As America's students go back to school, PBS and CBS are taking long, hard looks -- emphasis on "long" -- at the schools they're going back to.
Not only is the news not all bad, as it usually is in report cards on American public education, but much of it could pass for good. That's because both the CBS News program "America's Toughest Assignment: Solving the Education Crisis" and the PBS special "Learning in America: Schools That Work" search for remedies rather than merely document failure.
The two-hour CBS special airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 9. The two-hour PBS special airs tonight at 9 on Channel 26.
By far the more exhaustive effort, CBS's "Project Education" includes not only the "Toughest Assignment" special but also education-themed reports on "The CBS Evening News," "60 Minutes," "Sunday Morning" and "Nightwatch" all this week; a late-night follow-up to "Toughest Assignment" at 11:30 p.m. tomorrow; and an educational conference at Georgetown University today.
The special can be considered the David Burke Memorial Broadcast, in honor of the CBS News president who was fired last month but who set the whole education project in motion a year ago. Burke got bounced partly because he couldn't get along with CBS Inc. president and money-monster Laurence Tisch, one of the least loved executives in modern broadcasting.
Some of the biggest CBS News superstars came out for the special, including "60 Minutes" correspondents Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Meredith Vieira and Steve Kroft. Charles Kuralt, anchor for the program, says in his introduction that this is one documentary that shamelessly editorializes, going beyond stating problems to proposing their solutions.
"Our schools are not providing this country with the educated work force we need to compete," Kuralt says in his introduction. "Most of them are not meeting the special needs of our poor and disadvantaged children. ... And too many students leave school without ever knowing that learning, for its own sake, can be a joyous experience."
The solutions are illustrated by the examples of real schools where revolutionary ideas have been put into practice -- schools in Virginia and Kentucky and New Hampshire and Ohio and many other places. Few of them, for some reason, are west of the Mississippi.
One thing all the proposed solutions have in common is that they will all cost money. Taxpayers seem to want their dollars to go to anything but education -- that is, anything but the future of the nation. Lesley Stahl, interviewing National Education Association President Keith Geiger, says that Washington, especially the White House, always insists no money is available to improve our schools.
"Well, I used to believe that argument," Geiger says. That was before he read about the multi-billion-dollar bailout of the savings and loan industry. "I do believe that there is money for this country to do what it wants to," says Geiger. "It depends on what the priorities are."
Roger Mudd, once a CBS correspondent himself, anchors the PBS "Schools That Work" tonight. Although more modest in scope, the program, from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, has an advantage over the CBS show in that we see more video of kids in that "joyous" act of learning. We see their eyes light up when they give the right answer and when a teacher rewards them with approval.
If you had a great teacher somewhere in your life, scenes like this will stir cherished memories.
"Schools That Work" deals only with elementary schools -- specifically, those in Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and Texas where innovative approaches to curriculum and structure appear to be working minor and even major miracles. The Maryland school is Landover's Columbia Park Elementary in Prince George's County.
"You are somebody, and you can be anything you want to be," one Columbia Park teacher tells her class. Life inside and outside the classroom is heavily regimented, at least compared to most elementary schools, but positive reinforcement and "mutual respect" are also emphasized. A boy and girl who tell Mudd what their school teaches them are quite convincing.
The program inspires as well as informs, because it serves as an antidote to the sinking, helpless feeling that America's educational problems are terminal, insurmountable, beyond repair.
Not all the remedies offered in the PBS show sound ideal, however. A money-mad school in Lowell, Mass., designed as a "micro-society," with kids creating their own businesses, taxes and laws, looks and sounds suspiciously like a yuppie factory.
Mudd's bombastic narration gets overbearing at times too, and he's too reliant on cliches such as "make no mistake about it" and "easier said than done." But the complaints are minor when compared to the accomplishment.
Neither PBS nor CBS deals much with the overexamined, and perhaps overexploited, topics of drugs and violence in schools, and nobody mentions competing with the Japanese. The emphasis is on positive steps to make things better.
The programs also serve as healthful rebuttals to corrupt, youth-targeted network entertainment shows such as "Ferris Bueller," "Hull High," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" and "Uncle Buck," in which being hip and stupid is celebrated as the ideal, and the idea of school as a serious place of learning is ridiculed.
What the two documentaries have in common is more than urgency and honorable intentions. They are both prime examples of VITV -- Very Important Television. Four hours is a lot to watch, but in these two cases, not a minute is wasted time.