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Book and Film Reviews, Education in the Media

Is “The Experiment” Working?

It was a classy affair with an attendance of perhaps fifty guests, and I was lucky enough to be granted an invitation to an exclusive screening of The Experiment at The New Orleans Museum of Art.

I walked into the place – a tad bit under-dressed – and filled my hands with an Abita Amber and a flat mushroom-filled pastry, which turned out to be delicious. In the buffet line, I met a well-dressed young man (about 10 or 11) wearing a (fake?) diamond-encrusted cross on a silver chain and questioning me as to whether I’d purchased a ticket.

When I said no, he seemed disappointed, saying, “Man, so they just giving tickets away to anybody?!” I asked if he had paid for one and he told me, no, he was in the movie. This kid turned out to be Gerald Carter, the precocious crowd-pleaser of the film.

I was afraid I would have no one to chat with during the reception, but fortunately I ran into Damekia Morgan, one of New Orleans’ social justice advocates. We chatted about our upcoming mission to reopen New Orleans Free School as a 300-student Type II Charter democratic school. I quiver with anticipation!

The film began promptly after the audience made way into the screening room and into the padded, reclining chairs. In the opening scene, we were introduced to a crime scene and a near-hysterical woman demanding to know if the dead child was hers.

Ben Lemoine, producer/director of The Experiment, gave us a glimpse into his life as a reporter. He told us how his job was to take a complex story and “package” it for consumption; how he became desensitized to the corpses lying in the street. This film is his way of reporting the story he never could before: where can we look for hope of curbing youth violence? He concludes that by giving every child a high quality education, regardless of race or class, we can offer them a way out of poverty and desperation.

The film followed 5 “at-risk” students and their families through their respective experiences during one school year. Interspersed with interviews from political and educational experts, Lemoine weaves a tale how the New Orleans educational experiment is basically a success.

We were allowed both sides of the charter debate, but the film is unambiguously pro-privatization. The KIPP schools, for example, were filmed as overflowing with delighted, uniformly productive children and professional high-powered teachers. One family benefited from vouchers, which allowed them to use public funding to attend a private parochial school.

Teacher unions were weighed upon heavily, and Diane Ravitch made a brief appearance while speaking at an AFT conference. The unions were directly accused of fighting against privatization for a singular reason: their addiction to the money and power that comes with control of the school system. It was also noted that charter schools rarely make union contracts, so they retain the ability to withhold tenure, and to fire teachers at will.  This gives independent administrations more freedom to fire unqualified teachers and less bureaucracy when hiring new ones. Furthermore, the film’s participants all agree: “If these schools are successful, who cares who’s running them?”

Dr. Howard Fuller agrees. In the discussion that followed, he and the other two panelists – Ben Lemoine and Eddie Rispone – all made it clear that goals and results are more important than methods, effectively reducing the issue of social justice to standardized testing.

After a few questions about the importance of accountability and governance, I stood and offered a detour for the panel to consider. I wanted to know: What is the purpose of education and are we using appropriate language in our discussions of education? For example, the film featured verbiage such as “conveyor belt,” “investment,” “product” and comparing children to teeth with teachers as the dentist. So I asked, “Is the purpose of education to treat our students as widgets, to achieve 100% standardization so that each child is intellectually indistinguishable from every other?”

According to Dr. Fuller, the prime requisite for preparing young people to “engage in the practice of freedom” is being taught in the classroom how to “read, write, think, analyze and compute.” These skills would lead kids to become both socially and economically productive. He went on to say, “What happens is a lot of us who talking about all of this stuff, about, I’m worried about the kids treated so that they all become these cogs for the capitalist structure. Most of us who running that, we got college degrees and we got a job. So my thing is I want these kids to get a college degree and a job so they can pontificate about what it ought to be like.”

My thing is, I think these kids are perfectly capable of (and willing to) pontificate right now. Look at programs like Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. This program – comprised of economically disadvantaged kids making changes to the school system – is founded on the knowledge that students want to learn, and they know what it ought to be like. Furthermore, the core curriculum tends to have a white bias with limited perspective, begging the question as to whether we are sacrificing cultural freedom for economic adequacy.

