In an old joke, a person asks, "Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?" The other says, "For a million? Sure!" The first then says, "Will you sleep with me for $30?" The other indignantly demands, "What do you think I am?" The answer: "We've established what you are, now we're haggling over price."
The communications wizard Chris Whittle made such an offer to the Baltimore City Public Schools, and the school system bought the deal. Mr. Whittle is lending (not giving) one television set for every secondary-school classroom and two videotape machines per school in exchange for the right to air his 12-minute "Channel One" programs in every classroom once a day.
The program includes about four minutes of what Mr. Whittle terms "news," six minutes of human- interest features and two minutes of commercials. In a 180-day school year, that means six days of class time are spent watching Channel One -- one entire day sacrificed for the commercials alone.
By accepting Mr. Whittle's deal, Baltimore's school system is saying that it just doesn't value children enough not to sell their time and their attitudes. And, make no mistake, that is what we're selling.
Research shows that watching Mr. Whittle's program doesn't notably increase students' knowledge of current events. But Channel One did produce a marked increase in one thing -- materialistic attitudes. For those of use who have seen children kill each other over sneakers and jackets, any increase in materialism among kids is frightening.
By putting television programming into the classroom, we give sanction to the products and the ideas presented. The argument that kids already see so many commercials that it doesn't matter, just doesn't wash. The commercials seen on Channel One get greater attention, according to the researchers. They hypothesize that watching programs within school walls cloaks them with approval, and that seeing them in the company of peers makes the products advertised seem more attractive.
Imagine that a religious group wanted to buy six days of school for a program it had developed. Such an offer wouldn't even be considered. If we would not allow religious indoctrination in public schools, how can we say that materialistic indoctrination is harmless?
Channel One steals class time and robs students of educational opportunity. To say that this programming is a good educational tool is to denigrate the quality of teaching now going on in the classrooms of Baltimore. And to believe that the program has instructional value simply because some students will watch it is to say that we no longer take seriously the responsibility of schools to guide and control the content of curriculum.
I spent nearly 10 years working as a broadcast journalist. I wouldn't have lasted long if I had produced the kinds of stories I saw in watching more than a week's worth of Channel One programs. Not only do they pander to the interests of big business, they are often basically wire-copy stories with little or no rewrite. For students, they are neither easy to understand nor particularly interesting. Moreover, Channel One's contract provides no opportunity for the teacher to stop the program for reflection or discussion. Research in other cities shows that rarely does the program become the subject of class discussion.
And that's really a major problem with the entire concept. Channel One isn't geared to fit in with the curriculum in any school. The equipment lent to schools didn't come as the result of Mr. Whittle's desire to meet the school system's needs. No information has been presented to show how the Channel One equipment fits in with the school system's technology plan or how the system plans to make maximum use of the equipment.
Each class gets only a TV monitor. It does not receive its own videotape machine. The only programming received by those monitors comes from the media center -- the same programming for every class at any given time. At a time when the city is considering cutting back on an already meager library and media staff, it seems unlikely that any but the most motivated and organized of instructors will really derive an educational benefit from the equipment provided.
But even if Channel One were a good educational tool, it must be examined much more closely. Chris Whittle has placed billboards in the hallways of many elementary and secondary schools in Baltimore. Advertisers pay him for the chance to get a rare shot at kids in schools. The posters provide little or no useful educational information. But the ads are well done.
Mr. Whittle had a plan and he knew how to sell it. But we must ask why he gets these opportunities to mold children's minds. It sets a dangerous precedent, and makes many, including the National PTA, ask why our leadership doesn't take a more active and responsible role in stopping commercialism in schools.
No program should be allowed into our schools without a full examination of its content and approach and a determination that it fits in with the system's plans for student learning. The lack of such an analysis is an abdication of our responsibility to children.
We can get television sets in our schools if we need them. It may be more difficult than getting Mr. Whittle's equipment and will certainly take a solid plan. But that's the responsibility of our school and community leaders and elected officials. No amount of television equipment is worth what he's asking.
Mindy S. Mintz is director of Students First, a project of Advocates for Children and Youth.