Is the No Child Left Behind Act the right vehicle for improving education, particularly in the high-poverty urban schools that seem to be struggling the most? A new documentary, scheduled to air on the cable channel HBO beginning June 23, tries to answer that question.
Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond spent the 2004-05 academic year capturing life at Frederick Douglass High School in the 82,000-student Baltimore school system. At that time, the school had failed to meet the goals of the NCLB law and faced possible sanctions from the state of Maryland.
The documentary, “Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card,” outlines the challenges facing the high school. Few students come from two-parent homes, and just a handful of parents show up on back-to-school night. Many students don’t come to school for weeks on end, forcing the principal, Isabelle Grant, to track them down at home, in part because of the attendance requirements of the federal law.
The documentary also highlights the dropout problem, because schools must report dropout data under NCLB. Douglass High has about 500 students in 9th grade, but only about 200 seniors. One 12th grade English teacher says it takes a “special” kind of student to make it to senior year at Douglass because so few are able to meet that milestone.
Still, the film presents a balanced picture of the school, showing its award-winning debate team, a choral concert, and a vibrant discussion of “Macbeth” in an English class.
The film notes that in Maryland, end-of-year high school tests will not count as a graduation requirement until 2009. So many students choose to put only their names on their test papers.
But the stakes are very high, viewers are reminded. The school could close if it fails to make sufficient progress.
The documentary focuses more, though, on the societal challenges facing some schools that fail to meet the goals of the NCLB law than on the law itself. And it offers few solutions to those problems.
“We feel strongly that offering simple solutions to complex problems is inherently misleading in documentary filmmaking,” Mr. Raymond said in press materials distributed by HBO.
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week