The panel and the film argued that the old system in New Orleans was corrupt and ineffective, and that you would have to be a fool or someone with a vested interest to disagree. This is no doubt true, but do we really have to choose between big government and big business? What about the community? Corporate networks, still trying to perfect industrial age education, are not the only ones who can open a charter school.

In summary, The Experiment was well produced, basically truthful (if a little one-sided), and presented an emotionally gripping exposé of the underserved black population in New Orleans. The debate over education reform at large is far from over, but Lemoine has shown us that for those suffering in poverty, corporate charter networks and voucher programs have made upward mobility for youth a priority in New Orleans, and that’s enough for families without better options.

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Discussion

9 thoughts on “Is “The Experiment” Working?

  1. As much as I want to see this documentary message as unbiased… it is hard… they leave out so much nuance, it is sickening. Documentaries like this can have a pretty big impact on confusing the message… at least from the trailer… the message hits you over the end with how “wonderful” privatization is… how the current paradigm of traditional test prep/college prep education… is the answer. I hear them when they say it was bad before, but calling out privatization does not mean you want the old way. I do like the message that we need to wipe out a lot of the current system, but this just hammers home to me that we need to have the answers that just as shiny and bright, or someone else will come in and do it.

    That is why we can’t be afraid to say the system is broken… we just have to say look here is what does work, here is what we envision… Just like the Rethink kids did… and others…

    did they even mention the rethink kids?

    Thanks for sharing this and given us a full view of the whole night.

    David

    Posted by dloitz | August 30, 2011, 5:37 pm
    • Thanks for the comment David! The interesting thing is, sometime during that night, Ben Lemoine was on stage and said, “I wanted to better show both sides, but we were constrained for time,” in reference to the charter debate. So, it was more a persuasive documentary than investigative journalism.

      I will say that my own vision of what needs to change in education has evolved a lot in the past year. I have always believed that empowering stakeholders (students, teachers, parents) through direct democratic process is a vital ingredient, and that has not changed. (Incidentally, I also believe the same thing about our nation’s broken system).

      However, it has to reach outside the school and into the community in order to have any real value or effect. This is especially true of the poor. Being allowed to self-direct their education isn’t necessarily going to buy good food for the cafeteria, put toilet paper in the bathrooms, or fix that gaping hole in the roof.

      School governance (so far as I can tell) falls into one of three categories :private, public, and charter. Each of these has a problem.

      Private schools want, unsurprisingly, privacy. However, these exclusive schools tend to fill with the economically advantaged, having little positive impact for the bulk of the nation.

      Public schools are dying from a severe lack of funding. Class sizes rise, while more money is pumped into the prison system to accommodate those pushed out of already failing schools. All this in the name of a microscopic sliver of the known Universe undeservingly called The Standards.

      Charter schools are not inherently evil. Businesses are not inherently evil. Regardless, corporations are not the only ones who can start charter schools; that’s the real beauty of them. Any small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can use public funding to school hundreds of kids in a way they see fit. I see this as a damn good start.

      Of course, it’s not that simple. We are faced now with a battle on multiple fronts: in our schools, in our government, and in our markets. Not to mention the human tendency for apathy and confusion.

      You see, my belief is that freedom cannot be given, it can only be taken away. And trust me, no matter how we justify it, each and every human knows the feeling having just usurped another individual’s freedom. Keeping in mind the difference between freedom and license, the practice of freedom is the practice of not taking away freedom, and fighting for it when necessary.

      Posted by Jason Lacoste | August 31, 2011, 12:29 am
      • wow. well said! Not much to disagree or add, you said it well.

