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PBS: 'Making Schools Work'

Ohanian Comment: I did not watch Hedrick Smith's PBS program. The views he expresses in this interview are offal enough. The naive may wonder why PBS and the Washington Post would see fit to give someone who knows nothing about public schools, education policy, and reading programs such a platform. Those who see the pattern of corporate-political connections won't have trouble figuring it out. Smith makes so many gross simplifications about schools that my teeth hurt.

Decide for yourself. You can read descriptions of the show's contents . Warning: Not for the weak-kneed. As a parent pointed out, "Read the program description with a bucked nearby."

Surprise. Surprise. Broad Foundation is one of the funders. Here are all of the funders:


Ford Foundation funded the research and development of Making Schools Work, and is the primary contributor to the production of the program as well as to media promotion, advertising and outreach.

The Broad Foundation contributed to the production of Making Schools Work.

Carnegie Corporation of New York contributed to the production of Making Schools Work, and funded the design and development of the show's web site.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded the production of spin-off programs by PBS stations and much of the outreach for Making Schools Work. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 to facilitate the development of, and ensure universal access to, non-commercial high-quality programming and telecommunications services.

The Spencer Foundation contributed to the production of Making Schools Work.

PBS: 'Making Schools Work'

Hedrick Smith, Host; Former New York Times Reporter and Editor

"Making Schools Work" on PBS focuses on educational successes -- communities and school models that have significantly raised student performance and closed achievement gaps for minority and poor students. The examples cited in the program affect more than a million students in seven different school districts from coast to coast, from inner city to rural America. "Making Schools Work" aired on PBS on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

Host Hedrick Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and editor, was online Thursday, Oct. 6, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the educational successes, communities and school models featured in the PBS program.

The first hour of the program covers four diverse school reform models: Success for All, the Comer Process, KIPP Academy and High Schools That Work. The second hour covers district-wide reforms in three cities -- New York City's District 2, San Diego and Charlotte -- with commentary from experts.

Smith, who is also an Emmy award-winning producer/correspondent, has covered Washington and world capitals for the New York Times. He has authored several best-selling books and created 20 award-winning PBS primetime specials and mini-series on topics as varied as Washington's power game, Soviet perestroika, the global economy, education reform, health care, teen violence, terrorism and Wall Street. "Making Schools Work" is just one primetime special on education that Smith has created for PBS. Others include "Challenge to America (1994) and "Surviving the Bottom Line (1998).

The transcript follows


Hedrick Smith: Hello everybody.

I hope you were able to catch our program, MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, on PBS last night. It's got re-runs on many stations coming up this week and this weekend. So check those out. The point of the program is that there are educators out there who are making schools work for the kids that many people had given up on. The seven examples we show cover about two million kids. The strategies are different but there are some fundamental principles that you'll see in the program. I look forward to your questions.


washingtonpost.com: "Making Schools Work": Broadcast Schedule


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith, What made you interested in this topic?

Hedrick Smith: Education is critical for America's future. International tests show that among 30 advanced industrial countries, U.S. 15 year old came in 28th out of 30 in math and 18th out of 30 in reading. If we don't fix that problem, we're going to keep losing jobs to other countries. Our young people need much better education to compete with the world and to maintain the American middle class.


N.Y., N.Y.: I saw the first hour of the program, it was very moving. It showed that while many different systems may work, common themes are teamwork (among faculty, admin, students) and individual attention to students who are struggling. Was there something you learned while making the program that really surprised you? Thanks.

Hedrick Smith: I was surprised that there were so many different routes to academic achievement that were working well. I was not surprised, but I was impressed, that the most important ingredient for success is the rock solid conviction among educators and school systems that all kids can learn, regardless of poverty and regardless of family situation, and that when kids fail, it's the adults who have failed to teach them well enough. That sounds easy to say, but it's very hard to do, because a real commitment to all children's learning requires a commitment of time, people, extra training for teachers, extra tutoring for students who need it, and resources. So far, it appears that lots of communities and schools may talk the talk but not actually walk the walk.


