Mixed media

Dueling documentaries underscore the great divide in American education

the trend at first seemed heartening. The problems in the US education system had become so compelling that filmmakers recently produced several documentaries on the topic, with some even enjoying commercial success at theaters. It suggested that the critical issues facing schooling in America might finally be registering on a broad scale. But after attending screenings of two of the new education documentaries, I found myself more dispirited than uplifted.

My education double-feature, with viewings separated by a few months and a few miles, started at the Loews Boston Common theater, where Citizen Schools, a Boston-based nonprofit that operates after-school programs, sponsored a screening of Waiting for Superman. The film was produced by Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for his documentary on Al Gore’s battle against climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.

The movie focuses on the dismal prospects facing American students in large, urban school districts. For the students profiled in the film, hope comes in the form of a numbered ping-pong ball being drawn from a drum, the method used by many charter schools to conduct lotteries when demand for their seats exceeds the supply. The families in the movie have given up on dysfunctional district schools, and feel that admission to a higher achieving charter school represents the only hope that their child will get a quality education that will prepare him or her for college.   

Several months later, I was at the Belmont Studio Cinema for a showing of a very different documentary. Race to Nowhere paints a picture of a high-pressure, achievement-oriented school culture that is destroying our kids, stealing their childhood, and causing everything from stress-induced stomach illnesses to suicide among teenagers who are running faster than ever on the rat-race treadmill that US schooling has become. We hear from students who could never take enough AP courses to satisfy their maniacal helicopter parents and from those who literally made themselves sick throughout high school by working day and night to get accepted at the “right” colleges.

The film was met with knowing nods from parents in the affluent Boston suburb, who shared worries during a discussion session after the screening that their children were suffering from the same sorts of pressures.

I had an entirely different reaction, however. I was struck by the fact that these parents—and the film—were decrying a high-achievement culture that families in Waiting for Superman were desperate for their children to gain access to.

There is certainly plenty that’s wrong with American schools, and the pressure on students and obsession with grades, college rankings, and SAT scores clearly is over-the-top in some communities. It mainly seems to be a problem in affluent suburbs, however, and it is as much the fault of parental pressure and the broader culture as it is of the schools themselves. But these are problems that millions of American schoolchildren will never have to contend with. They are consigned to school districts where 15-year-olds are struggling with basic math and reading skills, and where the question isn’t who got into which top college but whether graduating students are prepared to handle introductory courses at a community college.

It is that grim reality that has inspired school reformers to insist that we create schools of excellence that set high standards for poor children and provide them with the support to reach that bar. George W. Bush was not known for his eloquence, but he captured the essence of the challenge in his 2000 speech on education to the NAACP, in which he decried the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

American children may all head off to school each morning, but they arrive at two entirely disconnected worlds. Which one they are in almost invariably depends on their zip code. There is perhaps no more powerful reminder of this than the fact that one world seems to be suffering from a gluttonous excess of achievement-focused competition, while families in the other would give anything for their children even to be able to sip from that cup.

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