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PBS Goes Back to School With ‘Spotlight Education’

PBS is devoting this entire week of primetime programming to an issue its leaders believe has gone unexplored in this epochal campaign season: the America’s education system. While taking a hard look at flaws in the system, the week's shows will also foreground ideas and forward-looking solutions.

“Spotlight Education,” which kicks off Monday night and ends Sept. 17, will feature entries in some of the network’s mainstays, such as Frontline, NOVA and POV, as well as other stand-alone titles. The lineup includes Ken Burns documentary The Address, a TED Talks installment with Anna Deavere Smith and Sal Khan as well as American Graduate Day, a multiplatform broadcast originating at New York’s WNET.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told B&C the current climate requires a bold statement. “I’m not sure why it’s fallen off” the agenda of national campaigns, she said. “It’s one of the great issues of our time. And there are some good stories out there.”

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Last year, PBS altered its deal with Sesame Workshop, which now produces new episodes of Sesame Street for HBO, which then air nine months later on PBS. Even so, “people tend to think of the education work we do for little kids,” Kerger said. But while that work is ongoing at PBS Kids, the issues are compelling enough to warrant much broader attention, she added.

Several of the programs were promoted in July at the TCA summer press tour, including the POV entry All the Difference, which follows two teenagers from Chicago’s south side who dream of graduating from college against formidable odds.

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The Address, which will air at select times across the week, tells the story of a tiny school in Putney, Vt., where each year students are encouraged to practice, memorize and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

NOVA episode School of the Future explores how new scientific approaches to learning could help us reimagine the way children are taught. And the Michael Apted-esque Time for School is a longitudinal documentary about five children from five different countries, filmed since 2003 when they entered school.

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It is interesting to realize, Kerger conceded, that schools get way shorter shrift in primetime writ large than the justice system, medicine, police or other public institutions. Since James L. Brooks’ Room 222 left the air in 1974, attempts to tell weighty stories set in classrooms have been few and far between.

As with Mercy Street, the PBS drama about the Civil War, the network finds that "there are viewers who won't watch documentary," Kerger said. "But plenty of great scripted work is inspired by documentary."