Charleston, W.Va.: While you have been improving performance for poor and minority students, have students with disabilities, including significant ones such as autism, down syndrome and others been significantly improving in performance as well? Do you track these students after they leave to see if there is functional progress ... die, real jobs, more independence?

Hedrick Smith: Those are excellent questions and important ones. In our production team, we do not track any of the students, disabled or not. Our information comes from the school systems, and their effectiveness varies greatly from one city to another. The school systems that we've looked at, especially the one in Charlotte, North Carolina, seems to do a pretty good job of following the kinds of numbers you are talking about. Others don't do so well.


Fairfax, Va.: Dear Mr. Smith, Thanks for taking questions today. I am not a teacher but an active, concerned parent of an elementary school student. Last year we received a letter from the principal warning parents that they may find their school declared failing under the federal government's No Child Left Behind protocols. The letter stated that teachers are being forced to spend valuable instructional time preparing students to take the SOL tests, to the exclusion of activities that extend and deepen student learning. Many of the parents applauded the courage of the principal in taking such a stand. However, will this stance negatively impact the funding levels, etc., ... to the school. BTW - the school is a magnet, public elementary school in Fairfax County.

Hedrick Smith: I'm sorry that I don't know the particulars for your individual school. It is correct that any school which fails to meet the federal standards for annual yearly progress for several years in a row risks losing some of its federal funding. So that is something that your principal must keep an eye on.

There are many controversies about the value of testing and whether it's a diversion from or any enhancement to student learning. That depends greatly on the sophistication of the tests themselves. Please take a look at MAKING SCHOOLS WORK. And you will see in the section on Charlotte the way tests are used effectively to not only improve student performance but to guide teachers and to show teachers where they are falling down on doing the job right and how they might do it better. So that if the tests in your state or local area are well constructed, they should not conflict with the goal of student learning. Again, I would recommend looking at the explanation from Eric Smith, the former superintendent in Charlotte.


Atlanta, Ga.: Mr. Smith, why do you think education is considered a priority by the government yet we (the government) seem to be short sighted when it comes to resources, teacher training, etc. ...?

Hedrick Smith: Unfortunately, better schooling as a slogan, is like motherhood and apple pie. All politicians want to be for it. But when it comes to paying the bills, no politician wants to tell you that better education means higher taxes for teacher training, for textbooks, for extra tutors, for students who need additional help, for Saturday classes, for after school work or summer school - for all the things that are needed to raise student performance.

If we are going to make a serious dent in our education problems, we've got to get serious about providing the resources to get the job done. So, you, the interested public, have got to put the heat on the politicians, because they want you to believe that you can get all kinds of things done and still have a free lunch. Current federal law, passed by the current Congress and the current administration, imposes all kinds of new requirements on the states to raise educational standards and to prove educational testing, without providing sufficient federal funds to pay for these new federal mandates.


RTP, N.C. (formerly Houston): I enjoyed your program, but I wanted to comment/ask about standardized testing as a way to evaluate students. Houston has had some very serious problems with standardized tests, including teachers/administrators giving answers (or "correcting" mistakes afterwards), miscategorizing students (ESL kids are counted differently), suspending kids (or encouraging them to skip) during test time, or strategically hold back and then advancing kids so that they never take tests. The latter happens when certain kids are held back multiple times as 9th graders, then "advanced" to 11th grade (or they just drop out in frustration). In this way, they "skip" 10th grade, when the TAKS is given. How can we evaluate our schools when such deceptive techniques are used to falsely improve the overall performance?

Hedrick Smith: You put your finger on a serious problem, and it was widely exposed in Houston. Hopefully, the publicity and the embarrassment has caused and will cause educators in Texas and specifically in Houston to be more honest in the future. But if educators are willing to be dishonest on the tests to make themselves look better than they are, there is almost no way to stop from gaming the system -- except constant public scrutiny.

However, this does not mean that the tests themselves and the process of testing is unimportant. There is little question that student achievement in Houston and many parts of Texas has improved in recent years under the pressure of state standards. that progress shows up on national tests (NAEP) which are harder to game. The gains are smaller on national tests than on state tests, which was the first clue that the state tests were being jimmied by Texas principals and teachers. But nonetheless, there were gains. So just as the baseball commissioner has to go after the misuse of steroids by home run hitters and hot pitchers, so the public and the media have to go after educators who play games with our kids by playing games with the test scores.


