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Documentary illuminates civil rights struggle in public schools

By Angela Mendez

Section: Opinions

September 23, 2016

I have recently made the decision to pursue a license in teaching. My love for children is simply that great. As a result, I am currently taking Education 100A, Exploring Teaching (Elementary and Preschool). This class is absolutely phenomenal as it introduces the world of teaching with not only insightful readings, but also with critical documentaries that provoke conversation and dialogue.

Last week my professor, Aja Jackson, assigned my class to watch “School: The Story of American Public Education.” This documentary is broken up into four 55-minute episodes. Narrated by Meryl Streep, this film talks about four different time periods, starting from 1770, right after the American Revolution, and ending in the early 2000s. It informs audience members of the rich history behind the American education system and how this system is constantly evolving. I will briefly talk about the first two episodes and then delve in detail about the last two, because the connections I made with the last two illustrate how vital these time periods were to the improvement of the education system here in the United States.

1. The Common School, 1770-1890
In the aftermath of the Revolution, a newly independent country confronted a challenging obstacle as it dealt with building a nation that united 13 unique colonies. This is when the passionate Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Horace Mann and others launched an innovative approach to education. They created a common system of tax-supported schools that would mix people of “different” backgrounds to reinforce the ideals of a democracy. Research shows how this noble experiment was a completely radical idea and was opposed by many due to racial prejudice and fears of taxation.

2. As American as Public School, 1900-1950
In the early 1900s, the industrial revolution began and unfortunately, only about six percent of American children graduated high school. By 1945, 51 percent graduated and about 40 percent went to college. This episode highlights how massive immigration, child labor laws, the birth of baby boomers and the growth of cities fueled school attendance and essentially transformed public education. John Dewey, a key player in revolutionizing the American education system, voiced progressive ideals, including the effects of the controversial IQ tests on children. Interviews with immigrants, scholars and administrators help paint a landscape on the United States’ changing educational system.

3. A Struggle for Educational Equality, 1950-1980
This episode mainly conveys how impressive gains masked profound inequalities within the education system. During the 1950s, the civil rights movement brought attention to how unfair and unjust the notion of “separate but equal” was. Simply put, there was no equality whatsoever. Schools with white children had astounding resources in comparison to schools with students of color. White schools had gyms, and many children were taught a foreign language. Having gyms and enrichment classes were not options students of color had. Protests took place due to this injustice.

In a similar vein, the Chicano movement took place to protest the maltreatment many Chicanos or Mexican-Americans were receiving. Chicanos were often addressed as dogs, animals, idiots and even dirty. They were treated as inferior. It is upsetting to hear that such injustices did happen. Nevertheless, it did occur.

And then there were the feminist protests, where women emphasized that they were equal to men. Women could and can do anything they set their mind to.

4. The Bottom Line in Education, 1980-2001
In the last episode, the film talks about the most current changes in the education system. In 1983, the Reagan Administration reported that the nation was at risk. It shattered the confidence the United States had in the education system. In efforts to improve students’ performance, a new wave of education reform was born. Schools were treated as businesses, national standards were set, and programs such as vouchers were created.

The last two time periods resonate a lot with me and my experiences. As a woman of color, the civil rights movement holds a lot of significance for me because this movement gave me access to the same education as many other people who attend this school. As a Mexican-American, the Chicano movement holds a lot of importance to me because this movement gave me role models to look up to. Lastly, I went to a school where statewide testing was enforced. All of the students were required to be tested. The history of education continues to affect everyone living here in the United States. It also continues to affect the lives of children as they are in the system.

Overall, this film was exquisite because it informed me so much about my history and it shined light into the education system, which is often not known about. It was also thought-provoking because it leaves many people questioning the education system today.

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