble, to loosen, to disassemble, those responsibilities have almost by default, almost inescapably, devolved upon schools.

That’s an enormous burden and it is going to take almost revolutionary measures to ensure that schools are not distracted from their central purpose, which is to awaken and quicken, to light, as it were, childrens’ minds. It will take an enormous financial extension to support schools in trying to cope with that new galaxy of responsibilities. And that’s a burden that will, by all evidence, increase significantly in the next decade.

EW: Did you begin the project with the intention of focusing as much attention as you did on the social environment around the schools?

Mr. Frady: It was going to be much more strictly an education report, but it very rapidly and unavoidably widened into a political, in the broader sense of the word, look at the role that public schools serve in this nation’s life--what they are about; what they mean. It is a larger political story.

EW: So did you consciously decide to spend less time dealing with what is being taught in schools, and how and why it is being taught?

Mr. Frady: One of my regrets is that we did not look more closely at that. Again, stemming from this widened mandate, the schools are faced with this much more variegated assortment of students, many of whom in the past would have been left to drop out of junior high or early in high school to go to work. What do you teach them? To what ends? Those are essential curriculum questions. It just worked out out that we did not address that more thoroughly.

EW: As you noted in the show, the number of these educationally “at-risk” children is expected to increase steadily in the coming years. Did you get the sense as you went around the country that the current reform movement is sensitive to the considerable needs of such students?

Mr. Frady: Pockets are stirring across the country. But in larger metropolitan areas, threatened as they are by a social schism that is perpetuated and confirmed through a schism in their school systems, the awareness does not exist. It is much the case outside of those inner-city communities, understandably, of everyone looking to their own. That is a comfortable myopia that is going to multiply into a real peril. It is a great deal to ask, I know, of parents who in many cases have entrenched themselves in those outer suburbs with unquestionably more fit schools. It is a large thing to reach out to an adjoining district, in some cases only a few miles away, with the generosity that they have always shown towards their own schools. To them, the inner-city schools are like another America, another world, and to reach out and embrace the children in those schools, children who aren’t their own, who in fact are quite alien to them, children from homes and a culture that they probably view with considerable suspicion and uneasiness, is an enormous thing. But it seemed to us that for the sake of their own children, they must. If that divide between the inner-city systems and those of the suburbs widens, we will all be endangered.

EW: Many of today’s reformers are arguing that all categories of students, even those who in the past rarely made it through 12 years of schooling, should now be exposed to a more academically rigorous curriculum. Do you think such an approach is feasible?

Mr. Frady: I think it absolutely has to be tried. To so structure the educational program so that some are directed at various points through those 12 years strictly toward work would serve to perpetuate a class-fractured society. It would have been absolutely intriguing to get into the purpose of education. Does it serve a utilitarian purpose? Is it in fact to train children to function and to relate in society? Or is it to awaken every child to their wider past, to their wider world, in short to civilize? Of course, it has to be both to a degree, but it is wrong to assume there is no necessity that our carpenters, steel workers, mechanics, electricians read a newspaper and under-stand what it means--have basic literacy.

EW: Did you find any examples of school systems or individual teachers trying to reach these kids with that notion?

Mr. Frady: Absolutely. South West High School in Kansas City, an inner-city school that is at a precarious point of becoming a custodial educational slum. They’re teaching kids there. Black history, the basic political articles of faith of this country. Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Md. But, boy, it is such a difficult process. They come in from a deprived elementary-school past, only falteringly able to read. It is such a feverish skirmish to try to make up so much of that ground so they may begin to get a purchase on those larger understandings, those larger perceptions. But the effort is being made with the deepest earnestness in inner-city schools and for kids who perhaps in the past had simply been consigned to shop and those kinds of courses.

EW: What insights would you offer to the educators whose work you examined?

Mr. Frady: It struck me that there is almost a constant inherent conflict within the whole educational complex, a running con-flict perhaps never to be resolved. In fact, success probably lies in keeping it an active conflict. It is a conflict between that original live pulse of what teaching is supposed to be and do and all the schematics, the formulations, the systematic barnaclings of the bureaucracy. The system, left to its own, will inevitably acquire those kinds of administrative barnaclings.

Yet, the number of people in the public schools that we found keeping the pulse alive amid all the superstructures and bureaucratic wilderness was dizzily surprising to me. It just suddenly made the project come alive, against what in fact were our initial expectations. But it is a battle that has to be fought constantly.

There is also the absolute importance of there being an atmosphere of the highest expectations for all students. This may be a truism to those who’ve long labored in those vineyards and it presents an awesome challenge. Progress is not going to be even among all students, some may be irredeemable. That’s the way life comes. But maintaining that high electricity of expectations absolutely works miracles.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Making of ‘To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children': A Conversation With Marshall Frady


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