Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler

In Madeleine Sackler's affecting new documentary, The Lottery, the 27-year-old intended to create a cinema verite view of the families of four children who entered a lottery for 475 coveted spots at the Harlem Success Academy, a publicly funded charter school in NYC. But timing is every thing.

Sackler landed right in the middle of the hot button charter school controversy currently roiling the waters at the delta where education policy meets political action. The documentary shuttles between the personal and the political, as Sackler unpacks the stories of the four families, charter school advocates, the UFT, local politicians and screaming Acorn protesters. I talked to Sackler at an Upper East Side hotel and began by asking what drew the filmmaker to this subject:

Madeleine Sackler: A lot of people in my generation are profoundly affected by moral incongruities. I felt like this is a fixable problem. How often does that happen where there is some thing that just devastates lives but is fixable. It is not over there, it's not far away. It's here. It's in our backyard. What's surprising is the resistance that you get. That's the real world lesson.

Thelma Adams: A lot rides on this lottery for the individuals involved, and yet it's a little-known event. Was that what attracted you to the subject?

MS: The lottery is a terrible tragic event but it's hopeful because people feel like, well, the reason kids do better at certain schools is because they have a supportive family situation, or they have parents who help them do their homework, or that they live in a poverty-stricken area, that kids have the problem is at home. Or that the problem is poverty, or that certain parents don't value education, or don't realize the importance of education, or the problem is drugs or gangs or all of these things.

TA: What do you think is the critical element?

MS: The fact that the public education system is under-delivering in certain communities.

TA: Under-delivering - and have the same amount of money?

MS: That's the other thing people say: that it took money, or class size, just things that haven't proven to be true. It's been proven that the most important factor in the quality of achievement is the teacher.

And how do charter schools differ?

MS: I've spoken to a couple of leaders of networks of charter schools. Like Eva Moskowitz [CEO, Success Charter Network] in the film. From the parents to the teachers there's this overwhelming focus on culture, and attention toward high achievement. When you talk about parent involvement, you have to work to get the parents involved. You can't just assume that they're going to be on the same page as you from day one.

And how is that achieved?

MS: A lot of parents respond to results. I spoke to some parents who started at the school and were really frustrated. So why am I being called at home if we're five minutes late? It's annoying to have all of these rules and they were understandably annoyed. And then a couple of months later they're, like, my kindergartner is reading and she's the only one that's reading in my building. And they're very excited about that.

TA: What defines high performing?

MS: What a lot of these schools are doing is preparing kids to get to graduation and prepare for college. They track back year by year all the way to kindergarten to figure out what are the skills that students need to have in order to get to that point. The fact is our graduation rate is sort of a myth because we're graduating a lot of kids from high school that are not college ready. So I think that you have to be very clear that that's the goal we're looking for.

TA: Why is college prep so important to this model?

MS: There are two achievement gaps. There's the national achievement gap between low income, and their middle and higher income peers. There's also the global achievement gap: how our students are performing on the global scale. If we don't start preparing all of our kids for a higher level of achievement then we're going to continue to fall farther and farther behind. Right now I think we rank 24th out of 29 top industrialized countries. We're in big trouble.

What gave you the most hope, and what is the biggest challenge?

MS: What gives me the most hope is the reason I made the movie: there are so many parents that are eager for something better. And there are these schools that are making heroic gains in achievement, literally, in many cases, doubling achievement levels in the same community of schools that have been failing for decades. And so it means that it's possible.

And what do you find the most disheartening thing?

MS: That the obstacles are so entrenched and systemic, which means that it will require tremendous amount of political will to overcome it.

You're talking about parents that don't have ten years to wait. You wait that long and your kindergartner is already in tenth grade.

MS: The most disheartening thing is that we can't wait; but we're going to have to. I don't think that any of us should have to send our kids to schools that we know are failing. And a lot of people don't realize that the risks are devastating. If you drop out of high school your chances of being a single parent, or a teenage parent, or addicted to drugs, on the street, on welfare, in prison, or dead, are much higher.

So the stakes are high.

MS: Yes. What I think is really exciting is that for a long time we thought that to fix education we'd have to fix poverty, but actually I think it's the other way around. I think if we fix the public education system to be as good as we now know it can be, we can help fix poverty.