As we learn in Madeleine Sackler’s hard-hitting documentary The Lottery, if you live in Harlem, it’s pretty hard to follow the advice of The Beach Boys and “be true to your school,” when you discover that far fewer than 50% of students attending the publically zoned schools have the ability to read at their grade level.
Dubbed “drop-out factories” or “pipelines to prison,” the failure of the district schools in New York City is indicative of a much larger problem spreading across a country in desperate need of educational reform.
Protected by unions that operate under what are described as “Godfather-like tactics” to prevent under-performing teachers from getting fired (only 10 teachers were dismissed in 2008), keep certain political leaders in power and bus in special interest groups like ACORN to protest against the academically successful charter schools that have been increasing in popularity for years, Sackler investigates the prejudices, problems, and proactive measures that parents, students, community members, and educational employees encounter.
Since the focal point of the film rests in the annual public charter school lotteries held in Harlem where hundreds of children and thousands of parents gather to see if their names will get chosen to attend one of the community’s most respected schools like Harlem Success Academy in the fight to ensure the belief that “every child can learn,” at times Sackler’s film can seem a bit too one-sided in its pro-charter stance that doesn’t incorporate tales of public school successes and/or charter controversies.
However, since the filmmaker revealed to the Wall Street Journal that it was harder for the film’s twenty-seven year old filmmaker to shoot in a local public school than it was to shoot an interview with one parent in a maximum security prison and that she couldn’t find anyone from the union to speak on their behalf, it becomes much easier to see exactly what the film alludes to as we wonder just how much about the educational system is being hidden from view.
Needless to say, we’re willing to forgive Sackler’s admittedly narrow perspective since the overall message of The Lottery is so important to get across in its underlying message that in their heart, every parent wants the very best for their child and education is key to guaranteeing more opportunities towards a brighter future.
And therefore, when the overwhelming problem in our country seems to be in our adherence to “a system that protects academic failure,” then any steps that can be taken to combat the system and bring about positive change for our nation’s future, which is embodied in the next generation of students -- who should as citizens be guaranteed the very best – are valued as meaningful, vital and good.
Alternately heartbreaking and optimistic in its unbridled optimism about the capabilities of the young to learn regardless of economic, cultural, or familial background, The Lottery follows four diverse families in Harlem and the Bronx who aspire for their children to attend Harlem Success Academy by winning placement in their annual lottery.
Between fiery council meetings and passionate speeches with devastating statistics, we begin to gain a more in-depth perspective on just why so many schools are leaving our children behind and why throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer, especially when we meet the woman behind Harlem Success who’s dubbed “our Obama” by a local parent in the form of Eva Moskowitz who’s so inspiring and focused that she has the ability to make viewers wish they would’ve gotten a teaching degree in order to help out.
Of course, the problems that exist in the system at large are far too complex to vanish with easy solutions and can’t begin to be addressed in roughly eighty minutes of film time. And likewise, despite the fact that it’s incredible naïve to simply argue that erecting charter schools across the country would solve our national academic woes since every school faces the same challenges that need to be resolved in order to successfully transfer knowledge from teacher to student, you can’t argue with demand and results along with a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their child.
Moreover it’s this choice for a better education that makes Sackler’s film so extraordinarily significant since – whether you’re pro-charter or anti-charter – the fact that so many individuals from earnest teachers to intellectually hungry children are suffering from our current state of educational affairs of failing schools and not enough seats at the academically superior charters makes it all the more evident that something needs to be done and The Lottery is a great place to start.
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