5 Documentaries That Just Might Change Your Views of Public Education in America

Family Matters on 08.21.12
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Photo: Sunset Parkerpix/ Creative Commons

Last year, our family of five traded New York City for the suburbs of Connecticut.  Public schools played a huge role in our decision to move. We chose the Connecticut suburb with the "best" schools where we could (sort of) afford to live.

As Americans, we live in a country with a system of public education that is vastly unequal. Several years ago, I taught at a failing public charter school in Washington, D.C., miles from the White House. I couldn't get over the fact that presidents did not send their kids to the public schools they were charged with reforming. But every parent just wants the best education for their child.

Watching these documentaries helped me to learn more about the tangled web of problems that plague our system of education and some proposed solutions. As we head into the back to school season, these movies could inspire great dinnertime conversations with older kids.

1. 2 Million Minutes 

Video: YouTube

The documentary, 2 Million Minutes, profiles six high school students from three countries -- China, India and the United States -- to show the different ways each will spend their time during high school (totaling 2 million minutes). This film gives a "big picture" view of different systems of education around the world, though it does play on stereotypes about American vs. Asian students.

2. Waiting for Superman

Video: YouTube

Get ready to be depressed about the state of public education as it is portrayed in this documentary. Waiting for Superman follows several students across the country who are seeking alternatives from their local public schools by applying to charter school lotteries. The movie presents depressing facts (with cartoon graphics) about the way American students stack up to the rest of the world and explains problems with bureaucracy and teachers unions. I was especially interested in their take on "tracking," a practice that goes on in most large public schools where students are placed into groups and classes according to their abilities.

3. Mad Hot Ballroom


Video: YouTube

Watching a bunch of fifth graders ballroom dancing will tug at any parents' heartstrings. Mad Hot Ballroom is about a ballroom dancing program in New York City public schools. For me, it reinforced that there are so many different ways of teaching kids through art, music, theater and dance that are often the first to go when budgets get cut. Through the practices, competitions, and just hanging out with the kids, you get a unique view of this urban school system. And the 11-year-olds' one liners about love and life are more adorable and hilarious than any cat video. 

4. American Teacher

Video: YouTube

The documentary, American Teacher, follows the day-to-day routine and career trajectory of four outstanding teachers.  We get to see their struggles in the classroom and at home, working long hours and struggling to pay the bills (many of them work second jobs). Interviews with academics and policy experts appear in a way that is informative and easy to understand. I learned not only how much a great teacher can affect a student's progress but also how our current system is failing to attract and retain the best and the brightest (whom we want to teach our kids!).

5. The Lottery  

Video: YouTube

The focus of this documentary is the annual lottery for the Harlem Success Charter Schools. The Lottery presents gut-wrenching accounts of a few families' struggles with their kids' current schools. You can't help but root for the parents who are trying so hard to get their kids a great education and a better life. But in the end, it's obvious how high the odds are stacked against them. 

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