Burke, Va.: Hello -- What is your opinion of using closed-captioned television in the classroom? Have you seen schools that have helped underachieving students with this tool?

Hedrick Smith: I have not seen schools using this technology, though it may be helpful. Certainly, use of visual teaching aids is fairly widespread and is often effective. The key, I was told, was not to let the video become a crutch to replace the necessary and continuous interchange between teacher and students and among the students themselves. The danger is not in the technology, it's in the misuse of the technology, because it is so tempting for a teacher to misuse it to replace her own work. But some excellent teachers use video technology effectively as a supplement to illustrate the lessons they are teaching.


New York, N.Y.: Mr. Smith, Recently PBS aired an inspirational film called The Hobart Shakespeareans about a teacher, Rafe Esquith, who teaches Shakespeare among other things to children at an inner-city school in Los Angeles. He spent many years and much of his own money trying to get funding to properly provide resources for these kids. Many of these kids have gone on to outstanding colleges and universities. The film successfully showed that even one dedicated teacher can make a difference. What was so frustrating is the difficulty Mr. Esquith had in obtaining funds. Why, when we see the successes of programs such as these is the government still so slow to put more funds into public inner-city schools?

Hedrick Smith: There are a couple of critical points here. One is adequate support for effect educators like the teacher you describe. The fad among politicians and governments at all levels today is budget cutting. And since education is often the largest chunk of a state's budget, budget cutting means cutting spending on schools. Only if there is a public outcry against such shortsighted budget cutting will the politicians change. So people like you and all your friends and others have to put the heat on the politicians to spend the money and find the money for what is needed to educate our kids.

The second point is that however good Mr. Esquith is, he is only one teacher and he can only reach so many students. The U.S. has an enormous problem in its system of public education. Unfortunately, it is just too slow to raise standards one teacher at a time, or even one school at a time. That is why in MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, we only focused on programs that are being widely used across the country. The reading program Success For All is in 1,300 schools, lifting the performance of 650,000 students. The high school strategy, "High Schools That Work" is in 1,000 schools affecting 800,000 students. The Charlotte district reform effected 150,000 students, and so on. We've got to focus on programs like these that will make a huge difference. Of course, we all applaud dedicated, selfless, effective, charismatic teachers, like Mr. Esquith. But the problem is bigger than he is, and so we need bigger solutions.


Austin, Tex.: What is the moral justification in having tax-supported education? In a country made efficient and affluent by virtue of free-enterprise, why have we relegated the education of our children to the 2nd class status of state run education? Has anyone considered encouraging the creation of more private schools by making tuition tax-deductible?

Hedrick Smith: Every other advanced country uses a system of public education and most of them do far better than we do. There's no evidence yet that if private schools had to accept all students, and not just the ones from affluent families or families whose parents put a high priority on education, that they could educate all comers.

What you see, in MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, is public schools who accept all comers, working in the toughest social and economic terrain, and producing results. American democracy needs those kids educated. The American economy needs those kids educated. The private school systems don't reach those kids.

So the track record of other countries which are overwhelmingly committed to public education, and the track record of educators who are seriously committed to educating all children and willing to spend the resources indicates that that system works just fine. And that comes from someone who was fortunate enough to personally attend private schools as well as public schools.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Smith, I've been a fan of your's since reading The Russians in high school in the early 1980's to Juggling Work & Family and Is Wal-Mart Good for America? What are some of your current projects? Thank you.

p.s. I studied Russian in College after reading The Russians.

Hedrick Smith: It's great to hear from you and nice to know that you have followed so many of my projects, whether books or television. Our latest project which aired just last night on PBS is MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, showing effective public education in America. It's a program about what works and how, and it's full of lessons for communities, schools and parents all across the country.


