Too many children and too few spots — that is the story of The Lottery, a heart-wrenching documentary from Madeleine Sackler, the story of four children hoping to be the among the fortunate few chosen for admission to New York City’s best-performing public schools. The consequences of a random selection can be life-changing for the better or worse and can affect the entire family. Will the child become an active, engaged learner open to opportunity? Or will the child be condemned to a school system weighed down by bureaucracy and a structure that puts the interests of teachers over those of students? And it is a poignant contrast to Nursery University, the documentary about the scramble for New York City’s most sought-after preschools.
I spoke to director Madeleine Sackler about making the film and what she learned.
How did this film come together?
There were really two reasons I decided to make the film. The first was a statistic I read a few years ago out of New Haven that 17% of kids were at grade level. And there’s a school downtown serving the same kids that had 71%. And then several years later I saw footage of the lottery that we ended up featuring in the film and I realized that there were so many parents trying to get their kids into a better school and I became interested in telling that story.
How do you describe your style as a documentarian?
I really like cinema verite films. The director of photography I was fortunate enough to work with had shot some of my favorite verite films like “Children Underground.” The way that the stories are told without narration poses unique challenges for the filmmaker. Initially that was what the whole film was going to be, a portrait of four families. We encountered all of this political controversy surrounding the school that they wanted and I couldn’t ignore that but that meant we had to include more narration than we originally planned.
I was happy to see Geoffrey Canada in the film because I am interested in his work.
He’s an amazing guy and his schools are phenomenal. The three school leaders, Geoffrey Canada, Eva Moskowitz, and Dacia Toll, that are featured in the film have almost 30 schools between them. There are good charter schools and bad charter schools but these leaders show that their schools can be replicated. The point is not whether the school is charter or not, but that some people have demonstrated that they can make it work. Some people point to charter schools that aren’t as successful as a reason we should not have charters as an option but I do not understand that. No one wants to replicate bad schools. There are some school leaders that are willing and ready to open more schools that have a very successful track record.
There’s a few things that are consistent among higher-performing schools. The first is the use of data to drive both instruction and teacher and student evaluation. It’s exciting to watch because every few weeks kids can be moved around according to their achievement level. So the students are always achieving at the highest possible level. They’re not in groups with kids that are significantly behind. They often end up reading at one or two or more grade levels ahead which I think is exciting. And then school culture is something you cannot quantify but it is very noticeable at these schools. They are all very focused on high achievement, from working to get the parents on board to the teachers and students and administrators.
They do things like naming the classrooms after the university that the teacher went to and naming the grades the year that the kids will graduate from college. Instead of being in kindergarten, the student will be something like “Wesleyan 2024.” So they’re constantly working toward that goal.
It’s also the flexibility to hire and let go teachers, to lengthen the school day and the school year and to adjust the curriculum and instruction methods really at the drop of a hat if they see it isn’t working today they can fix it tomorrow.
What are the biggest obstacles to success in the regular school system?
There are some fantastic traditional public schools so it is possible, but the lack of flexibility makes it harder. Those rules have been shown not to lead to success. There are some fantastic traditional public schools, but those rules make it a lot harder and have not been shown to lead to success.
How can you address the problem of reaching parents to make education a priority for their children?
Involving the parents is something the high performing schools work very, very hard at. They don’t necessarily have a 100% success rate but that means they have to make up the difference. As a society it’s a moral obligation for us to give kids that opportunity. I talked to a lot of parents who were very frustrated with all of the rules and obligations, but then when their kids were reading before all of their friends’ kids, they were happy. People respond to results. But a study documented that it is the school that makes the biggest difference.