09/18/2011 05:00 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2011

Tavis Smiley's "Too Important to Fail"

As explained in Tavis Smiley's PBS report, "Too Important to Fail," the way we look at black boys is "America's litmus test." Smiley approaches the challenges facing black males with the good sense and the good will of our nation's archetypical "Everyman." The result is a jewel of a documentary outlining a balanced set of solutions.

Smiley not only tackles an issue that few dare to touch, but he does so with a candor that is liberating. For instance, he pushes an equally honest principal to articulate the words, "Victims of Society," thus opening the door to discussing the socio-emotional needs of black males.

Because of his obvious goodwill, Smiley can ask questions in words that are disarmingly honest, such as, "why are black boys harder to reach?" He praises "no excuses" charter schools, but without repeating the slander that neighborhood schools serve "the same kids" and that all teachers could be equally successful if they just had "High Expectations!" Instead, Smiley simply asks why it is so difficult to scale up those wonderful schools. And he says out loud that the #1 problem faced by schools in overcoming generational poverty is overcoming the "negative influences" that are brought to their buildings.

Smiley let students explain the power of peer pressure, and then he articulates some profound advice. "The only way to get somewhere is to hang with people going there."

Even better, Smiley's guests make it clear that we must hang with the heroes who battled for some of our democracy's greatest accomplishments. A chief probation officer explains how it was a black studies course that turned him around. Novelist Walter Dean Myers says that kids will learn to read if exposed to literature that reflects their own lives. Former Philadelphia CEO Arlene Ackerman asserts that she is standing on the shoulders of other black success stories. Pulling it all together, another expert described a prime role of adults, challenging teens with the question, "how do you protect your posterity?"

Smiley's approach recalls the truism, "You are not the problem. I am not the problem. The problem is the problem." A non-educator could watch the entire show without recognizing that liberals are tearing themselves apart in an educational civil war. It was started by the libel that "the status quo" was "designed" to keep poor children of color down, and that educational failure should be blamed on teachers' "low expectations." On the other hand, surely Smiley recognizes the obvious fact that too many teachers do not make the extraordinary efforts necessary to overcome the legacy of centuries of oppression. He does not give voice to teacher-bashing, however. The heroic educators who Smiley profiles might or might not hold educational policies positions that would upset a teacher like me, but he concentrates on their good works. Rather than cursing the darkness, Smiley focuses on what we can learn from educators who are successfully lighting candles.

At times, I was tempted to read between the lines and let my opinions of education "reform" influence my take on "Too Important to Fail," but I found its approach to be liberating. For instance, although I have concerns about charter schools, Smiley's approach allowed me to admire with unadulterated pride the accomplishments of students and teachers in charter schools like Chicago's Urban Prep Academy and Philadelphia's Promise Academy.

At the same time, Smiley and most of his guests agree that standardized testing has become a growing part of the problem. The thrust of the report, though, is not the dead end of bubble-in testing. Instead, one successful educator after another explains what really works -- addressing socio-emotional dynamics. Perhaps the key contribution made by Smiley is his concentration on the effects of trauma on black males. He documents the need for preschool and reading for comprehension by 3rd grade, but even then, Smiley's guests emphasize the emotional and moral dynamics of teaching students to be students. Because he focuses on educators, not theorists, Smiley is repeatedly told that young black males need adults to "nurture their resilience."

Being a former black history teacher, I am biased, but I think the most long-lasting contribution of "Too Important to Fail" may be its call for a return of black studies to the classroom. Schools must help black males "see themselves in the country's narrative." Since NCLB, the pressures to replace electives with test prep have become irresistible, and worse, the pressures to cover the tested curriculum have made it harder to go into depth to the deepest dramas that used to bring out the best in students. For instance, when we used to invest a full week in government class watching and discussing Smiley's annual State of Black America, principals loved to drop in and join the conversation. During my last years in the classroom, we had to have those lessons on the sly. But, it is absolutely essential to demonstrate to kids, especially black males in America, that they do not exist "in a vacuum."

Because Smiley is not searching for scapegoats, he does not have to pull any punches in analyzing the magnitude of our problems. I had to watch parts of Smiley's work three times before I grasped its genius. If educators and wonks could see "To Important to Fail" for what it is -- a balanced account of solutions that we cannot allow to fail -- it could be the model for the transformational change that our democracy needs.