School: The Story of American Public Education

Streaming Video

4 episodes, 55 minutes each
Source: Films for the Humanities & Sciences

Born out of centuries of conflict and experimentation, America's public school system is one of the nation's most significant--but still evolving--achievements. This four-part series, narrated by Meryl Streep, weaves archival footage, rare interviews, and on-site coverage into an unprecedented portrait of public education in America.

  1. The Common School, 1770-1890
    In the aftermath of the Revolution, a newly independent America confronted one of its most daunting challenges: how to build a united nation out of thirteen disparate colonies. This program profiles the passionate crusade launched by Thomas Jefferson and continued by Noah Webster, Horace Mann, and others to create a common system of tax-supported schools that would mix people of different backgrounds and reinforce the bonds of democracy. A wealth of research illustrates how this noble experiment—the foundation of the young republic—was a radical idea opposed from the start by racial prejudice and fears of taxation.

  2. As American as Public School, 1900-1950
    In 1900, 6 percent of America’s children graduated from high school; by 1945, 51 percent graduated and 40 percent went on to college. This program recalls how massive immigration, child labor laws, and the explosive growth of cities fueled school attendance and transformed public education. Also explored are the impact of John Dewey’s progressive ideas, as well as the effects of controversial IQ tests on students, the “life adjustment” curriculum, and Cold War politics. Interviews with immigrant students, scholars, and administrators provide a portrait of America’s changing educational landscape in the first half of the 20th century.

  3. A Struggle for Educational Equality, 1950-1980
    In the 1950s, America’s public schools teemed with the promise of a new postwar generation of students, over half of whom would graduate and go on to college. This program shows how impressive gains masked profound inequalities: seventeen states had segregated schools; 1 percent of all Ph.D.s went to women; and “separate but equal” was still the law of the land. Interviews with Linda Brown Thompson and other equal rights pioneers bring to life the issues that prompted such milestones as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title IX, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  4. The Bottom Line in Education, 1980-Present
    In 1983, the Reagan Administration’s report, “A Nation at Risk,” shattered public confidence in America’s school system and sparked a new wave of education reform. This program explores the impact of the “free market” experiments that ensued, from vouchers and charter schools to privatization—all with the goal of meeting tough new academic standards. Today, the debate rages on: do these diverse strategies challenge the Founding Fathers’ notions of a common school, or are they the only recourse in a complex society?

Episode 2: As American as Public School, 1900-1950 is available to stream

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As American as Public School: 1900-1950

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