The HBO Documentary “Hard Times At Douglas High” about a Baltimore High School has been stirring-up some good debate.
Chris Cross, a former president of the Maryland Board of Education, former federal education official, and non-profit leader offers his thoughts on some context. Chris is now a national consultant based out of California.
Earlier this week, I tuned into the HBO documentary “Hard Times at Douglass High: A New Child Left Behind Report Card.” The film-makers, Alan and Susan Raymond spent a year at Frederick Douglass High in Baltimore reporting on what they describe as that school’s struggle to meet the expectations of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
While a very well done documentary that lays bare the wasteland that urban schools often are, the film fails as a commentary on NCLB. Fourteen years ago, I was chairing the MD State Board of Education when Douglass was before us as one of the first two schools which the state identified for possible reconstitution because of its dismal record in serving students in Baltimore City. Regrettably, despite many partnerships and a great deal of attention in the intervening years, little seems to have changed, but to associate the situation as being caused by NCLB is simply bizarre. If anything, NCLB simply cast yet another bright light on an already intolerable situation.
The State Board stopped short of reconstituting Douglass in the 90’s when it became clear that the problems were systemic; Douglass was the recipient of many students who had been simply passed down the line from grade to grade, school to school, all too often never mastering the basics. In March, 2006, the state board voted to have Douglass and a number of other Baltimore schools assigned to an outside organization under a management contract. That action took place in an election year in MD and the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, was the leading candidate to beat the incumbent Republican governor. The issue became a political football and the legislature passed a law preventing the state from acting. In the meantime, schools like Douglass limped on.
While campaigning and after taking office, O’Malley attacked the state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, largely motivated by her attempted actions in Baltimore. Grasmick faced O’Malley down and is still the state chief. In the meantime Baltimore has a new superintendent, Andres Alonso, who seems ready to break a bit of crockery in order to improve schools like Douglass.
Now watching that unfold would be a great new documentary! A TV documentary can be a powerful instrument of communication when it tells the right story.