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Fifteen education documentaries that need to be made

“I'd love to see some in-depth movie on the effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning. What's the evidence that high-stakes testing is good or bad for actual learning?" said one reader.

Although last year’s feature-length documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ called attention to the plight of students in struggling schools, critics of the film noted that it focused on a very narrow set of causes and solutions to the problem, framing it solely from the perspective of those whom education historian Diane Ravitch calls “corporate school reformers” rather than educators on the front lines of the issue.

Since the film’s release, many educators have called for a more balanced film that delves into the challenges of U.S. public education from other points of view as well.

We recently asked readers: “If you could choose a topic to be the focus of a movie/documentary about education, what would it be and why?”

After receiving an overwhelming response, suggesting there’s incredible demand for other documentaries about U.S. public education, we’ve chosen the top 15 ideas proposed by readers—based on the number of responses each topic garnered, the pertinence of the subject, and the creativity of the response.

What do you think of these topics? Share your thoughts, and your own ideas for documentaries you’d like to see made, in the comments section below.

15. STEM education for teachers

“I am getting more and more concerned that many of our nation’s STEM teachers are not truly qualified to teach STEM-related subjects. Therefore, I would produce an in-depth documentary on what our present practices are and how to improve upon them in preparing STEM teachers, especially [in grades] 7-12. I would choose to make a documentary on how our nation’s schools of education prepare our public school STEM teachers. The reason that I would do this is: our nation has a dire shortage of STEM teachers; our nation’s STEM teachers have very little, if any, real-world experience prior to teaching their respective STEM content area; and to see how industry can step in and collaborate with our nation’s schools of education. What are the typical schools of education content area entrance requirements? Are our schools of education full of hard-science and/or engineering school dropouts?” —Paul M. Rutherford, Ph.D., physics educator, Project Lead The Way, Engineering Design & Development Instructor

14. Hybrid learning

“I would be very interested in learning of any school (U.S. or not) that offers hybrid instruction (any grade cluster), preferably where one semester is traditional (synchronous: students and teachers go to a building) and the other semester is asynchronous (online); then comparing achievement, [time] on task, ethics, rigor, relevance, long-term knowledge acquisition, etc. The industry is continually debating the pros and cons of these delivery methods, along with some traditional-online hybrids. Can a school be found that does both, for the purpose of analysis?”Vincent J. Hawkins, Ph.D., assistant superintendent, Springfield School District, Vt.

[Editor’s note: For a research report that looks at this very subject, see our recent story “Report cites 40 diverse examples of blended learning.”]

13. The effects, and implementation, of 21st-century technology

“High school curriculum, how boring and irrelevant it is at many schools; electronic and interactive textbooks—how we need to move away from the printed, outdated, heavy textbooks and how publishers need to work with schools. Are iPad/tablet devices the tipping point for schools? [I’d also like to see a documentary about the] inequality of internet access and digital media across the country—[especially in] rural, low-income areas.” —Lynda Congleton, technology integration specialist, Lee County School District, Ky.

I’d love to see a documentary that follows a school (or several schools) shifting from zero technology to becoming a wired/technology-infused system. There would be high drama in determining what technology would be used and how. Watching educators go through professional development on how to use technology would offer some inspiration as well as comedy, I’d guess. Students would have a key role, as they would likely transition pretty easily into using technology but would likely provide some challenges. For example, working in a tutoring center a few years ago, I consistently ‘caught’ some teenage boys trying to hack the security system so they could access some, uh, ‘inappropriate’ content.” —Susan Graham, director of school relations, AcademicMerit LLC, Portland, Maine

12. Home schooling

“Do a documentary about home schooling, and the later academic success [or lack thereof?] of many who are home schooled.” —Roger Burtner, Ph.D.

11. Cyber bullying

“Cyber bullying and its effects on students.” —Anna Campbell, school counselor, Broome High School, Spartanburg, S.C.

