Education Reporting on Public Television


From black-and-white footage of protests against segregated schools in New York City, to full-color newscasts about the rollout of No Child Left Behind in Guam, public television has had a long history of covering education stories. This online exhibit highlights documentaries, news magazines, talk shows, and special reports in the AAPB collection dedicated to learning in America.

Public Schools and Public Television

As idealized institutions, public education and public television have much in common. Indeed, “public” television as we know it began as “educational television,” independent local stations providing edifying broadcasts to their communities. As public education and public television have grown, both have done so by appealing to the demands of democratic citizenship. As one early educational reformer put it, public schools must offer the “necessary knowledge” for an American to “discharge his duties as an individual, as a member of society, and as a citizen of a free state.”1 Similarly, the Ford Foundation, whose Fund for Adult Education (FAE) provided nearly all the funds for public television in its early years, desired content that would develop “mature, wise, and responsible citizens.”2 In this collection, we see one public institution commenting on another.

Furthermore, for the last half-century, both public media and public education have experienced a centripetal pull toward centralization, yet both remain fundamentally local institutions. This tension between local and national indicates a strength in public television’s capacity to cover this topic. Neighborhood schools, once only subject to the dictates of their town administration, have been called to bring racial justice, to be a “passport from poverty,” to staunch the “rising tide of mediocrity,” to "leave no child behind," and to "race to the top." Still, even as the dialogue about the problems with public schools has become more national, implementation remains local. For example, Boston and New York City did not desegregate their schools in the same way, and urban approaches differed significantly from the integration plans of rural Texas or Illinois. Local public television stations, intent on educating responsible citizens, covered these regional stories for their audiences, while national programming like the PBS NewsHour brought national trends into focus.

About This Exhibit

Since education is a vast topic, this exhibit provides a representative sample of AAPB’s collection, rather than an exhaustive list. Many documentaries and other types of one-off programs are highlighted. For series, such as talk shows or newsmagazines, a handful of representative episodes are profiled.

The exhibit proceeds chronologically in four sections: 1953 to 1972, 1972 to 1980, 1981 to 1989, and 1990 to the present. Each section includes a “Featured Program,” an introduction to the educational issues at the fore during that era, and a narrative highlighting ways that public television covered these issues and descriptions of representative public television programs.

Next: Education Documentaries in the NET Years, 1953-1972

Image from School Days (1999), a documentary about education from WXXI Public Broadcasting.

School Days (1999)