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'Follow the Leader': Education Documentaries in Short Bites on the Web

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[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated when the Montgomery County school district decided to opt out of Maryland's federal Race to the Top grant. It was before Joshua P. Starr became the superintendent.]

Are "webisodes" the future of education documentaries?

PBS "NewsHour" education correspondent John Merrow's production company, Learning Matters Inc., has launched a new documentary series, "Follow the Leader with Sam Chaltain," on educational leadership.

Chaltain is a Washington, D.C.-based teacher, activist, and communications specialist. The first edition of "Follow the Leader" is a two-part Web offering about Joshua Starr, the superintendent of the 151,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school system, just outside the nation's capital.

Starr, in his early 40s, is a rising star among urban school leaders, having served as head of the Stamford, Conn., district for six years before taking over the racially diverse Montgomery County system in 2011. He attracted nationwide attention by calling for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing.

The Starr piece opens with a "pop quiz" in which Chaltain asks Starr for his instant reactions to some education ideas:

Chaltain: "Race to the Top?"

Starr: "Unnecessarily confusing."

Chaltain: "Privatization?"

Starr: "It's a solution looking for a problem."

Chaltain: "Barack Obama?" 

Starr: "Inspiring, and disappointing."

The two parts total about 15 minutes, and it's not clear why they couldn't have just been melded together into one. Chaltain greets Starr at his less-than-glamourous district office, where Starr says 75 percent to 80 percent of his time is taken up by meetings such as the budget session shown on film. If the "Follow the Leader" series is going to focus on a lot of superintendents (more on that below), things could start looking the same pretty fast. (And I'm one who enjoyed Frederick Wiseman's new film, "At Berkeley," whose four hours includes lots of scenes of administrator meetings.)

But Chaltain also gets up at 5:45 a.m. to meet Starr to the gym. Chaltain even interviews the superintendent as he runs on the treadmill (and Chaltain pedals on an exercise machine, which is better than the interviewer just standing there watching his subject work up a sweat).

Starr leads the school system of an affluent suburban county, but one in which nearly 70 percent are students of color. Chaltain follows Starr to schools to meet principals, teachers, and students. 

"How do you take a system that's done such great work and re-orient it, re-culture it, to do very different work that's going to be demanded in the 21st Century?" Starr asks Chaltain. "If we can actually do that here, that's a powerful model. So there's ego here. There's a certain amount of arrogance around it."

I would have welcomed even more screen time with the thoughtful Starr. (Disclosure: Starr and I were instructors/speakers together a few years ago at a seminar of the Urban Superintendents' Program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It's the sole basis behind my puffed-up claim to friends and family that I have "taught at Harvard.")

But the "Follow the Leaders" series will continue with other education movers and shakers. In a brief e-mail interview, Merrow said that Learning Matters will define "leader" broadly for the series.

As for why Learning Matters decided to distribute the series through "webisodes," Merrow said: "We think the Web is the future, and of course we are not alone. Production costs are tiny compared to PBS, and we control distribution, although now we have to help the series find a audience."

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