10. School choice, and the charter vs. public school debate

“I think I would choose ‘Charter vs. Public: You decide!’ I have worked in both settings and have mixed reviews.” —Lisa Lang

The documentary topic I would like to see explored is why the education we choose for our students to consume is so limited in choice and personalization, compared to everything we consume directly as adults? Try to imagine anything we consume as adults as limited in choice or with as few advancements over the past 20 years as education. It is also interesting that while most of what we consume directly as adults is delivered by competitive providers, most of us park our kids in a monopolistic enterprise to receive a service we know is critical to their future success. Amazon, Pandora, and iTunes use technology to adapt and recommend options, yet teachers and students have almost none of these tools to inform differentiated and personalized learning. Why not? There is no doubt that we love our kids and want the best for them, but what keeps us from breaking from the current install base and imagining something better than what we had?” —Jim Flanagan

“I’d like to see a documentary that examines the true effect school choice is having on our urban schools. As a parent, school choice sounds great, but in my own community (urban, blue-collar, and very ethnically diverse) I’ve seen too many white, middle-class parents choice their children outside the district—mostly based on xenophobia, or the fear that going to school with children from poorer, black, or Hispanic families will hold the development of their own children back. In losing these kids to other, more affluent neighboring districts, our own school system not only loses the funding these students would provide, but it also loses parents who are involved in their children’s education and who would advocate on their behalf—people who could be voices for positive change in the local school community. What effect does that have on the children who remain?” —Anonymous

9. Same-sex classrooms

“I would recommend [a documentary] on same-sex classrooms. Our school is currently involved in the first program sanctioned by the New Jersey Department of Education in a charter school. The program is in the second year. Research will be presented at the October National Association for Single Sex Public Education in Orlando. We have done quite a bit of research and professional development training for our staff with the Gurain Institute in Colorado, as well as the NASSPE with Leonard Sax.” —Karen Thomas, chief executive officer, Marion P. Thomas Charter School, Newark, N.J.

Would test scores be higher? Would class work be better? Would the classes’ [students] excel in higher thinking skills? Would this happen because of the difference of the whole class being the same gender? Would females or males do better because of the special placement?” —B.J. Shrewsbury

8. Special education

“A film could be on ‘Special-needs students: Challenges and hopes.’” —Samia Al Farra

“The topics that come to mind are: ‘Secrets Kept From Parents Regarding Special Education Accommodations/Modifications’; ‘Should Individual Education Plan (IEP) Be Renamed School Educational Plans for Individuals with Disabilities (SEPID)?’ IEPs and Foster Children: Where Are the School Counselors, School Psychologists, and School Social Workers? and ‘What happens when teacher subjective data does not match school objective data for students with IEPs?’ –Philip Canady, teacher, York County School Division, Yorktown, Va.

7. U.S. education vs. education in other developed countries

“I would love to see a documentary that compared American students’ knowledge of the world to students from around the world. We are a globally incompetent country, and it is going to come back and bite us because our students won’t be able to compete in the global economy.” —Charmagne Campbell-Patton, World Savvy Challenge program manager, Minneapolis, Minn.

I would love to see a documentary detailing the correlation between a country’s value of the teaching profession (teacher pay, working conditions, training, workload, appreciation) and student success.  Instead of Waiting for ‘Superman,’ this would document how teachers in the U.S. are really ‘stuck in the trenches.’” —Gabrielle Hernan, technology director, Boulder Country Day School

“The movie I would like to see is one of comparison: I would like to see something that focuses on the techniques used by high-performing countries concerning discipline, class work, homework, and grading policies, and see how our policies (including the ones the pundits want to implement) compare.” —Keith Weston

[Editor’s note: Filmmaker Bob Compton has compared the attitudes toward homework and extracurricular activities, as well as the rigor of the curriculum, in the United States, China, and India in his documentary Two Million Minutes, and his film The Finland Phenomenon looks at that country’s educational success. While both films raise important points for discussion, they don’t dig more deeply into how those other nations differ from the U.S. and whether the success they are seeing could be replicated here in the U.S.]