        I love charters and sad so many really great ones are limited because of some of the ones run by people with a different agenda…. either way, I think your right…. self directed learning is only one way… it can’t happen in a vacuum…

        How do you engage the community? Like Linda Stout or volunteering, or continuing to spread the work word about alternative education and continue to make it more assessable …

        This is the question I wrestle even while I try to vision big. I am good at the visioning and even on maybe how to get there…but knowing where to start and how to be authentic with communities, or help without coming off unauthentic is hard.

        I was so inspired by Linda Stout and her work, and her books, but I feel I need more experience doing that kind of work… and helping to solve those types of day to day issues…

        Those are the issues my mom worries about, or we did when we were kids, and in truth it effected our learning at school… but really school was a haven from the drama or the stress… so there is that tension… I guess the tension should be welcomed…

        thanks, I got more to think about… :)

        David

        Posted by dloitz | August 31, 2011, 1:54 am
  2. Jason, This is just frickin awesome. So absolutely well put, balanced, nuanced and even included mushroom-filled pastry.

    “My thing is, I think these kids are perfectly capable of (and willing to) pontificate right now. Look at programs like Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. This program – comprised of economically disadvantaged kids making changes to the school system – is founded on the knowledge that students want to learn, and they know what it ought to be like. Furthermore, the core curriculum tends to have a white bias with limited perspective, begging the question as to whether we are sacrificing cultural freedom for economic adequacy.”

    Right on and right on. Thank you.

    When do you open the New Orleans Free School?

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten | August 31, 2011, 4:46 pm
    • Thanks for the compliments! As to that outstanding pastry, I owe it to one particular white-suited museum employee who insisted I try one. :)

      As for NOFS… we’re still in the paperwork/planning/board creation phase, but I’ll keep you apprised.

      Posted by Jason Lacoste | August 31, 2011, 7:32 pm
  3. Jason,

    Thanks very much for attending the film screening and for joining the conversation. I am also glad you enjoyed the mushroom-filled pastries. I didn’t have a chance to peruse the buffet line, as there were many guests to greet. It was humbling to see the 220-seat theatre was standing-room-only.

    I suppose the headcount and hors d’oeuvres weren’t the motivation for your blog, however. I’m not exactly sure what your assessment is after you described The Experiment as “unambiguously pro-privatization” then concluded by calling it “well-produced, basically truthful (if a little one-sided)… an emotionally gripping expose’,” etc. Regardless, I appreciate your thoughts and just wanted to respond to them.

    Over the past few months, we have screened The Experiment for audiences in New York, Philadelphia and several cities in Louisiana. As contentious as the discussions and media reports have been at times, no one has ever implied the film was overtly agenda-driven or slanted. In the spirit of objectivity, we carefully included the proponents and opponents of the movement in New Orleans in every scene about every issue presented. I challenge you to find another documentary that gives as much equal time as we did.

    Just so you know, during pre-production in the spring of 2009, we walked the streets of New Orleans searching for children and families who would be open to allowing us to expose their lives for over a year. As a TV news reporter for 10 years, I learned that EVERYONE has a story. So we didn’t need to “cast” characters. We simply had to find some willing participants. And we found them randomly. The five children had far different experiences in school and at home, as you saw in the film. Some faced academic hurdles, behavior problems and family tragedies. The stories unfolded on their own and lent to the narrative.

    To be sure, if we wanted to prove the “privatized” charter model as you suggest, we could have gone to the highest performing charter school and asked to follow their best student. The same can be said for “disproving” the effectiveness of traditional schools. If we wanted to disgrace them, we could have sought out the worst traditional school and student. The comparisons could have been even more shocking. (You may be aware of other films that have taken this approach.)

    As far as (the panelists) making it clear that “goals and results are more important than methods, effectively reducing the issue of social justice to standardized testing,” I hope one message made clear in the film is that we (the taxpaying public) haven’t cared about “goals and results” in education for far too long. We’ve cared a lot about methods… the method of hiring school contractors, the method of ordering textbooks, the method of due process hearings for ineffective teachers, the method of hanging posters on classroom walls. The results over the past 30 years in New Orleans: Two out of every three students behind grade level. That’s one of the worst tragedies of social justice I can imagine.

