Education Reporting on Public Television
National Education Reforms on Local Television, 1990-Today
Featured Program: A Year of Change: Leadership in the Principal’s Office
How large public institutions reform themselves can be a difficult thing to understand from the outside. Change is needed, citizens will say. They might even vote or protest accordingly, but often the ways in which institutional changes occur are not fully revealed to the public. WNET’s New York Voices sought to elucidate one reform strategy taken on by the New York public school system in the series A Year of Change: Leadership in the Principal’s Office that ran from 2003 to 2005. In 2002, Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, had launched the Leadership Academy, a boot camp for ninety would-be principals. Over fifteen months, host Rafael Pi Roman follows three principals in the program as they negotiate seminars, role-playing scenarios, lectures from business tycoons, discussions with teachers, and finally their first months at the schools they plan to lead. Throughout this series, Pi Roman speaks with city officials and community leaders, discussing the merits and problems of the program. A Year of Change is a unique look into how reform happened in America’s largest school system. Watch the episodes here: Part I: The First Year, Part II: Into the Classroom, Part III: Imparting Values, Part IV: Measuring Success, and Part V: The Second Year. And, from the second season Episode 7 and Episode 8. Or, visit the program’s website.
The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations advocated for vouchers and school choice, seeing little role for the federal government in creating reform programs. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush identified the main problems with education in America to be the lack of school accountability, the absence of choice within the public school market, and the achievement gap. Unlike their predecessors, however, Clinton and Bush Jr. were willing to use federal power to get results. Both arrived in Washington with reputations as “education governors,” having substantially restructured the school systems in Arkansas and Texas, respectively.69 Through signature legislation such as Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind, both presidents sought to persuade individual states to enforce high standards through standardized testing. President Obama's Race to the Top program and the Common Core initiative similarly used incentives from Washington to induce state action. The debates from this period of education reform remain active to this day.
Similarly, many of the education-related television programs created by local public broadcasters in the 1990s and early 2000s remain on the air. Then and now, these programs showed viewers how national initiatives would affect their children. While mandates like No Child Left Behind came from Washington, they did so indirectly, requiring individual states to devise their own specific objectives and outcomes within the overall initiative. As a result, local school districts in Wyoming and Guam, for example, reacted differently to No Child Left Behind. AAPB’s archive gives insight into these differences.
Recent Trends in Education, 1992-2016
While the rhetoric surrounding the problems in schools has remained national since the publication of A Nation at Risk, real policy changes have been implemented at the state level. Texas, one of the first states to engage in substantive educational reform, began in 1980 to equalize school funding across districts, extend school hours, and most importantly, create standardized curricula and exams.70 Cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland implemented voucher programs, tax credits, or direct state funding for parents to send their children to private schools. Other localities like Minnesota in 1991 passed laws permitting the establishment of charter schools, privately run public schools that often are exempt from much of the bureaucracy of local districts. The rhetoric of the 1990s and 2000s was so focused on failing schools and the need for standards, tests, and accountability that several prominent education experts argued that this exaggeration was harmful.71
In 2002, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the bipartisan update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This law expanded the federal government’s role in ensuring that state education was up to snuff, by requiring that states test children in reading and math in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school.72 If states did not comply, they risked losing Title I funding, which helped local districts educate low-income students. Testing, already prominent in American schools, became the order of the day. In 2009, President Obama announced his own signature program, Race to the Top, which offered cash bonuses to states that, among other requirements, developed “rigorous standards and better assessments.”73 Although only nineteen states received funding, thirty-four changed laws or policies in order to be eligible to receive funding. Charter schools also expanded during the Obama administration.74
Some PBS programs from this period took nationwide stories and synthesized them into documentaries that could be shown across the country. For example, Who Will Teach for America? (1991), a collaboration between Drew/Fairchild, Inc. and Connecticut Public Television, profiled Teach for America, the then-new national teacher service corps designed to bring recent college graduates into the most underserved classrooms in the nation. Many of these programs were created by John Merrow, who produced hour-long documentaries on topics such as the rising costs of college (1993), arts education (1996), charter schools (1997), and two programs on standardized testing, in 1997 and 2002. These and similar programs often were funded by the Annenberg Foundation, which has sponsored educational television programs on PBS since 1981.75 Merrow continued to appear on the PBS NewsHour until his retirement in 2015. Merrow’s production company, Learning Matters, acquired by Education Week in that year, continues to report on public television.76
Because recent education trends have been implemented locally, it can be difficult to make generalizations about their efficacy. Take charter schools, for example. A 2013 CREDO (Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes) study found, “Across the charter schools in the 26 states studied, 25 percent have significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts, while 56 percent showed no significant difference and 19 percent of charter schools have significantly weaker learning gains.”77 Local news broadcasts reported on charter schools in their diverse contexts, revealing particular successes or failures, rather than speaking in generalities. See, for example, reports on charter schools from Minnesota, Alaska, Texas, New York City, and New York State.
Persistent concerns with desegregation and equity also cropped up in varied locations. NewsNight Minnesota covered an NAACP lawsuit to desegregate the state’s schools in a 1995 episode. Outlook, a production from KAKM in Alaska, meanwhile, examined school integration, “bush schools,” and school funding in 1998.
Experimental reforms, such as year-round school and extending the school day, found open ears across the country. NewsNight Minnesota and UNC-TV’s North Carolina Now both featured stories on the merits of year-long school. WGBH Forum Network recorded a speech by therapist Terry Real called “Whole Child, Whole Day” on the benefits of extending after-school activities.