Arlington, Va.: Do you feel the voices of teachers are heard enough by administrators and then by the state and federal government? Shouldn't educators in a sense be advisors to administrators, politicians, etc., in terms of talking about what works and what doesn't in a classroom? Do you think teachers complaints about standardized testing not working -- or whatever their complaints might be -- are being heard and finally acted upon? Thank you.

Hedrick Smith: There's no question that no system of education is going to work well unless teachers feel engaged and feel that they are important stake holders. Of course, they need to be heard. They are on the front line. And the secret of the effective strategies in our program is that they all involve the teachers collectively, as well as individually -- in groups with each other, in dialogue with their principals, in exchanges with mentor teachers and higher administrators. The lesson to me was that we have to open up the process of education, have many more of the important players talking to each other. That's what builds the synergies that produce success.

No one has a monopoly on the right answers. There is no magic bullet. So dialogue and exchange of experience and listening to each other are all critical to the process of education. As Tony Alvarado, the former District 2 superintendent in New York City, says, schools must become learning communities. Only when the adults are learning do the students catch the excitement of learning themselves.


Washington, D.C.: I once read that learning can only happen after children are well-fed, safe from abuse or a dangerous neighborhood, in a healthy environment, not worried about whether they'll be evicted, and so on. This seems very common sense to me (thinking back to Maslow). How does this concept fit into the school programs you mention?

I'm thinking about a program a friend studied for her thesis that was a sort of extension of the school lunch program into summer (which is very rare in rural areas) and also provided meals to parents as well, going on the theory that parents who were malnourished weren't likely to be partners in the education process or effective parents.

Hedrick Smith: The ideas you lay out are at the core of what is called the Comer Process, developed by Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist at Yale University. The second segment of our program, MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, explains how that process works. Comer believes that schools must provide the safe environment you describe. Comer believes that child learning is built upon child development. Comer believes that schools have to become sites of adult cooperation and teamwork, so that the adults are modeling behavior for the children.

That is precisely what you will see happening at an elementary school in a very tough neighborhood in the North side of Chicago. The principal there adopted the Comer process as a way of getting a handle on the ethnic conflicts and tensions in the neighborhood and on reducing the violent behavior of the students in the school. And you should see the results it has produced, both in terms of student behavior and student achievement.


Arlington, Va.: What do you hope teachers will gain from watching "Making Schools Work"? Students? Parents? The general public overall? Thanks for your time.

Hedrick Smith: My hope is that first of all they will gain, or regain, the confidence that public schools can and do work at a large scale.

My second hope is that they will see new strategies, new tools, new techniques that they can take away from the program and apply in their own schools and their own communities, and perhaps even in their own homes.


Washington, DC: Do you think there is in the American culture an anti-education attitude extending from the President who thought it was cool to get C's in college and down. Thanks.

Hedrick Smith: That's a very serious danger. Because we have ambivalent public attitudes -- we're for education, but we're against hard intellectual work. It's a terrible mistake for public leaders to play games with the aspirations of young people. And to offer models that it's cool to act `not-smart', or not to have worked hard.

Clearly, among gang kids, and in the culture of the street, where some of the kids who are most difficult to educate run, it's cool to be against education, and not to study hard. That's one of the toughest things that education reformers are up against.

In our program, MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, you will see the KIPP program, meaning Knowledge is Power. It's in middle schools and it's going into high schools, the very ages where kids don't like to admit they are academic geeks or that they study hard, or that they want to get good grades. And KIPP reaches into the inner cities, pulling kids off the streets and competing with the gang culture with a strong culture of loyalty of its own. It's fascinating to see how the teachers and leaders at KIPP lure street kids into a culture of hard work and learning. Very tough to do, but they are doing it with more and more kids. In our program, you see a bunch of them, including one teenager who says openly he was headed for violence, drugs and juvenile detention except that KIPP turned his life around.

You see another program, High School That Work, that works with older kids who are drifting through teenage and have no idea why they are in high school. Many of them think it's cool to get C's and not to work hard. One objective of this program is to have teachers work terribly hard to find out what these kids are interested in, to find some activity that is a hook to motivate them and to see how their high school education will effect their lives beyond high school. And it's working. It's reaching hundreds of thousands of high school kids who were lost without it.