    Finally, you misquoted me severely in writing “Ben Lemoine was on stage and said ‘I wanted to show both sides, but we were constrained for time.’” I would submit to you that we showed MANY sides of this issue with delicate balance. We captured 300 hours of video over two years and threaded the issues and storylines into a 90-minute documentary. No filmmaker will ever focus on and translate every dimension of every issue from every person involved. The key is to include as many important elements as possible and present them in a comprehensive way. And that was what I told the audience.

    I am well aware there are always going to be critics who feel that their side was attacked, misrepresented or ignored. But I can assure you that we tried to be as fair as possible.

    The Experiment makes no case for any system or method or model, but it certainly exposes some major failures and some promising successes in public education. And I agree that it’s vitally important to have caution, transparency and scrutiny of any movement that affects the future of our children. But we have to do it with them in mind… the children! Not a system, not a board, not a political statement, not money. Make no mistake – the children were the only motivation in making this movie.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. Please continue to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll have some big news coming out next week.

    Warm Regards,

    Ben Lemoine
    Director/Producer, The Experiment

    Posted by Ben Lemoine (@FleurishFilms) | September 9, 2011, 1:52 pm
    • First, in regards to the attendance. I based the number on an impression from the reception, although I admit I should have contacted the organizers for a real number. I apologize for that (in retrospect, the number was almost certainly more than 50), although it’s hard to believe there were more than 200 in attendance. I’ll make an effort to find the correct number.

      Opposing points of view were mostly included as the school governance hearings, and the scene with Diane Ravitch. However, these were sandwiched between simple statements about how there is no reason to oppose a transfer of governance except selfishness. While it’s hard to argue for sticking to the old way of doing things, it’s also uncomfortable to be talked into the anti-union frenzy sweeping our nation.

      I have no reason to believe the characters or schools were cherry-picked, and I believe the film accurately portrayed life in New Orleans for the underserved black community. Indeed, there are undoubtedly more extreme examples on both sides and I’m glad those were avoided (even if by chance).

      However, that does not change the basic impression that the film suggests a marked improvement that can only be traced to the transfer of power to independent charter boards. That observation is one I did not think you would be opposed to. I apologize for misquoting you, as that shows journalistic laziness (though I absolutely do not call myself a journalist of any kind, just an interested party). Coming from the conclusion that the final product was generally anti-union, pro-charter, I wanted to point out the fact you’ve clarified here; that with hundreds of hours squeezed into 90 minutes, you intended to take a balanced approach. Whether you were successful in that is up for debate.

      Personally, I like the opportunity offered by the charter system to cater to the needs of a local community. One problem I see is whether national corporations can effectively do that. My other concern – as I brought up in the discussion – is whether we have accurately identified the very purpose of education. Is standardization enough?

      To understand the real nature of my criticism (and the cautious nature of many others) read the work of John Taylor Gatto or Paulo Freire. Industrializing schools in both method and measurement may prepare poor people to join the labor force, but will it equip them to participate fully in our democracy? Will the mechanization of childhood teach them how to balance freedom with responsibility? I know some of the lax idealism of the past half century has failed many young people, but so has pure capitalism.

      My assessment is as you see. Upward mobility is a necessary component of social justice; I just wonder if standardization and industrial-age teaching methods are the best way to prepare kids and families for the next 30 years of economic and societal evolution.

      I’m grateful for your work and your response here, and I will keep up with your future contributions. Also, I will continue to improve my writing skills, so as to maximize accuracy and minimize misrepresentation.

      Sincerely,

      Jason Lacoste

      Posted by Jason Lacoste | September 9, 2011, 6:25 pm
  4. Jason, I wanted to share this to deepen the conversation!

    http://www.good.is/post/students-say-new-orleans-schools-are-no-education-miracle/

    David

    Posted by dloitz | September 15, 2011, 12:58 am

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  1. Pingback: Is “The Experiment” Working? | Cooperative Catalyst | Scoop.it - August 31, 2011

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