AS PETER SCHRAG'S recent article in Harper's notes, the American public school system has been in the doghouse for almost exactly 50 years, since the Oct. 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik. Since then, America's schools have seen more quack cures for their supposed ills than a wealthy hypochondriac. Democracy Left Behind (KTEH, Oct 9, 11pm) is the newest work by Bob Gliner, San Jose State University professor and local documentary maker. Gliner (Heifer, Playing for Keeps) finds something to hope for in the schools he visits, from the Santa Clara Valley and Scotts Valley to central Vermont. He interviews teachers who haven't given up, despite the pressure of the "No Child Left Behind" program.
SJSU has one of the best education schools in California. And in our state, the standards for the full-time teachers are particularly rigorous. Thus it is worth listening to this critique of national No Child Left Behind test-score mania, with its tunnel-visioned focus on the three R's. Like many failed plans, No Child Left Behind looks fine in the abstract. Susan Meyers, of SJSU's College of Education, describes the rationale of the plan as "noble." Yet she cites a survey of 950 Santa Clara teachers in poor, rich and in-between neighborhoods claiming that there's never enough time to teach what used to be called civics. Kelly Mack, a teacher from San Jose's Dahl Elementary, says that the heavy focus on Scantron forms creates a generation of test takers, who will be confused by anything that doesn't involve filling in a circle in pencil.
Gliner interviews a series of local teachers all across the class lines in the Bay Area: social studies teacher Cheryl Lawton and English teacher Tim Williams of Hillsdale High, Erin Angell of Campbell's Westmont High and Carmen Gomez of East Palo Alto Academy High. In class, Williams does a nonpartisan analysis of Bush's 2006 State of the Union address as literature. In her poorer neighborhood, Gomez analyzes the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission. Despite constraints, teachers are trying to inform their grade-school-age students about democracy and its requirements. My Le Thai of Meadows Elementary is seen schooling her kindergarten children in the all-important difference between the words "need" and "want." "I like to call it teaching citizenship." she says.
The consensus in Democracy Left Behind is that some kind of critical thinking has to be introduced into every discipline, from kindergarten up. The dull rote learning encouraged by standardized tests is alienating more students than it helps. As it stands, No Child Left Behind is leaving children behind. Only 75 percent of American students graduate, and that number is dropping. The consequences to our democracy should be obvious. Terry Christensen, a political science professor SJSU, notes that more students can identify the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. Young people ages 18 to 25 are voting at a lower rate, and they are demonstrating the kind of the apathy and disinterest that comes from being weather vanes blown by the gusts of advertisement. Gliner's documentary offers some suggestions of a better way.
DEMOCRACY LEFT BEHIND (Unrated; 57 min.), a documentary by Bob Gliner, airs Tuesday (Oct. 9) at 11pm on KTEH, Ch. 54.