So it's possible to beat that anti-education attitude. But adults who are putting it out there are mistakenly playing with fire and a fire that will run far out of their control unless we all do a far better job of reaching the kids who resist learning.


Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii: I live in a state that has a centralized state board of education, with no representation on the outer islands (counties). This administration model does not allow any local input to the decision making process. My question is: Are their strategies to de-centralize this model, so that the local districts can have more input in the decision making process?

Hedrick Smith: In America we believe strongly in local control. Almost all the most effective educational systems in other advanced countries are much more centralized than ours. In fact, foreign educators often say to Americans, "How can you possibly improve student achievement in an educational system that is so fragmented and so decentralized?" So it's a question worth thinking about.

Obviously, America is not going to change on that score. And it does help to have local communities engaged in their own educational systems because people feel that they can be part of a solution. But we do need to think about whether local school boards are really well-equipped to know whether the 9th grade algebra or geometry class being taught in their schools, or the 11th grade physics class or the 10th grade world history class, is on a par with what is being taught in Copenhagen, Toyota City, Singapore, Budapest, Helsinki or Tokyo. Because that's where the competition is. If our kids continue to lose ground against the foreign competition - and they've been losing ground now for several years - then there aren't going to be the good jobs in America that the next generation needs to have a solid middle class standard of living.

It's not easy for local school boards to know and to keep up with what is a world class education in the 21st Century. There is ample evidence in the relatively poor performance of American students on international tests that local school boards are not doing a very good job of keeping up with the international competition so far.

So while it feels comfortable to push for more localized control, it may be worth thinking about whether that's the smartest way to go. What other countries, and what some states in America have started to do is to set the standards nationally or at the state level, to set the curriculum requirements and the testing requirements at the higher level, and then to leave the job of implementing those programs and trying to meet those standards up to the local school districts and local school superintendents. That seems to be producing some good results in states like North Carolina and Kentucky and Washington State.

The really local unit is the school itself. That's where parents, teachers, administrators and the community can come together and really have an impact on students -- not just on what they learn in the classroom but what kind of enrichment programs are available after school and on weekends. And also in terms of how parents and teachers can work together on making sure kids do their homework and understand classroom assignments. If you watched MAKING SCHOOLS WORK, you saw that kind of collaboration paying off. It seems to me that's the really creative and positive area for local effort and local control.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith, You state, "Every other advanced country uses a system of public education and most of them do far better than we do." That is categorically false. Sweden, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and several other very successful countries have thriving school voucher programs that enable all families to choose among an array of public and private options for their children. Denmark's school choice program is over 150 years old. In much of Western Europe, school choice is considered a human right, and those nations look down on our one-size-fits-all public education system as the root of our educational problems. Please get your facts right before you denigrate private schools that have helped thousands of children, including poor and special needs children.

Hedrick Smith: Those are predominately public school systems in all those countries. Publicly financed education, not privately financed education, by and large.


Washington, D.C.: When did you start making this program?

Hedrick Smith: We began the research looking for effective school programs in 2002. It took us about four months to consult with educational experts around the country and in major institutions to learn about the models that were offering best practices and that were compiling the best track records. We then wrote up our findings in a 75 page report and proposal, which we took to a variety of foundations to seek funding for the production. It took us about two years to raise the money and we began the production last December 1. So, in terms of full time work, we've probably put in about 14-15 months, plus a fair amount of part time work discussing the project and raising funds.

That's a lot of work and a lot of time. But the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from viewers that has been pouring in today on the Internet encourages us to believe that the program will have significant shelf life and positive impact among educators and communities around the country. We hope so. And that was our intention. We appreciate the interest not only of this questioner, but of everyone else who has joined in this chat. The issue of better education for our children is a critical one for the nation. It's vital that we all put our best efforts and our best thoughts into it. Without harboring specific ideological or personal preferences, the lesson of the successful programs is that people are open to new ideas and they are committed to continuous improvement. The job is never-ending, and we all need to get cracking on it.


washingtonpost.com: That concludes today's discussion with Hedrick Smith. Thank you for your questions.


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

— Hedrick Smith interview
Washington Post


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