This spring, PBS has been airing a three-part documentary series, "School, Inc.", spotlighting some of the successes of education choice and free-market schooling options around the world. "School, Inc." is the brainchild of Andrew Coulson, an education policy researcher who left a successful career at Microsoft to answer a perplexing question: Why is it that innovation occurs frequently in other areas, but not in education?
Entrenched in a static, factory model of education, American public schools haven't changed much since the Industrial Revolution. "School, Inc." explores the 19th century origins of mass schooling, noting how the Prussian system of compulsory schooling that was ultimately adopted in the U.S. squeezed out other popular forms of education, and prevented ongoing innovation.
Some educationists are outraged that PBS accepted and aired this documentary. In a Washington Post article this week, public schooling advocate, Diane Ravitch, writes that she "was repelled by the partisan nature of the presentation, "and finds it "puzzling" that PBS would air this "lavish and one-sided production."
Uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, teachers selling their lessons to students on the Internet.
They will learn about the “success” of the free market in schooling in Chile, Sweden, and New Orleans. They will hear about the miraculous charter schools across America, and how public school officials selfishly refuse to encourage the transfer of public funds to private institutions. They will see a glowing portrait of South Korea, where students compete to get the highest possible scores on a college entry test that will define the rest of their lives and where families gladly pay for after-school tutoring programs and online lessons to boost test scores. They will hear that the free market is more innovative than public schools.
Ravitch concludes her scathing article by saying that the PBS documentary "is an advertisement for the demolition of public education and for an unregulated free market in education."
PBS had a more balanced response to Ravitch's criticism, stating in an email reply to the Post: "PBS and local member stations aim to offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue on important topics affecting local communities...In addition, PBS aims for a balance of viewpoints across the entire PBS schedule. Within this series, there are comparisons and criticisms of both public and private education models."
By airing "School, Inc.," PBS demonstrates a praise-worthy commitment toward meaningful discourse on education policy and potential reforms. Rather than attacking media outlets for presenting diverse opinions on important public policy topics, we should applaud their efforts to facilitate open dialogue and share disparate views. Debate the message, but don't kill the messenger.
[Image credit: By Josconklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Contributor for Intellectual Takeout. She has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and a Master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter.