09/18/2010 08:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You've Got Homework! (VIDEOS)

Writing about an educational partnership between the New York City Department of Education and Bard College that allows highly motivated students to complete a two-year Associate of Arts degree while still in high school (similar to Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts), New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert stated:

"When you look at the variety of public schools that have worked well in the U.S. -- in cities big and small, and in suburban and rural areas -- you wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to throw a stultifying blanket of standardization over the education of millions of kids of different aptitudes, interests, and levels of maturity. The idea should always have been to develop a flexible system of public education that would allow all -- or nearly all -- children to thrive."

In the five years since The Huffington Post and YouTube were launched, aspiring filmmakers, bloggers, and citizen journalists have found potent new outlets through which they can express themselves. Still, there is no escaping the fact that -- after years of dumbing down the curriculum and eliminating arts programs in our schools -- American society places much more emphasis on monetizing intellectual property than on the continued nurturing and development of young minds.

While Davis Guggenheim's new documentary is garnering lots of attention, it would be tragic if the extraordinary media blitz surrounding the release of Waiting For Superman tricked people into thinking that Guggenheim's film is on the only important documentary available -- or the definitive statement -- about the numerous problems facing the American educational system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Waiting for Superman might make people believe that the lottery system used by some charter schools is the only application system that drives parents to distraction. But as I watched Nursery University, I'm sure I wasn't the only person chuckling at the sight of attorneys and investment bankers (who can easily afford the $20,000 per semester tuition for an exclusive preschool nursery program) desperately jumping through hoops in their efforts to gain admission for their children.

Marc H. Simon's new documentary may be the first to pierce the inner circle of upscale families who are struggling to get their children into such exclusive venues as Mandell School, Chelsea Day School, and Epiphany Community Nursery. If you thought the college admissions racket was ridiculous, the lack of openings available at these prestigious schools is even worse.

The limited enrollment at such schools has fostered a mini-industry of professional consultants who can charge as much as $10,000 per child to guide parents through the nightmarish application process. Indeed, there is much in Nursery University that may cater to a niche market seeking privileged parenting porn.

Filmmaker Vicki H. Abeles was inspired to make Race To Nowhere when she began to notice how continually rising levels of stress and depression had started to affect her three children. As Abeles dove deeper into researching the source of her children's symptoms, she discovered that many families are obsessed with a "fast-track to success" formula that starts in preschool and never lets up.

"I came to understand that kids everywhere are under a new kind of cultural pressure to perform, the kind of pressure that impacts not only health and wellness, but interrupts healthy development, too. These pressures aren't just cultural. They are educational pressures from a system too focused on test scores and grades arising from colleges whose endowments depend on donations, which in turn depend on the GPA and Honors status of its student body. For too many, childhood today has become a time of productivity. No longer is there time for children to play, to discover their passions, to rest, to make mistakes, to self-reflect or to build the resiliency needed for a healthy adulthood. People in business began telling me that this newest crop of employees lack critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, and need a great deal of guidance and instruction."

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Documentaries about education often succeed best when using a format that follows students through some kind of competition. While audiences were fascinated by 2002's Spellbound, a new documentary entitled Whiz Kids focuses on Intel's national competition for science students.

Perhaps the most intimidating of student documentaries is Debate Team. If you thought films like Spellbound and Wordplay were populated with cunning linguists and shameless lexicographers, you ain't seen nothing yet. This documentary is filled with dysfunctional geniuses who are a hair's breadth away from losing touch with reality.

Once B. Douglas Robbins met up with former debate whiz Mike Miller, he understood how to make his film. Instead of just focusing on fast-talking college students, he used the framework of a debate championship to show how Americans obsess over winning, how they react to losing, and what kinds of ego loss their obsessive-addictive behavior patterns can lead to.

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If there is one filmmaker who has concentrated on social issues within the schools, it is Debra Chasnoff. Her documentaries include the following:

  • It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School (1996) examines how elementary and middle school students are discussing gay people. Hearing what the children have to say about gay issues (as opposed to what adults have to say) is quite an eye opener.

