We have come to expect a John Merrow documentary on education to have the salutary effect of presenting a cool-headed, generously even-handed look at even the hottest of controversies.
And "In Schools We Trust," his examination of the constant tug-and-pull that has characterized the 150-year-long relationship between the public schools and the society they are meant to serve, fulfills that expectation--perhaps, in this case, to a fault.
It is always journalistically more challenging to take the long view. It's easier to pit one party to a controversy against the other or to take sides than it is to try to hold the interest of viewers--or readers--with a dispassionate history lesson.
So it is admirable that Merrow has tackled that task in this case. Airing tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, "In Schools We Trust" reminds us that the schools always have been expected to serve larger social agendas--in addition to teaching children to read, write and compute. Furthermore, the criticism of public education heard today echoes the concerns of the past that schools were not up to the task.
Assisted by such astute educational historians as Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, and David Tyack of Stanford University, Merrow recalls that, at the turn of the century, schools were given the job of "Americanizing" immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Later, post-Sputnik, they were to help close the apparent technological gap between the United States and Russia. And, since the early 1980s, they've been expected to turn out students who would ensure the nation's economic competitiveness.
Today, the menu of strategies for carrying out that goal is a long one--and Merrow quickly summarizes several: national standards, publicly funded vouchers, new ways of assessing student progress. But, consistent with the documentary's historical perspective, he resists the impulse to say which of these seem most promising.
Although it is what allows Merrow to show us how current debates fit into the historical context, that neutrality will no doubt leave some viewers feeling unsatisfied.
* "In Schools We Trust" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.