PBS Documentaries, NBC Campaign Highlight Education

By Mark Walsh — March 22, 1989 4 min read

In what its producers are touting as “the most exhaustive documentary series ever” to look at American education, the Public Broadcasting Service next week begins a five-part weekly series with the all-encompassing title “Learning in America.”

The series will debut as officials of the National Broadcasting Company launch an initiative to throw the NBC network’s communication might into a public-service campaign on the importance of education.

The three-year NBC plan was announced last week at a Washington press conference featuring accolades for the idea from prominent federal lawmakers.

Produced by the same company responsible for “The MacNeil/ Lehrer Newshour,” the PBS series will examine such issues as the politics of school reform, how the U.S. education system compares with Japan’s, the teacher shortage, and the consequences of inequality in the classroom.

The series’ first hour is scheduled for national broadcast on PBS at 9 P.M. E.S.T. on Monday, March 27, with subsequent programs to be4shown at the same time for the next four Mondays. Viewers should check local listings, however, because not all public-television stations follow a uniform schedule.

Joe Quinlan, an Emmy Award-winning national affairs producer at the ''McNeil/Lehrer Newshour,” is executive producer of the series.

“We’re not crusaders; we’re not out to change the world,” he said of his staff’s work on the series. “We are not going to offer any grand 10 things to do to work problems in the system out. We are really out to give a snapshot of the way things are.”

Mr. Quinlan said the idea for the series grew out of education’s increasing national prominence, which the producer feels began with the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk.”

“People are perceiving the issues in education in national terms,” he said.

Mr. Quinlan also sought to fill what he described as a journalistic gap left by commercial television, which he said has “been getting out of the business of doing serious longer-form documentaries.”

Over the last eight months, production crews for the PBS series have conducted more than 1,000 interviews in 21 states and in Japan and Europe.

The programs in the series are:

  • “The Education Race,” which compares life at American High School in Fremont, Calif., with that at high schools in Yokohama, Japan, and gives a picture of how two U.S. companies are coping with the need for skilled workers.
  • “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which looks at the disparities between well-funded public and private schools and poor urban and rural schools, and examines why many children “are falling through the cracks in the system.”
  • “Teach Your Children,” an exploration of the issues surrounding precollegiate curricula.
  • “Wanted: A Million Teachers,” which examines the problems involved in attracting and retaining qualified teachers.
  • “Paying the Freight,” an examination of the future of learning in America, weighing the question of whether more should be spent on reform or greater efforts should be made to allocate current funding more effectively.

The veteran newsman Roger Mudd is the host for the series, which features contributions fromel10lthe “McNeil/Lehrer Newshour” reporters John Merrow, Paul Solman, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

In choosing examples of education programs to highlight, Mr. Quinlan said, the series avoided a lot of the “sexiest stories that came along.”

For example, its producers considered, but declined, doing segments on the celebrated New Jersey principal Joe Clark and Boston University’s management plan for the Chelsea, Mass., school system.

“Those are things that get too much coverage, or are too idiosyncratic,” Mr. Quinlan maintained, saying he hopes the content chosen for the series “can shake people up a little bit.”

Further Network Exposure

The NBC public-awareness campaign announced last week is called “The More You Know.”

With the help of an educational advisory board made up of representatives from leading education groups, the network’s efforts will include public-service announcements with NBC stars, such as Rhea Perlman of “Cheers” and Jimmy Smits of “L.A. Law,” and efforts to include education themes in its entertain4ment programming.

Network officials said they also planned to encourage local NBC affiliates to include more about education in news and community-affairs programs, and they promised that NBC News would carry more reports on the subject.

The campaign is designed to enhance “community and parental support for teaching as a profession and education as an institution,” network officials said.

The network’s president and chief executive officer, Robert Wright, was joined at the news conference by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Representative William Goodling of Pennsylvania, among other members of Congress, all of whom lauded the network’s effort.

The campaign is scheduled to run for three years, with the first phase to attack youth drug and alcohol abuse.

Another producer of programming, cable television’s The Learning Channel, was scheduled this week to launch “Education Today,” a monthly program that will address education issues in a discussion format moderated by PBS’s Mr. Merrow.

The premiere, featuring discussions of early-childhood education and student testing, was to air at various times on March 19, 20, and 21.