  • It's Still Elementary (2007) examines the impact the previous film has had on schools and teachers -- as well as the controversy that erupted when It's Elementary was aired over the Public Broadcasting System.
  • That's A Family (2000) lets nearly 50 children discuss how they wish others would relate to families that are straight, gay, multireligious, multiracial, adoptive, divorced, or in which children are being raised by a single parent.
  • Let's Get Real (2004) examines name-calling and bullying from the perspectives of the victims, the perpetrators, and those who try to intervene and bring such activities to a halt.
  • Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up (2009) lets teens talk about whether or not they agree with the gender roles assumed by previous generations. Covering the entire spectrum from straight to questioning, bisexual, and gay, Chasnoff's documentary shows America's youth exploring a new frontier of defining their own sexuality in ways many of their parents could never have imagined.
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    None of these issues can be addressed without a strong faculty and supportive school administration. And yet, if you ask successful adults about people who had a profound impact on their lives, many will cite a teacher who inspired them, challenged them, or forced them to aim higher. Three documentaries show how underprivileged students can be motivated by educational professionals who genuinely care about their futures.

    Beth Toni Kruvant's Heart of Stone (So Hard To Be An Indian) gives a bare-bones view of what it is like to manage a tough urban high school in today's world. What sets Newark, New Jersey's Weequahic High School apart from some other schools is (a) its long history as an outstanding school, and (b) a determined group of alumni for whom race is not a dividing issue.

    Although the school's population had once been fairly evenly divided between Jews, Blacks, and Italians, the flight of urban Jews to suburbia (especially after Newark's race riots destroyed some of their businesses) left a gaping hole in a long-established patchwork of community relations. As an elderly Jewish alumnus notes "Where we wore tattoos in shame, they now wear them in pride."

    Kruvant's documentary relates how a group of Weequahic's alumni banded together to work with its principal, Ron Stone, to develop a series of scholarship programs that could take some of his underprivileged students on ski trips, to Paris, and to college in an effort to help turn their lives around.

    Christopher Wong's Whatever It Takes gets up close and personal with sullen teens who think they can get a semester's worth of failing grades and still go on to college, families with histories of drug abuse and domestic violence, as well as exhausted teachers who welcomed a tough professional challenge but finally succumbed to the realization that the commute was killing them.

    Having taught for 38 years, Wilma Stephenson begins the school year by telling her new students that "This is not your mother's home economics class." She then stresses that the reason the previous year's class received over $750,000 in scholarship money was because they earned it.

    Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, Pressure Cooker shows what happens when adolescents who could easily end up working at McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or dealing drugs come into contact with a teacher whose personality quickly shifts between being a benevolent despot and a substitute parent. In an inner city school (where more than 40% of the students don't reach their senior year), Stephenson's pupils have the benefit of knowing that their teacher will move mountains to motivate them -- and will be rooting for them from day one (Stephenson also coaches Frankford's cheerleading team).

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    There is a spiritual side of learning that has nothing to do with religion. Instead, it comes from a student's growing awareness of his own culture and the cultures of other people. One of the great shames of the American educational system is the sordid history of Indian boarding schools, documented in Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School.

    Despite merciless budget cuts for arts programs, some school districts find a way to support programs that teach children a skill as well as the discipline to keep trying to improve their skills. Although there are no clips available from Freida Mock Lee's Sing China!, this excellent documentary followed the Los Angeles Children's Chorale on a cultural exchange trip to China.

    Few people can forget the charm of Mad Hot Ballroom, a 2005 documentary about a competitive dance program in the New York City schools. But ballroom dancing will only get you so far.

    If there is hope for the newest generation of schoolchildren, it might be seen in Speaking in Tongues, a fascinating documentary by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider that focuses on four San Francisco children who are participating in a total immersion language program. In their directors' statement, the filmmakers note:

    "As their educational adventure unfolds, we witness how learning a second language transforms their sense of self, their families, and their communities. In a time of globalization and changing demographics, bilingualism offers these kids more than an opportunity to join the global job market. They connect with their grandparents, they communicate with their immigrant friends, they travel comfortably abroad. They are becoming global citizens. We've witnessed the transformation in our own home. Our sons are in their fourth and eighth year in a public school Chinese immersion program. They cause a stir when they order in accent-less Chinese at local restaurants. But they also have translated for a confused Chinese speaker lost at the doctor's office, visited shut-in Chinese-speaking elders, felt at home in a traditional Chinese home, and -- very important for us -- helped us understand our film footage. When spoken to by a native speaker, they don't pause to translate. They think in Chinese (having learned it like a baby by hearing it spoken around them). "

    Children who are confident with language usually end up being confident within themselves. Watching the ease with which the stars of Speaking In Tongues handle challenges -- compared to the difficulties faced by so many adolescents in other films -- one can only wish that more and more children would be enrolled in similar total immersion programs. Here's the trailer:

    To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape