Bob Gliner, Documentary filmmaker

October 8, 2007

S.V. students in documentary 'Democracy Left Behind'

SENTINEL staff writer

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has so constrained classrooms that it's robbed public schools of their original purpose: turning out citizens primed to participate in a democracy.

That's the premise of award-winning filmmaker Bob Gliner's new documentary, "Democracy Left Behind" The film will make its debut on public television Tuesday.

The release coincides with a debate in Congress over renewing the controversial federal education law. Gliner, a sociology professor at San Jose State and a Boulder Creek resident, said he hopes the film will have an impact on the direction of public education.

"Students spending 12 years in public education should be able to analyze world events and have some power and control not only over their own lives but over social situations whether in the workplace or the community," Gliner said.

But he argues that's not happening in part because testing mandated under the federal law pushes rote learning over critical thinking. He points to polls that show many Americans still believe Saddam Hussein and Iraq were responsible for 9/11 even though the evidence has proved otherwise.

"We're preparing citizens who are easily fooled by politicians putting out misleading stuff," he said.

In the film, educators from Scotts Valley to Hudson, Mass., say the emphasis on math and reading skills and passing standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests is driving other subjects from the classroom and turning children off to learning.

"There were children being left behind," says Susan Meyers, dean of the college of education at San Jose State. "The rationale [of No Child Left Behind] was noble. The result has been a narrowing of the curriculum"

Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, a national advocacy group, provides the only dissonant note in the film. She argues for the primacy of mastering basic skills.

"As a citizen today, you can't understand the issues you're being asked to vote on, you can't even understand the choices you are asked to make as a parent, if you're not able to read well, if you're not able to write, and if you're not understanding basic mathematics," Haycock said.

But Kathy Frandle, principal of Brook Knoll Elementary School in Scotts Valley, says something's been lost. Even schools like hers, where students score well on tests, have had to make changes to the academic program to the detriment of learning.

"In the past, for example, we were able to do thematic instruction where children discovered in science, discovered their learning, we don't have time to do that any more," Frandle said.

The film takes a step beyond its critique to offer several examples of teachers engaging students as young as kindergartners with civics instruction geared to their lives. For example, there's a curriculum built around fast food that enables older students to explore economics, the environment, the workplace and health.

"You can teach reading and math in a far more meaningful way if you teach it in context," Gliner said.

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