The Lottery

In the era of education standards and accountability, the debate regarding the potential of charter schools to reform American public education, particularly for children of color, has heated up. Against this backdrop, several films have recently been released about charter schools. In anticipation of a classroom discussion I intend to conduct about one of them, I recently watched the “documentary” The Lottery. In this case, the quotation marks are intentional, because boy, was this one shoddy piece of documentary work.

My critiques of The Lottery are numerous, but I’ll start with data, or the lack thereof. Sackler, the film’s director, did not attempt to provide viewers with any data about charter school performance compared to traditional public schools. But then again, I don’t blame her. If she had, she would have had to admit that the most comprehensive study of charter schools to date found that fewer than 20% of the schools provided its students with better educations than public schools, almost half offered comparable educations, and more than a third offered their students inferior educations. Talk about your inconvenient truths.

But the absence of useful data was just one of many failures in the film, with unfair portrayals of the major players in education reform being the next problem. The Lottery shamelessly demonized teacher’s unions without bothering to interview even one union rep or pro-union advocate in defense of the organizations. This, despite the director’s decision to interview, almost exclusively, pro-charter advocates, some of whom likened unions to thugs and mafiosos. Now, I understand that there are plenty of villains to cast in the education reform debate. Even if, however, the unions are every bit as obstructionist as the movie suggests they are, and are dumping bodies in the river to boot, it is only fair to give them the opportunity to voice their perspective. If the director’s intent was to pin blame for public school failure on teachers, that’s fine, but she then shouldn’t have called her film a documentary. She should have called it propaganda, because that’s what it was.

Moreover, I have to defend the unions a little bit on this one. Anyone with an understanding of labor struggles in this country has to acknowledge that unions can and do play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights. Although it is true that union contracts have often enshrined due process procedures that result in the retention of many sub par teachers, it is not true that due process in itself is inherently problematic. Nor do I buy the argument that because these sorts of procedures are “never tolerated in the private sector,” they should not be tolerated in the public. To the contrary, due process is the name of the game in the public sector, and for good reason. Teaching at a public school is a public job, funded by public dollars, meaning that all qualified citizen are entitled to the job. And if, after having given the job to a citizen the government wants to take that job away, there are procedures that must be followed, for the government does not have the right to arbitrarily take away from citizens that which has been provided for only by citizens’ grace. I agree that some of these procedures have gotten out of hand, and that if we are to take the teaching profession seriously, it has to become easier to dismiss underperforming teachers while rewarding effective ones. But we cannot, and should not, get rid of due process. You want the freedom to engage in both justified and arbitrary firings? Go to the private sector.

While conveniently avoiding relevant data and scapegoating teachers and the unions that protect them, the movie lacks any substantive discussion about the real problems with American public education: segregation; funding disparities; poverty; inadequate health care and food insecurity among students. Instead, the film misleadingly suggests that reform is synonymous with charters. And it does so while exploiting black people to make the point. Prominently featured in the film is the contentious battle between a Harlem charter school that petitions to be housed in a soon-to-be-closed-down failing public school, and the black and brown parents who protest the charter school’s petition. Between participant interviews and clips from the heated public hearings on the issue, you walk away with the impression that parents of color are ignorantly opposing the very movement that is going to save their children. Missing from the film is any legitimate analysis of why these parents are so oppositional or what it feels like for a community to have their neighborhood school closed without education alternatives for their kids; most of these parents, after all, will not be able to obtain a spot for their sons and daughters in the new charter school. She never considers what it does to a community when a center in that community–a public school–is shut down. Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the way in which Sackler’s portrayal legitimated the cultural deficit model that is regularly foisted on black people in this country.