From Wyoming to Guam, viewers could assess the results of No Child Left Behind. Grade A: Leave No Child Behind in Wyoming was a news series that monitored the public schools through the implementation of new legislation. This episode covered the first day of school in 2003. WNET’s New York Voices showed teachers preparing for the same first day of school, learning about new standardized curriculum in math and reading. Across the Pacific, PBS Guam’s ViewPoint featured a story on how the territory was attempting to meet NCLB requirements for literacy in their schools. New York Voices returned to the controversy surrounding school grading, a legacy of NCLB, in 2007.
Many local shows featured education specials that spent the entire program discussing various problems in public schools. These programs often aired in September, as classroom doors reopened. NewsNight broadcast at least two such programs, a 1998 Labor Day Special on Education and a one-hour special on K-12 education featuring Governor Jesse Ventura. WUSF’s Florida Matters aired The State of Education in 2009, which covered test scores and dropouts.
Many features highlighting local educational success stories appeared as specials on weekly or monthly magazine shows. The American Journey on Wisconsin Public Television profiled local notable figures, including Milton McPike, the principal of East High School in Madison , and Polly Williams, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, who discussed the Milwaukee voucher program. Main Street Wyoming from Wyoming PBS featured programs on One Room Schools and the Teton Science School. Maryland State of Mind showcased the work done at Maryland’s public universities, including the start of the College’s virtual campus. City Arts, a WNET program on New York arts, profiled La Guardia High School, the famous arts academy in Manhattan. Up Close with Cathy Unruh and Gulf Coast Journal with Jack Perkins, both from WEDU in Tampa, Florida, highlighted flourishing local school programs including Academy Prep, the Hillsborough Education Foundation, and the Pine View School.
Some stations broadcast long-form documentary profiles of local institutions. Arkansas Educational Television produced a program on the Arkansas School for the Deaf in 1994, showing footage of classes and events, as well as interviews with school administrators and teachers. A Song for Sisters, from Mountain Lake PBS, showed an intervention by Adirondack singer/songwriter Bridget Ball to help middle school girls with low self-esteem. Wisconsin Public Television produced a program motivated by similar concerns in 1999. The creators of Beyond the Butterfly asked middle school girls to carry cameras with them and tape their friends answering questions about their lives, focusing on the difficulties faced by this demographic. School Days, shown on WXXI in Rochester, profiled three elementary school teachers as they went through a regular day, revealing the similarities and differences between institutions.
Public Forums, Debates, and Interviews
As a result of the budget cuts of the 1980s, several Wisconsin stations merged to form Wisconsin Public Television in 1989. Byron Knight and James Steinbach, the new organization’s leaders, took the opportunity to reevaluate the mission of public television in Wisconsin. They decided that WPT should be seen as a “state community resource” that “celebrates and connects all the people of our state.”78 Soon, the station became a leader in “public journalism,” with programs like We the People.79 Reaching back to the lofty goals of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, We the People sought to “clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle” by providing public forums that allowed citizens to ask questions of prominent politicians and candidates.80 In 1993, 1997, and 2001, the program organized debates between the candidates for State Superintendent of Schools in Wisconsin. Before the candidates took the stage, We the People organized series of town hall meetings to collect opinions and craft questions for the debate. In 1996, the program featured a public town hall meeting with the University of Wisconsin regents to discuss the recommendations in their “Study for the 21st Century.” These programs demonstrate the fruition of one of public television’s highest goals—building civic engagement in the local democratic process by providing a public forum for discussion.
Other local stations provided similar services to their communities. In 1995, Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer held seven town hall meetings around the state to “get a sense of citizen’s priorities and education.” Wyoming PBS then held an hour-long discussion with the governor and four other top officials from the state to discuss the future of Wyoming’s schools. In 2001, Arkansas Educational Television Network held a panel discussion with elected officials, organization leaders, and school administrators to discuss plans to improve education in Arkansas. Concerned citizens could join the discussion by calling in with comments and questions. Louisiana Public Broadcasting organized a debate between gubernatorial candidates Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal on their plans for education in the state. WGBH’s Forum Network, a series of lectures from community organizations and educational institutions, broadcast “The Future of Teaching in Massachusetts” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) forum in 2008.
Other shows featured interviews with important figures in education policy. The Capitol Report, taped in Houston and aired across Texas, featured half-hour interviews with key figures in the state’s capitol. In 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2001, host Doris Childress interviewed representatives and state senators about K-12 and higher education in Texas. North Carolina Now aired interviews with local education reformers Caroline Massengill and John Wilson, as well as a feature on the state’s Teaching Fellows Program. North Carolina People hosted Jay Robinson and Howard Lee, both Chairmen of the State Board of Education, and Molly Broad, President of the University of North Carolina.
Local public television stations also took opportunities to present extended speeches organized by other institutions that would not be shown at such length on commercial stations. WGBH aired live broadcast talks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, purveying to a wider audience the views of experts in the field including John Merrow. This series also featured a talk with education journalists titled “The Media: Driving Education Policy?” WUSF in Tampa, Florida, provided event coverage of a press conference held by Governor Jeb Bush for the signing of Florida’s new education bill on May 16, 2002.
In New Jersey, Classroom Close-up, a program started in 1994, still airs half-hour specials every Sunday on the state’s public schools. Across the country, local stations like New Jersey Network continue to educate their viewers on how national education initiatives and discourses affect their local communities. To complement these views, programs distributed throughout the public television system like the PBS NewsHour, Frontline, and POV provide national perspectives on topics such as for-profit universities, dropout rates, inner-city educational challenges, and prison schools. At their best, both public schools and public broadcasting engage and support local communities, becoming a source of pride to their regions. By providing thoughtful, in-depth coverage of public education, public television stations bolster the notion of democratic citizenship central to the mission of these public institutions.