Film gives ABCs of education

Sunday, September 2, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- Leave it to Thomas Jefferson to craft a ringing and poetic endorsement of public schooling: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

Jefferson is one of many weighing in on the past, present or future of education in PBS' "School: The Story of American Public Education," a four-hour documentary airing Monday at 8 p.m.

The film is a fascinating primer on the roots of American schools and an evenhanded look at privatization, standardized testing and other contemporary issues.

It is also a call for reasoned, informed discussion and a measure of optimism, said Sarah Patton, who produced the film with Sarah Mondale. Mondale also served as director; actress Meryl Streep narrated.

"Our main goal was to try to get people out of crisis mode when they're looking at public schools," Patton said in an interview. "Ninety percent of kids go to public schools and most of them are getting a really good education."

Taking the long view of American education was intended to provide perspective on "where to go from here, and to get people talking about what they want from their schools rather than being at each other's throats over which is the best method," she said.

Some of today's provocative issues, including religion in the classroom and the impact of immigration, arose in other forms in past eras, Patton noted.

The program opens by examining the cobbled-together approach that passed for education in young America. In pre-Revolutionary times, only larger New England towns were legally required to build schools.

Elsewhere, if formal schooling occurred it was because a community was motivated to pool its resources and hire a teacher. There were also "dame schools" led by women who were a cross between teacher and babysitter.

Most schooling was linked to the King James version of the Bible. The most common book, the New England Primer, was used to teach reading and the Protestant catechism, according to the film.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, the majority of Americans were just literate enough to read a newspaper and the Bible. In 1776, average lifetime school attendance was about 80 days (in 2001, the figure was 14.5 years).

For Jefferson, state-supported schooling to create an informed citizenry was essential to democracy -- for boys more than girls, however, and for slaves not at all. His was a hard-fought but losing cause: In Virginia, legislators rebuffed his efforts to guarantee education.

"People just thought it was an insane notion for you to pay for your neighbor's kid to go to school," Patton said.

It would take time and an energetic advocate to change attitudes.

Horace Mann of Massachusetts, described in the film as a "consummate politician," became the state's first secretary of education and an effective cheerleader for public schools.

Beginning in the 1830s, Mann visited hundreds of schools and wrote detailed reports on their poor facilities, lack of teaching materials and inequitable funding that limited or barred education for the poor.

"Horace Mann is rightly the patron saint of public education," educator E.D. Hirsch says in the film, citing a connection between Mann and Jefferson: "...Both of them disliked the idea of the family you were being born into determining how you ended up in American life."

It's been a difficult march toward true educational equality. The PBS film details the anti-Catholic bias in schools that ultimately helped propel the formation of a national network of Catholic schools, the nation's major alternative school system.

Racial discrimination is another recurring theme. The program describes a black father's 19th-century fight to end the segregation keeping his daughter in an inferior Boston school, then draws a line from that case to the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. the Board of Education) that began school desegregation.

Creative efforts are highlighted in "School." The film's second hour includes rare footage of an early 20th century pilot program in Gary, Ind., that drilled children in the basics but also gave them training in art, music, agriculture and other work skills.

The program ultimately collapsed because parents, immigrants in particular, feared it was an attempt to steer their children into factory work and away from a classical education, Patton said.

The film's final episode addresses the rising tide of criticism of public education, including calls for an end to what some call "the public school monopoly" and efforts to introduce private competition in the mix. Defenders of public education's track record also are heard.

Based on years of research for the film, Patton said she concluded that a school works -- whether it is traditional, privately operated or other -- because it is run by a passionate leader.

In good schools, "the principal was fired up and the teachers and kids felt lucky to be there. You could tell the school was just crackling with energy and it didn't matter so much what approach they were using."

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