6. The best vs. the worst in education

“I want to see a fantasy film where the best students are taught by motivated teachers [who] are paid what they are worth, and engaged parents whose volunteer efforts are leveraged effectively. You can pair it with a horror movie about the opposite. In reality, I’d like to see what we could do if we put emphasis on letting the best students stretch as far as they could, the average students having a fair opportunity, and the poor students given the dedicated remedial help they need. The best teachers getting paid for exceptional performance, the average teachers getting the mentoring and encouragement to become elite, and the poor teachers fired. The parents who have the skills to fill gaps not blocked by silly rules, things to do for people willing to help, and required engagement for those unwilling.” —James Schweitzer

5. The effects of parent involvement

“I keep wondering why no one has done a documentary about the responsibility of a parent when it comes to raising children. Why is no one castigating them for not feeding their children real food, letting them stay up until all hours on school nights, not supervising their homework, and not becoming active in their schools? Why am I getting children entering kindergarten who do not know their letters, colors, names of body parts, and cannot speak in complete sentences? I want to have parents come to parent-teacher conferences, not just to get food or handouts, but to check up on their children. I don’t want to tell a parent that while their child is getting a D, he should be getting A’s, and have the parent say that as long as he is passing it is not a problem.” —B.J. Logan

“I’d love to see a documentary on the impact of parent involvement, or lack thereof, and the result on the academic outcome of children. There are many students who are [hurt] by the lack of parent involvement, yet with all of the ‘accountability’ mantra, teachers are the ones held accountable. Think of it this way: One child, who has support at home, is rowing a boat with two oars, one on each side, representing parent involvement at home, and the other the teacher’s involvement with the student at school. The child without parent involvement is trying to row a boat with only one oar. … It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the student with only one oar to every be able to perform as well as the student whom has two oars.” —Bill Miener, director of information systems, Edwardsville Community Unit School District No. 7

4. The effects of federal involvement in education

“How about a study on the federal involvement in education and schooling? Has this added more bureaucracy and increased the amount of assessment, yielded little results, yet cost billions? Where in the Constitution is education/schooling mentioned? Isn’t it a state function? How has the Department of Education actually improved anything in regard to education?” —Dr. Tom King, professor of secondary education, Doane College, Crete, Neb.

“My film would be about the study I did nine years ago about the incredible sums of money wasted in ‘overhead’—the infrastructure that supports state and federal departments of education. Using real numbers from the CBO, Census Bureau, the IRS, and other agencies, I was able to determine that if the federal and state departments of education were completely done away with (no hyperventilating, please, we can have all current programs—just no diversion of money through the ‘filters’ of bureaucracy), an additional, certificated teacher could be placed in every K-12 classroom in America. That would, effectively, cut class size in half across the board. Imagine what that would do to education in America!” —Randy Wormdahl, chair, Career/Technology Education Department, Colony High School

3. The effects of test-driven reforms on teaching and learning

“I would choose to document the fallacy of the test-driven educational system. Students are not learning how to learn or developing excellent learning habits that will be their foundation through life and work. They are not able to function effectively/efficiently in an overloaded, information-rich environment where few distinctions are made as to quality, relevance, depth of understanding, bias, etc. There is a huge focus on product production, not process—whether that process is reading in the content area, writing in the content area, [or] critical or creative thinking.” —Nina B. Levine, MLS, library media specialist, Hendrick Hudson High School, Montrose, N.Y.

“An issue that needs to be addressed in American education is sound assessment practice. Three well-known experts in this area are Rick Stiggins, Doug Reeves, and Ken O’Connor (Canadian). Rick Stiggins points out very well: (1) the purpose of assessment is to improve learning, not sort and select (and rank order) students; (2) Reeves, Stiggins, and O’Connor have outlined sound assessment practices that do not demotivate students in learning. O’Connor tackles the grading issue. Perhaps the Common Core State Standards and an [overhauled] assessment system will help, but it will still likely be used as high stakes to try to coerce teacher and principals into good educational practices.” —Judy Bean, Ph.D.

