Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Frontline: Separate and Unequal/Omarina's Story

In this two-part episode, PBS's venerable investigative-journalism series Frontline takes on the issue of education in America and its unequal distribution.  Education is one of those issues that everyone says is important to them on opinion polls, but rarely forms the subject of mass debate.  For TV producers, education is a less visually exciting topic than crime or medicine -- there's no such thing as a "teacher procedural".  Learning, at least as practiced in contemporary schooling, is a process that takes place over years, mostly through dull-as-dirt lessons and repetitive work.  For another thing, there are few political loyalties to flare up when it comes to discussing education, as both U.S. parties are committed to the same (disastrous) neoliberal education policy.

Even when people talk about education, they have a way of not really talking about it.  That extends to the most recent Frontline episode.  In the first segment, the question is all about distribution of education funding, but in this discussion schooling is talked about like a concrete and measurable resource which various groups are fighitng over.  Obviously, funding is an important aspect of education in a capitalist system -- underfunded schools can't provide the same programs and opportunities that richer schools can, which results in students having even less opportunity to pursue their own interests and learn organically.  But still, the episode struggles to express, visually and verbally, what "good education" is.

That difficulty is key to the segment's central conflict, between a group of affluent Baton Rouge residents who want to secede from the city's school system and a municipal authority which wants to hold on to its shrinking funding base.  The secessionists argue that Baton Rouge schools are too poor to save, and that they must start again with a new town.  The opponents of the newly-proposed town, Baton Rouge's mayor among them, argues that this desire to separate is rooted in race and class and is akin to the "white flight" that bankrupted inner cities in the 1970s.  Frontline implicitly takes the latter side, editing the program so that anti-separation talking heads always get the final word in, but there's little way to tell if complaints about the quality of education are actually valid.

One school's principle tells us that it has recently been upgraded to a "C" school from a "D" one, but we have little idea of what that means.  On the other side of the argument, we hear that this school has a notorious record for fights, many of them uploaded to YouTube, but again it's hard to say what the causes of these fights are or whether they compromise the process of education.  We get generic shots of students listening and doing homework, but again it's hard to see a direct relationship between the school's funding and the ability of children to actually learn.

The way in which the process of education vanishes in this conversation is indicative of liberal discourse around the issue.  Here, education is a commodity like any other that can be distributed equally or unequally.  Liberals prefer to distribute it through the government, while conservatives want to edge it towards the marketplace.  There is no room here for debate about the purpose of education, pedagogical technique, or a wide-ranging critique of the system a la Ivan Illich.

What this Frontline story does point out is the way in which school inequality can't be broken down into a private-public dichotomy.  Under the new town, both school boards would be public, but there would exist a substantial inequality between two ostensibly public schools.  There's a brief mention of the pattern of "white flight" which suggests that this is not an isolated or new phenomenon.  Without the drastic step of making a new town, many white middle-class families essentially did the same thing in the 1970s by moving to suburbs and draining the coffers of actual cities.  What the program doesn't mention is the way in which current government policy such as Race to the Top, the very programs that separate a C school from a D one, exacerbate already-existing divides.

This is perhaps an inborn limitation of Frontline, and of any PBS program.  It can examine quite cogently a controversy or an instance of corruption or a minor scandal.  It can in some circumstances even raise a criticism of an entire system, as in an episode last season that raised doubts about the use of forensic evidence.  But structurally it's a product of the government, and it can't create a fundamental critique of any major institution, private or public.  Any corporate-owned network would be unable to do the same for the same reason.  Still, it doesn't take too much thinking to realize that Baton Rouge is not an isolated incident, and knowledge of a conflict like this -- one which is largely unknown outside of its local area -- can help to create a broader critique.  So even if Frontline can't be a voice for a truly radical critique, it can perhaps help to contribute to a general awareness about the world and the systems that govern it.

The second part of the episode, "Omarina's Story", further highlights the class divide in education across the United States.  This is a follow-up to an earlier episode, which I haven't seen, about a program to intervene in middle school when children show the first signs of going off the rails.  This seems like the usual technocratic silver-bullet narrative, in which Omarina is the shining exemplar.  In this segment, we learn that she has been accepted to Brooks, an elite private high school.

Omarina's presence at Brooks could be seen as a confirmation of America's essential meritocracy, but to its credit Frontline never presents it as such.  The point is not that there is a black inner-city girl at a prep school full of rich white kids, the point is that the prep school is full of rich white kids to begin with.  "Omarina's Story" suggests that many poor children -- Omarina suggests that her brother is just as smart -- could accomplish the same things if it weren't for systemic problems.  The scenes of her struggling adapt to a new environment imply that tokenistic scholarship programs don't do anything to make an environment less privileged and less alienating to people who come in without a sense of economic privilege.  When she has to come home to visit her brother in the hospital, she becomes a gripping character, caught between two worlds.

The narrative presented here is rather schematic, like a scientific experiment: Omarina succeeds with the intervention of the program, but her twin brother Omarlon (the control group, if you will) slides into a life of crime without the program.  But anyone who thinks about it for a minute will realize that not everyone who receives middle-school intervention will go on to Brooks.  What about the impoverished kids who are nurtured to a steady attendance record and a B average?  From the academic perspective their lives have been improved, and they may perhaps have a more comfortable adolescence (and that may be enough).  But will they really have more opportunities once they get out of high school?

"Omarina's Story" provides a better sense of what education is than "Separate and Unequal" does.  In this short, education is very much an affective relationship, with the close and nurturing relationship between Omarina and her teacher Miss Miller stretching beyond middle school itself.  Robert Belfans, creator of the "middle school moment" program describes it as "that sense of shepharding that kids need to tell them that not only an adult cares but that an adult can help them".

But there's a way in which this narrative removes any kind of agency or intelligence belonging to Omarina herself.  The narrator begins by saying that Omarina probably wouldn't be there if it wasn't for Belfans' intervention, then describes her as "lucky" that her middle school had the program he created.  In this way "Omarina's Story" becomes not Omarina's story at all, not the story of a black girl achieving remarkable things but the story of a white man's genius.  There's a sense throughout the segment that Omarina's own voice is struggling to overcome the more authoritative one of the documentary.  She reads an essay describing her life as a "one-way street", but instead of dealing with her concerns the teachers simply praise her eloquence.  The narrator says that "she didn't know it, but she was starting down a path that so many other students take" -- even though her comments suggest that she was well aware of the systemic problems in her area.  This, too, is a problem in talking about education: that in focusing on administrative process programs like Frontline can silence the very children it is attempting to help.

I don't mean to suggest that this should be a story of individual achievement either.  The infrastructure that supported Omarina is undoubtedly important, but there needs to be a way of talking about it that doesn't diminish Omarina's own intelligence.  This is perhaps the true difficult in describing education, or describing any kind of institution: how to maintain both structural analysis and individual agency.  It is not surprising that a PBS documentary does not succeed in untangling this knot.  But Frontline's flaws do a lot to remind us how even the most well-intentioned and earnest attempts to engage with the institutions and systems that rule our lives are constrained by our culture's imaginative limits.

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