December 18th, 2009

A Decade of Learning, Sleuthing and Reporting at Learning Matters

Yesterday, Scholastic published a list of the “10 Biggest Education Ideas of the Decade.” The list covers charter schools, technology and the stimulus, among other topics. For the past decade–and since long before that–the producers at Learning Matters have done in-depth reporting on big ideas in education; at the same time, they’ve told the intimate stories of the people behind those ideas. To mark the end of the aughts, I asked our producers which stories, series and documentaries they feel most proud of, or found most interesting to work on. Watch, read and listen to the results below.

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1. Paul Vallas in New Orleans: Episode 6 - Mixed Results for School Reform Efforts

Valerie Visconti**
Valerie Visconti
, Associate Producer: My favorite series is the one I have been producing for over two years on the New Orleans school system under the leadership of Paul Vallas.

I first met Vallas in Episode 1, at a rally where he pumped up his teachers for the start of his first school year as Superintendent. I was taken aback by his enthusiasm to take over one of the worst school districts in the country. Vallas was a whirlwind: eager, ready, armed with high expectations, and no one was going to stand in his way. His gusto surely rubbed off on his teachers, as they danced in the aisles to classic New Orleans trumpets and cheered at every catchphrase Vallas rattled off, in the incessant way he has of speaking. There was an excitement in that convention center room that was unmistakable; you had to be there to believe it.

Three years in, one thing is clear: Vallas has not lost one bit of zeal for his mission. His hyperactive nature has led him to roll out an abundance of new initiatives, many of which got off to a shaky start. A teacher once told me, ‘Vallas has about 500 ideas…but if we are lucky we can get maybe 5 of them to work.’

One of my favorite episodes is Part 6, which aired at the end of his first year. This segment highlights Vallas’ greatest challenge: overage students struggling to move on. In the episode we follow two students: one drops out of an alternative school and the other finally graduates from a traditional high school after an astounding number of attempts to pass her graduation exam. The segment made the reality of New Orleans schools all too real to me; half of these students will never make it across the stage. However, seeing a student who makes it against all odds exemplifies the very thing Vallas is trying to prove: it is possible.
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2. Turnaround Specialist: The Program

David Wald**
David Wald
, Managing Producer: One of my favorite projects is “The Turnaround Specialist,” which was a series we shot over the course of a year and aired in installments on the NewsHour. We did not know how Principal Parker Land, with years of experience in suburban schools, would perform at his first inner city school in Richmond, VA. So as we filmed him over the course of a year, everything was unexpected.

It was also kind of a confusing story because in the end scores went down at his troubled middle school and yet his superintendent “promoted” him to principal of a much bigger high school, requiring him to leave the middle school at least a year earlier than he’d planned.

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3. Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC: Episode 6 - Tough Changes and Controversy

Cat McGrath**
Cat McGrath
, Producer: “What do you think of Michelle Rhee?”

Since joining Learning Matters in 2007 my focus has been on reform efforts in Washington D.C. under the leadership of Michelle Rhee. My first day on the job was the first day of school under Rhee’s watch and now, two years and eleven reports later, people continue to ask me what I think of her. Well, if you drop me an email me I might share some of my personal observations, but the reports pretty much say it all.

If you haven’t watched any of the episodes yet, I would start with Episode 6, which is a round-up of her first year in office. You’ll see a meeting Jane and I filmed in which the Chancellor fires a principal, and an end-of-the-year afternoon cruise I took down the Potomac with the staff of a school Rhee had decided to close. It has been quite a journey, and though it’s not over yet, I feel very fortunate to have met so many people in D.C. who are so passionate about education.

One of my favorite moments was when we ran in to a man who told us he had moved to D.C and taken a job as a Vice Principal after listening to one of our podcasts! He was also offered a job in Boston, but said the podcast inspired him to work in D.C. If you have a story about how our work has changed your mind about anything, one way or the other, I’d love to hear it!
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4. Pay for Grades: The Program

John Tulenko**
John Tulenko
, Senior Producer and Correspondent: “Pay for Grades” is one of my favorites. At the time we produced it, the idea of paying students was considered avant-garde in New York City and elsewhere, but we found a tiny steel town in Ohio that had been doing it for years.

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5. Podcast: After He’s Gone

Jane Renaud

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Jane Renaud
, Producer: A favorite piece I worked on is the podcast “After He’s Gone,” which accompanied the NewsHour piece “Lessons of War.”

The podcast is a favorite of mine for two reasons. One, the listener really gets to take the time to get to know Scarlette Keeling, a 27-year-old mother of three whose husband, Corey, just deployed for Afghanistan. Scarlette and Corey were featured in our NewsHour segment, but as is often the case, we’re forced leave much of our interviews on the cutting room floor. Here, Scarlette and John Merrow’s conversation can unfold naturally, getting to that big question: “What do you say when they ask the big question: ‘Will Daddy die?’” Secondly, we interspersed sound recorded in the Keeling home and in their public school with the interview, giving an intimate, portrait feeling. This is one of the first podcasts I worked on, and it’s still my favorite.

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6. School Sleuth: The Documentary

John Merrow

John Merrow, Executive Producer and Host: My favorite of the decade has to be School Sleuth, primarily because of all the elaborate production and storytelling that went into it. I choose it because it was (and is) so different from everything else we’ve done. John Tulenko, Tania Brief, Alexis Kessler, our professional actress, Eliza Foss, and I had a blast. We shot the set pieces during the wee hours of the morning at an abandoned spice factory in Brooklyn and then wove serious elements into the story of “The Case of an Excellent School.” I had just completed Choosing Excellence, my book on the same subject, and we did our best to have the two appear at the same time. Winning a George Foster Peabody Award, our first, was just icing on the cake.

By the way, the great recession has prevented us from bringing back the Sleuth in a second case, “Who’s Killing School Reform?”

7.  When School is Home: The Program

taniaportrait1Tania McKeown, Producer:  One report we produced last year that really left its mark on me was the story of homeless families and how schools were responding to this growing problem. We visited Green Bay, Wisconsin where dedicated teachers and social workers were identifying and assisting struggling families. Their work was inspiring and vital to the kids’ ability to succeed in the classroom. For me, the story highlighted that schools are (and should be) much more than a place of education…

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