Sam Chaltain: New PBS Documentary Tells a Story About Education We Don’t Ever Hear
What the film will also make visible, albeit indirectly, is our national preoccupation with the needs of cities, and the extent to which many of our most hotly debated national strategies for school reform – from charter schools to online learning – simply aren’t viable in towns like Hartsville, where transportation costs alone circumscribe the choices many rural families can make, and where many residents still have no Internet access. In places like these, if you want to transform the schools, you are going to have to do it from within the traditional systems and structures – from neighborhood schools to school boards to local politicians angling for re-election — no matter how change-averse those actors and institutions tend to be.
At this moment of intense national interest in public education, you would think that figuring out how to improve the systems we already have would matter a lot more than it does, if for no other reason than because renovating a house is more cost-efficient than razing it and starting from scratch. But the particular challenges and opportunities associated with reform in rural schools matter for another reason – those schools house nearly ten million American students, or slightly more than 20% of the nation’s total enrollment. And yet, as a recent report of the Rural School and Community Trust made clear, “the invisibility of rural education persists in many states. Many rural students are largely invisible to state policy makers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.”
Consequently, it’s my hope that films like 180 Days: Hartsville can elevate the particular circumstances and needs of rural communities, poor families, and public school educators. After all, we can’t begin to reimagine American schools for the modern era if we remain fixed on merely one type of American school. And we can’t identify solutions that will work in the majority of American communities if we continue to disproportionately share the success stories of individual schools of choice.
The questions before us have wide-ranging implications: can a community like Hartsville really change the fortunes of a generation by doubling down on its neighborhood schools? Does the stark reality of the 21st century global economy outweigh the impact of one rural town’s efforts to prepare its children to compete in that economy?
On March 17, I hope you’ll tune in to find out, and help us all widen the lens through which we see American public education.
(This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.)
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