And as if that weren’t enough, I was disgusted by the film’s presentation of the actual lottery. As has become all the rage, many oversubscribed charter schools hold public lotteries, at which anxious parents and their children gather in an auditorium to learn whether their child has won a coveted spot at the school. The parents of students’ whose names are called jump up triumphantly, running to the front of the auditorium, ushering their children towards clapping teachers and administrators who welcome the child to the school. The parents of students’ whose names are not called sit in the chairs despondently, ultimately heading home, clearly defeated by their bad luck. It is heartbreaking to see the looks on parents faces who had pinned their hopes on wining a spot, and the sad faces of their children who realize that their parents’ devastation has something to do with their limited opportunities. These schools say that they hold these lotteries to illustrate demand in poor communities for their services. I say they are exploiting the hopes and dreams of these families, and their beautiful black and brown babies, for a cheap publicity stunt, and that The Lottery was complicit in that exploitation. Not surprisingly, only 1 of the 4 families portrayed in the film won admission to the featured charter school.

In defense of the movie, some say that it at least “started a conversation,” but I don’t think the movie did anything positive to further an honest and realistic dialogue about public school reform in our country. Most people who saw the film are not like me or the other writers on this blog who are knowledgeable about public school education. Most viewers don’t realize that crucial data is missing. They don’t understand why parents in the film opposed the arrival of one small charter school in exchange for the closing of their neighborhood school. Most people sat down with a box of popcorn, were entertained by the drama which unfolded on the screen, and walked away with a skewed understanding of charters as the answer, unions as the devil, and black people as backwards for fighting the closing of their neighborhood school.

When discussing the film with one friend who happens to be an educator, she used the theory of “structural functionalism” to discuss what is happening with public education: poverty and marginalization of many exists to ensure wealth and access for the few. As a person with a B.A. in sociology, I agree that the theory is relevant here. And yet, social science terms can problematically make societal issues seem academic, objective and neutral, numbing us to the real injustice that is operating in the background. I’ve got a better way to sum up what was going on in that “documentary,” the charter school movement, and in American public education in general: this is some racist and classist $hit.

10 thoughts on “The Lottery

  1. Hi ORJ,
    Great piece! I was wondering if I could crosspost to Love Isn’t Enough?

    I’ve also had my eye on Race to Nowhere [], another doc. on US education that my gut tells me will be full of race and class fail… It’s not in my area, though, so I haven’t been able to check it out.


    1. Thanks, Julia! No, I don’t mind at all! Please do crosspost! In the meantime, I will definitely check out racetonowhere.

      Thanks, Tanji! I haven’t seen Superman, although I intend to, as that will also be discussed in my class. I’m pretty sure it has some of the same issues, although I will reserve judgment until seeing it.

      I could go on and on about the profession of education, and what we can, and can’t, blame teachers for. But I have to put my daughter down for a nap! I’ll be back to respond in more detail later.


  2. Great post ORJ. Have you seen Waiting for Superman. I’m wondering how it compares. I haven’t seen The Lottery but I really enjoyed Brick City and even The Wire’s (season four) narrative film portrayal of how it takes an entire community’s reform to reach educational goals. I think anyone who blames student performance on the failure of teachers alone is counterproductive. Though I do believe that teachers are most responsible for reform because this is there professional obligation and parents have to be professionally obligated to their own careers. However; government interference in the realm of public education, particularly with No Child Left Behind, is severely limiting what teachers can do to reach under-performing (in reading and math) students. Students need a reformed curriculum, driven by teachers of diverse educational backgrounds, not beholden to narrow scripts for what they are allowed to teach.


  3. The question of what we should hold teachers accountable for is a complicated one. There are definitely methods of instruction that we know work better than others; discipline style and classroom management techniques that are most effective. We know that it takes a certain level of subject matter mastery–not just education– and enthusiasm to be a good teacher. And teachers who can’t employ proven techniques, can’t understand their subject at the theoretical level that allows them to teach others, or lack the fire for teaching necessary to educate our children should be dismissed (or not hired in the first place, although this also gets into the issue of incentives).

    That being said, I can’t think of very many other fields where your performance is so closely linked to the performance of your students, clients, subjects, etc. Lawyers are not deemed sub par because their client insisted on committing perjury on the stand. Doctors are not fired because their patients refuse to lose the weight that is so necessary for long-term health. And yet, we put academic outcomes squarely on the shoulders of teachers. When trying to think of comparable fields, coaching comes to mind. But even coaches are permitted to choose their teams.