“I think it would be a great idea to talk about how education is no longer preparing children to be functional in the real world. Our schools have become so focused on teaching to a test that … we have bound their critical thinking skills.” —Opal Mobbs

I’d love to see some in-depth movie on the effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning. What’s the evidence that high-stakes testing is good or bad for actual learning? How does testing square with what is known about the quality of learning, or the quality of outcomes both in school, college, and the marketplace? This is so important because testing is driving everything right now, including school, local, and international policy, funding, evaluation, supervision, pedagogy, curriculum design, family decisions, research, college preparation and choice, [and] international comparisons. Testing is also big business, which may be an interesting issue to examine.” —Chris Toy, educator, facilitator, consultant, senior partner, Learning Capacity Unlimited, Bath, Maine

2. The effects of poverty on education

“The impact of poverty on the classroom, learning, and individual students lives. Show what problems students bring to school every day and how these impact education on a day-to-day basis.” —Betsy Miller-Jones, associate director, board development and policy services, Oregon School Boards Association

“My vote is on childhood health issues. It’s the easiest thing to fix, and the one ailment in our society that we can cure in our lifetime, more so than any other disease.” —Jen Ohlson

“One of the most unrecognized problems about failing schools is environmental lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is ubiquitous in low-income urban neighborhoods, and the well-documented consequences of even low-level lead poisoning (below the official federal level of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) is a major loss of IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, distractibility, impulsivity, and aggression, which manifest themselves as disruptive misbehavior. I completed a summary of the educational consequences of lead poisoning back in 2002, posted on our website at

“Before that, however there was a dramatic story developing in Rochester, N.Y., in the Enrico Fermi Elementary School where a hard-charging principal named Ralph Spezio instituted major reforms, including replacing most of his teachers with teachers who had received special training in working with urban poverty, bringing in grant money to fund special programs such as music, and establishing a medical clinic on the campus. From 1990 to 2002, Spezio worked to overcome the poverty of his students and was largely successful, but there remained a large core of children who did not respond to these academic enrichments and whose behavior often displayed rage and violence without even first displaying anger. One day, however, he overhead two nurses in the clinic mention ‘another lead child,’ and when he asked they explained that many of the students had a history of lead poisoning. That awakened him to dramatic consequences of lead poisoning, and he began a community awareness campaign about lead poisoning that eventually resulted in the organization he formed receiving a major environmental justice award about a year ago. You can get an overview of this from a TEDxRochester video at” —Michael T. Martin, research analyst, Arizona School Boards Association, Phoenix, Ariz.

1. A day in the life of a teacher

“What does the actual school day of a teacher really entail? The public has a perception that a teacher works from the time the students come in each morning and that [the teacher’s] day ends when the children go home. Educators know that it really isn’t the case. Let’s show them what a teacher really does.” —Dawn Lynn Eibel, instructional technology specialist, Office of Media Services, Norfolk Public Schools, Va.

“Why not a film that looks at the life of a good teacher. It would highlight all the hours spent planning, reaching out to students and parents, tutoring before and after school, grading, attending school-sponsored events. … We work hard at teaching because we have a calling.” —Dr. Dawn Wilson, associate professor, School of Education, director of M.Ed. Cohort Operations, Houston Baptist University, Texas

“I think a documentary that balances out the negativity that always gets press would be very welcome by teachers and probably highly attended if it was released in select theaters. We have amazing teachers who deal with challenging situations and challenging students. Why don’t we ever focus on those stories? In fact, the big teacher unions always gripe and moan about media like Waiting for ‘Superman,’ yet I never see any high-profile documentaries of their own. If the big teacher propaganda machines are dropping the ball on a counter-strike to bad publicity, who is going to go to bat for public education? What better way to spend union dues than to cheer outstanding public teachers on through a documentary celebrating their success?” —Dr. Kevin T. Goddard, Ed.D., superintendent, Sarcoxie R-II School District

“I would take teachers from all over the U.S. (rural, suburban, urban, new, veteran, good, and bad) and show what we really do in a day. It might be cumbersome, but I believe that if people really saw what we are dealing with (poverty, ADHD, autism, ELLs, helicopter parents, positive and negative administrators, etc.) they may stop blaming us and start helping us.” —Anita Marie Murano-Sweetman

[Editor’s note: The documentary film American Teacher, released a few weeks ago, aims to do just that.]

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