I teach a May Experience course, The Reel World: The Depiction of Schools on Film. A colleague of mine in the education department and I designed the course before Waiting for “Superman,” but the course is intended as a way to examine how political and public discourse shapes perceptions about public schools as well as policy. The course was revised to include Poverty Studies credit so many of the films explore how education intersects class and race.
This May X, I added the choice of reading either Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, by Kathleen Nolan, or Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, by Sarah Carr.
The focus of the discussion, however, remains on the eight documentaries below with some annotations about what aspects of education each film highlights. I do recommend all of these films, although each has some limitations as most documentaries do.
Recommended Documentaries on Education:
This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary can be found HERE.
Ron Stone stands at the center of this film about an urban high school in New Jersey. The film is solid and interesting—while also creating a good deal of tension and presenting a surprise ending. Many important issues are raised, notably the controversial stance of Stone as principal toward gangs and gang leaders attending the high school. This is an ideal companion to Police in the Hallways and it confronts several important issues about education and education reform—urban schools, high-poverty/majority-minority schools, zero tolerance policies, deficit views of minorities and impoverished children, gang presence and violence, leadership styles, police in schools.
The controversy, teaching evolution in public schools, that will not die—although it has evolved, ironically—is explored by this film that is engagingly personal and often humorous. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the approach of the moment for creating debates about if and how evolution should be taught in schools. While the filmmaker is upfront with his allegiances to science, the documentary is fair, almost to a fault as it allows the scientists to show why their expertise is often lost in their arrogance. The film successfully helps viewers navigate the definitions of science, evolution, ID, and creationism; it also confronts the roles of religion, ideology, and politics (specifically the power of school boards) in the “teach the controversy” assertions found among ID advocates. An interesting connection to this documentary is the news coverage of a creationist test given to students in a SC private school.
These documentaries often soar because of the people allowed to speak for themselves. This excellent HBO film opens with Minnijean Brown Trickey returning to Little Rock Central High, and then it never fails to deliver throughout. I would rate this a must-see among the selections in this course. The film confronts Brown v. Board, separate and unequal, schools within schools, the return of segregation (especially in the South), and the lingering tensions between the ideal and reality of racial harmony. Related pieces on the rise of the segregated South and education reform in the New Jim Crow Era are recommended. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is also an excellent connection.
When Waiting for “Superman” was released and disproportionately praised in the media, I wrote a piece on this documentary to suggest it is far superior and to ask viewers what these administration and teachers at Douglass High were supposed to do. The focus of this film is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the context of a high-poverty, majority minority urban high school. Some of the most significant moments of the documentary are disturbing scenes of violence in the hallways and one female student recounting a fight with an adult male relative. Teachers struggling with the students, including one TFA recruit, are included, and this is also a strength of the film. The film addresses accountability, administrator/faculty relationships, the roles of teachers (especially young teachers), the influence and struggles of parents, the voices of students, the significance of extracurricular activities, and the limitations of school-only reform and accountability under the weight of poverty and racial inequity.
Who controls the money, controls everything—or at least who controls the money wants to control everything. This documentary examines the clash between a family funding scholarships and the science curriculum in a logging community. This is a powerful pairing with Flock of Dodos since both documentaries dramatize the debate over who should determine the curriculum in public schools serving a free society. Clearcut and Flock of Dodos also highlight the culture war that simmers beneath almost all educational controversies. The issues raised in this documentary can be linked to the influence of entrepreneurs in the current reform movement, such as Bill Gates, and the role of school boards is also a central issue, again as in Flock of Dodos.
Morgan Freeman challenges his childhood hometown to integrate the prom, and he’ll foot the bill; this is the focus of an engaging and powerful documentary on the persistence of segregated proms in the twenty-first century. The voices of students, parents, and administrators drive this film, and the intersection of racism and public education takes center stage through those voices. A potential pairing (non-education related) is the documentary The Loving Story about the 1967 Supreme Court case addressing interracial marriage. The 2013 prom integration in Georgia also is a suitable companion to this film.
Neoliberalism driving education reform in Mexico is confronted in this documentary, which provides a strong conclusion to the May experience addressing education. Corporations (Walmart, Coca-Cola, Ford), corrupt unions, and President Fox provide a matrix of influential forces shaping and even dismantling public education in Mexico, paralleling the same neoliberal agenda highlighted under George W. Bush and increased under Obama. A combative and disturbing documentary, Grain of Sand forces viewers to consider the value of the Commons and the dangers of privatization. Like Hard Times at Douglass High, this film suggests that accountability reform based on high-stakes testing poses much greater harm than good for schools and students.
A companion video worth pairing with any of the above films is Tupac Shakur at 17 discussing education.