Experimenting with the truth

It’s an old trick in journalism. I’ve done it. Every reporter I know has done it. You talk to the main players about a complex or controversial topic. You get “both sides of the story.” Then, whether you set out to or not, you subtly frame the story and select quotes and details in a way that suggests truth and justice are on one side.

I kept thinking of this as I watched “The Experiment,” Ben Lemoine’s film about the changes that have taken place New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina, at a screening hosted by the IU Education Policy Student Association.

Lemoine is a former TV news reporter, and his film, on the surface, nods to the conventions of balanced journalism. He presents the city’s education changes – the takeover by the state-run Recovery School District, the mass conversion to charter schools, a voucher program for children to transfer from under-performing public schools to private schools – as an “experiment” whose results won’t be immediately obvious. With a broadcast writer’s knack for simplicity, he boils down the complexities of education reform to simple nuggets that anyone can understand.

But Lemoine’s heart is with the reformers. He gives decent air time to reform critics Ken Saltman, author of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,” and Lance Hill, director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research. But the last word typically goes to reformers and cheerleaders: former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco; former State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, former RSD director (and current state superintendent) John White, politico James Carville; historian Douglas Brinkley; school-choice advocate Kevin Chavous.

The movie’s sweet spot is its extensive footage of five New Orleans children who Lemoine follows through a year of schooling. The kids are sweet and real. And their mothers are fierce and compelling in their determination to help their children reach their potential. But somewhere the film’s balance begins to slip. The narrative that emerges echoes Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”: charter schools, good, traditional public schools, bad.

The bias is at its most blatant on the subject of teachers’ unions. Lemoine accepts as a given that unions are all-powerful and single-minded in their opposition to reform. There’s B-roll footage from a chaotic-looking NEA convention, but not a single interview with a union official – actually, not even an interview with a public-school teacher. Union teachers are filmed, with no context, saying they shouldn’t be “accountable,” but we don’t know what question they were asked.

Diane Ravitch appears briefly – around the time she is introduced, the music switches from bouncy R&B to something ominous and minor-key. It’s not clear if she was interviewed, but if she was, her comments were selectively edited to leave only a statement of support for unions and a warning to those who dare oppose them. Lemoine talks to former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who repeats his slander that teachers unions are “terrorist” organizations. No one gets to respond.

Race is the elephant in the room when we talk about education and New Orleans, and Lemoine doesn’t acknowledge it. He clearly falls in love with the teachers and principals at the KIPP and New Orleans College Prep charter schools that he profiles. Most seem a lot like him: young, white, college-educated, hip, idealistic but brusque, radiating self-assurance. In a city where almost all the students in public and charter schools are African-American and most are poor, this jumps out.

Finally, the film doesn’t look critically at whether the New Orleans experiment is succeeding or how we can know if it is. Framing the movie with his own evolution from tough-guy crime reporter to thoughtful investigator of education, Lemoine laments that crime and failing schools are part of the “basics” in New Orleans. But he doesn’t question the inevitability of poverty. Or segregation. Or urban neglect. Or whether it’s appropriate to use standardized tests to decide if a student should be promoted. Those, apparently, are legitimately “the basics.”

Whatever its strengths and flaws, the film will get attention, given that figures ranging from President Barack Obama to leaders of The Mind Trust have cited New Orleans as a model for urban education reform. If you’re not bothered by the filmmaker’s biases, it’s a decent introduction to New Orleans education. But if you’re looking to get beneath the surface, this “Experiment” doesn’t work.

5 thoughts on “Experimenting with the truth

  1. Like Duncan’s comment on Katrina, Tony Bennett is on record as saying the Great Recession was the best thing that could have happened to the reform agenda in Indiana.

    Required reading is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.

    Klein makes a salient point: ideologues use economic turmoil (and other assorted disasters) as opportunities to install market-oriented “reforms”.

    That’s why unions are so dangerous to the reformers. They may be the last vestiges of democratic skepticism before the new reform model becomes impossible to resist.

  2. Thanks for the write-up. EDPOSA has a brown bag lunch on “issues in urban education” scheduled for later in the semester during which I hope to revisit some of these points.

  3. Great article, Steve.
    Perhaps we cannot yet measure learning outcomes from “the Experiment”. We could, however, measure how much of our public education assets have been diverted to private pockets. We might also want to check whose portfolios are swelling from investment in this new “education reform” commodity.

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