The State of U.S. Education (And the Power of Walter Cronkite)

By Sean Cavanagh — September 12, 2008 2 min read
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A new documentary, scheduled to air Monday, will examine how U.S. schools stack up against those of foreign countries, like China and Finland, in subjects like math and science and in meeting goals such as keeping students in school through graduation.

The PBS program is titled “Where We Stand: America’s Schools in the 21st Century.”

It takes its name from a Walter Cronkite program that aired 50 years ago, shortly after the Soviets shocked us Yanks with the launch of the Sputnik satellite. The producers of the new PBS program say the Cronkite show “is often credited with mobilizing the country and spawning a major investment in science and technology that got the nation to the moon 10 years later.”

I wasn’t around in 1957, so I have no way of knowing whether that last line is on-point or a grand exaggeration. But then again, we’re talking about Walter Cronkite here, the newsman/icon. And who among us doubts the power of television?

Hosted by longtime TV journalist Judy Woodruff, the program will focus in on four schools in Ohio, in the Cincinnati and Columbus areas and the town of Belpre. The program’s publicists say it will examine the challenges facing U.S. schools by telling the stories of students, parents, teachers and administrators. Those profiled on the show include Bin Che, an educator from China who teaches Mandarin in rural Ohio; Anne Kuittinen, a Finnish exchange student denied credit from her school in Finland for the work she did while studying in the United States; Cherese Clark, principal of a high-poverty urban school struggling to raise low test scores; and Guadalupe Medina, a student at an experimental science, technology, engineering and math school, who completed her high school requirements in two years.

The question of whether U.S. schools are falling behind those in high-performing foreign nations has lit a fire under public officials over the past few years.The show’s executive producer, Ronald Thorpe, said in a press statement that its creators purposely chose to highlight Ohio because it’s a presidential battleground state which reveals “both the promise and challenge of educating diverse populations. It also illustrates the fact that our position in relationship to other industrialized nations is not encouraging.”

The show will also feature interviews with education-policy types, such as Checker Finn, Rick Hess, and Michael Rebell, as well as Geoffrey Canada, President of the Harlem Children’s Zone and John Wilson, the National Education Association’ executive director, among many others.

“Where We Stand” will hit the air at 10 p.m. east-coast time on Monday, Sept. 15.

For more information on the program, go to The producers say you’ll be able to watch it after the fact at

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.