13th and The Central Park Five

The MIT Prison Education Initiative recently hosted showings of two documentaries, both of which I thought were very well-made and eye-opening.

I thought I’d jot down some of the notes I took, though be warned that my notes might not be super cohesive. Think of them more as interesting ideas that were brought forth by the documentaries.


13th is a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that discusses racial inequality in relation to the US prison system. In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime.

When the 13th amendment was passed, the economy relied heavily on free slave labor. Once slavery itself was abolished, mass incarceration became the way in which cheap labor could still be acquired through convict leasing.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation confirmed a story that many white people wanted to hear—the story that black people were a threat and were animalistic. This attitude toward black people was used to justify acts of physical terror that groups like the KKK carried out against blacks.

Eventually, physical terror was replaced by Jim Crow laws, which essentially used laws to justify criminalizing blacks. There was a transformation of criminality within the black community as something noble.

The 1970s marked the mass incarceration era. This was when the number of incarcerated people in the US began to skyrocket. Nixon used the term “law and order” to indicate the importance of cracking down on crime.

The War on Drugs was seen as a crime issue rather than a health issue. It was a way of criminalizing hippies and blacks legally. People who were found using crack cocaine—largely used by blacks and latinos—were given much harsher sentences than people using powder cocaine—largely used by whites.

The arrests of black and brown people were overrepresented through the media. The term “superpredator” became popular in reference to juvenile violent crime and contributed to the fear that made people accept prisons.

After the Willie Horton incident in 1987, there was a shift in the Democratic stand against crime. Instead of the liberal stance that supported weekend furlough programs, both Republicans and Democrats pushed to do more against crime. Policies like mandatory minimums and the Federal Crime Bill (1994) may have been introduced with good intentions but in actuality, prevented judges from making decisions and provided perverse incentives for law enforcement.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a political lobbying group that advocates various policies. Because of their relationship with companies like CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), many of the policies they put forward incentivize maintaining a high prison occupancy. The new movement of housing detained immigrants has been given a new term: crimmigration.

One of the people that was interviewed on behalf of ALEC mentioned a new policy of sending juveniles home with GPS trackers so that they can be perpetually surveilled instead of having to stay at juvenile hall. To him, these GPS trackers allowed kids more “freedom” when in fact, it seemed very much a ploy to earn more money for the companies that produce the GPS trackers. My number one issue with this person’s stance was his assumption that sending kids home with GPS trackers would solve behavioral problems. It didn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps the problem stems from a lack of family support because either the family is poor or one or more parents is incarcerated.

The prison industrial complex results from the government relying on private prison companies and businesses to run prisons. Because of the incentive structure that prioritizes making a profit, prisons are faced with issues like inflated prices to make phone calls and poor food quality. Long contracts with private corporations disincentivizes them from providing better service.

In my opinion, the most powerful scene in the documentary was a side-by-side comparison of a black person being harassed by a large group of whites in the early 1900s and just a few years ago at a Trump rally. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done moving forward to achieve fairness and equality in the US, especially in the context of the criminal justice system.

The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five is a Ken Burns documentary covering the Central Park jogger case from 1989. It highlights the stories of the five teenage boys who were incorrectly convicted of assaulting a raping Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old female who was jogging in Central Park one evening. I don’t feel the need to recount the entire documentary here, so I’ll just say that it was very disturbing to see how many things went wrong during the wrongful convictions of the five teenagers. They each served at least seven years in prison, and even though they were ultimately rewarded with money after suing New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, no amount of money can ever make up for the years they lost in prison.

Most Likely to Succeed

I just saw a showing of the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and it was incredible. The movie discusses the history and future of K-12 education. Back in the day, the purpose of schools was to create obedient factory workers, but in today’s society, what we really want is a workforce of innovative individuals.

The documentary takes a closer look at the unorthodox teaching methods of High Tech High, a San Diego high school whose principles are “personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” High Tech High emphasizes cross-discipline, project-based learning and focuses on developing students’ soft skills in addition to content knowledge for their projects.

When I was watching the film, I noticed a few similarities between High Tech High and Mission Hill, a middle school in Boston that I also really like. For one, both schools offer teachers autonomy in the classroom. Rather than teaching straight from a list of educational standards, teachers have full power over what topics they teach and how they teach them. Teachers can teach what they’re passionate about and cater their teaching style to their students. High Tech High and Mission Hill treat teachers as professionals who are capable of educating students without someone telling them exactly what to teach.

A second similarity I found was the innovative approach to assessments. Instead of your standard multiple choice, short answer exams, both of these schools have a project showcase at the end of each term. Mission Hill calls them portfolio presentations, and High Tech High calls them project exhibitions. What I think makes this form of assessment so much more effective is the “publicness” of the project showcases. If students know that their parents, their friends’ parents, and other people in the community are going to see their projects, they are more incentivized to do their absolute best on their projects. They also see direct applications of everything they learn because they’re using that knowledge for their projects.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, both schools have environments that recognize that students are humans, too. Students have hopes and dreams, as well as insecurities and uncertainties. Educators at these schools understand their role in developing each student as a whole human being rather than just a data point on a graph.

Just some other thoughts about the documentary…

In part because of the autonomy given to teachers, teaching positions at High Tech High are highly coveted. The school receives about 1,800 applications per year, and about 20-25 are offered jobs. It makes me wonder what type of training and/or experiences prepares people to be successful teachers at High Tech High. I was really inspired by the teachers featured in the documentary, and I would be interested in learning how to reach that level of comfort with working with students and leading a project-based classroom.

Because so much time is spent on projects at High Tech High, students don’t cover the same breadth of topics compared to students at traditional schools. This fact, in addition to the lack of report cards, worries a lot of parents, who went through traditional schooling. Parents are worried that their kids won’t score well on standardized tests, and as a result won’t get into good colleges and get good jobs. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and one that I think could be addressed by changing the way college admissions works. I understand that that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but I still think it’s interesting to think about. Graduates from High Tech High are better prepared for working in teams and taking on projects in life, but it’s unfortunate that parents still worry about their kids’ chances of scoring well enough on standardized exams to get admitted to prestigious colleges.

MIT’s motto is “Mens et Manus,” which means “mind and hand.” So obviously we value the idea of learning by doing. However, a large portion of my classes are still taught through lectures. In fact, a friend of mine brought up the fact that the freshman chemistry class has absolutely no lab component to it. I understand that there must be some sort of balance between learning background knowledge and doing hands-on learning, but how do you determine that balance? Also, I would be interested in discovering more about how content knowledge is woven into project-based learning, if not through lectures.

Overall, Most Likely to Succeed was an outstanding documentary, and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already!