    This is a conundrum, especially if we want to think about teaching as a “profession” and not a vocation. The hallmark of professional work is autonomy in decisionmaking, and teachers’ decisions can be severely limited by students, as well as reform measures like NCLB that, as Tanji pointed out, forces teachers into narrow scripts. Moreover, the role of unions in professionalizing teaching is also a complicated one. My teacher friend who made the comment about structural functionalism noted quipped, “what other profession needs a union to protect them? C’mon–it’s the teamsters, auto workers, and teachers.” I think she’s on to something there, although in a field where teachers are asked to do so much–often more than what is fair or reasonable–the protection that unions afford seems necessary.

    If we are serious about education reform, talking about professional standards for teachers is definitely one piece of it. But education reform is really child welfare reform. If we refuse to get serious about the latter, we will never achieve the former.


  4. In all of the myriad conversations, theorizing and politicking about teaching and teachers, my only desire as a teacher is for my students’ parents to meet me half-way. I can boast mastery of my subject matter, methods of differentiated instruction and effective classroom management. Without appearing redundant, my experience is that kids whose parents take an active interest in their school work and implement effective follow-through strategies at home do better in school. In my own personal experience, even as a teacher, I took all reasonable measures to place my own children with the best teachers in my children’s public school. However, I still have to create the conditions at home to make it easy for them to excel in school, or follow-up with the teacher to make sure that my children fully understand the concepts.

    I think the role of parents is highly underestimated, and I’m worried that these criticisms levied against public schools are money-driven. Parents should not be left out of conversations about the school system. No matter how good and excellent and effective and everything wonderful a teacher is, a child will not succeed if a parent doesn’t take an interest in their school work, or exposes their child to a noisy and unstructured environment at home. As a teacher, I am disheartened by the conditions in many homes, or just a parent’s approach to their child’s learning. I’ve seen many good teachers stress out badly just to teach certain kids. They try so many methods of differentiated instruction and still fall short

    I pay union dues every month, but I also work extra hard to be the best, most effective teacher I can be. I still have students who fail in my class. Why? They went to bed late and can’t think in the morning. They watch TV non-stop. They heard mom and dad/boyfriend cursing each other all night, or smoking, or something. No homework was turned in, and a whole host of other reasons.

    I probably wrote too much. It’s good to expect teacher excellence, but parents must also take responsibility for their child’s academic success. It makes it so much easier on everyone – teacher, parent, student and public school system.

    Thanks for a great post!


    1. I agree that parental involvement is key. There is a culture of distrust between public schools and parents. Parents think “what the heck are you all doing; you can’t control or teach my kid,” and teachers think “what the heck are you all doing; you can’t raise your children to control themselves or learn.” And I can’t help but think that part of what animates the push for more standards and accountability for teachers is the belief that parents are a lost cause anyway. Just as we expect teachers to do their part, we also have to expect parents to do theirs, although I would note that it’s hard to create a supportive environment at home for education if you’re worried about food or housing, or if you’ve never had a positive educational experience yourself.


  5. Great post! Very well written and thought provoking.

    I haven’t seen “The Lottery” did see “Waiting for Superman”. I come from a union family so I do appreciate the benefits that organized labor has brought to the American workforce. As a parent, I am not at all enamored of the education administration bureacracy that limits (in my opinion) innovation and effectiveness.


  6. “…although I would note that it’s hard to create a supportive environment at home for education if you’re worried about food or housing, or if you’ve never had a positive educational experience yourself.”

    Dr. Ben Carson’s mom was an illiterate who cleaned rich people’s houses for a living. He was dubbed “the dumbest kid in his fifth grade class” until his mother said enough is enough and made the decision to turn things around.

    It IS possible, even in a state of poverty and illiteracy, to raise kids who do well in school.


    1. Everything and anything is possible, but a few exceptions do not make the rule. And there are all types of poor; you can be money poor, but richer in cultural capital. I remember reading Carson’s book, but can’t remember what his upbringing indicated about his situation.

      In any event, I just don’t buy into the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth. Some make it; great. But for the rest who can’t (who would likely include many of us if we didn’t have certain advantages), we have to be real about the way the deck is stacked.


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