Celebrating American Education Week: Popular Documentaries Tackling Education Reform

November 14th, 2013 | by Michelle Manno

While it is important to always acknowledge the hard work of educators, this upcoming week (November 18th-22nd) is American Education Week, and is specifically reserved to honor those professionals who make a difference in quality public education. Put forth by the National Education Association (NEA), American Education week celebrates all those who make quality public school education possible, including teachers, education support professionals, substitute teachers, principals, and school administrators.

Our country’s education system is currently under major reform through a number of factors. Though Hurricane Katrina, The Common Core Standards, and charter schools may seem unrelated on the surface, all of these events and initiatives are drastically changing the way our culture views and addresses education. Public school systems are changing, and changing for the better. It’s important to acknowledge events such as American Education Week and pay tribute to the professionals who make it all possible.

In light of this upcoming week of recognition, we at TeacherTube would like to recognize the top education documentaries that are highlighting these changes in education reform. Exploring issues such as urban education, charter schools, socioeconomic status, and special education, these documentaries shed valuable light on our nation’s current education concerns. Whether you use these documentaries as part of your lesson, or watch them on your own to educate yourself, the following films are useful in exposing the truths within our current educational climate.


Waiting For Superman

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

Directed by David Guggenheim, this 2010 documentary examines today’s American school system through the lens of the charter school application (and acceptance) process. Waiting for ‘Superman’ points out the failures and inconsistencies of our nation’s public schools, including issues of teaching standards and the relationship between socioeconomic status and access to quality education.

The Lottery (2010)

The Lottery, directed by Madeleine Sackler, is similar to Waiting for ‘Superman’ in that it also analyzes our nation’s public and charter school system, but focuses on schools and families in The Bronx and Harlem, New York. The Lottery follows the lives of four families in the days up to “the lottery”: a selective admissions process for charter schools, called a lottery because students are chosen at ‘random.’ The film focuses on the economic and ethical issues surrounding public and charter schools, and also explores issues of teacher unions and education reform.

Race to Nowhere

Race to Nowhere (2009)

Race to Nowhere is inspired by the true-life events of the film’s director, Vicki Abeles. After learning that her middle-school daughter was physically sick due to school-related stress, Abeles knew that changes had to be made, systemic changes that could not be accomplished by doctors or parenting. Race to Nowhere focuses on the immense amount of stress that our current education system places upon children, and calls for a fundamental change in how we educate our students.

Rebirth: New Orleans (2013)

Rebirth: New Orleans is the documentary put forth by veteran education reporter John Merrow, and investigates how New Orleans’ schools have transformed since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Turning tragedy into triumph, Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects gave the city the “opportunity” for major education reform, using the natural disaster as a vehicle for changing the city’s public school system. Merrow’s documentary covers stories of NoLa students, teachers, and activists, and provides valuable insight into what is being called the “greatest experiment in the history of American public education.”

I Can't Do This, But I Can Do That

I Can’t Do This, But I Can Do That: A Film for Families About Learning Differences (2010)

The HBO documentary I Can’t Do This, But I Can Do That provides inspiring accounts of children with various learning disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and auditory processing disorder. The documentary emphasizes learning differences rather than learning disabilities, focusing on the idea that LD students simply process information in different ways.

American Teacher: A Documentary (2010)

This 2010 documentary, narrated by Matt Damon, investigates our public school system through the eyes of four teachers, shedding light onto what it really means to be a teacher, especially in today’s educational climate. American Teacher counteracts popular misconceptions that teachers ‘have it made’ and identifies the fundamental issues faced by educators, school professionals, and others associated with the public school system. The documentary includes alarming statistics. For example, did you know that 20% of teachers in urban area schools leave every year and 46% of teachers nationwide quitting before their fifth? If you’re not already aware of just how hard our nation’s teachers are working, American Teacher: A Documentary will open your eyes.

Los Graduados

The Graduates/Los Graduados (2008)

Through the perspective of six Latino/a students across the United States, the 2008 PBS documentary The Gradutes/Los Graduados explores current issues in education and the challenges faced by the students, families, teachers, and community leaders. This bilingual documentary addresses both issues of Latino/a culture in education, and how our students are measuring up to be the future of our society.


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