The Lottery, a film by Madeleine Sackler

From the film’s website:

In a country where 58% of African American 4th graders are functionally illiterate, The Lottery uncovers the failures of the traditional public school system and reveals that hundreds of thousands of parents attempt to flee the system every year. The Lottery follows four of these families from Harlem and the Bronx who have entered their children in a charter school lottery. Out of thousands of hopefuls, only a small minority will win the chance of a better future.

Directed by Madeleine Sackler and shot by award-winning cinematographer Wolfgang Held, The Lottery uncovers a ferocious debate surrounding the education reform movement. Interviews with politicians and educators explain not only the crisis in public education, but also why it is fixable. A call to action to avert a catastrophe in the education of American children, The Lottery makes the case that any child can succeed.

4 Responses

  1. It’s a polemic about the need for ‘free’ non-state (charter) schools, which rides on the emotional tension created by lottery-selection. In my book ‘Lotteries for Education’ (now in print; I had my author’s copies today, plug, plug!) I give the example of the SEED school in Baltimore, Maryland. Similar hyper-emotionality is on display during the actual lottery draw.

    But will the creation of ‘free’ charter schools actually raise educational attainment as the film so earnestly suggests? NO! and the evidence for this very definite conclusion comes as a fortuitous by-product of lottery selection. To find out the how and why, you’ll have to read the book!


  2. In Palo Alto, CA, where I live, there are several specialty educational tracks into which students are admitted through a lottery.

    Beyond the inherent problem with the lottery system (diverting attention from the basic issue – restricted resources – to the issue of the fairness of allocation) there are more immediate issues with the lottery as it is administered here:
    (1) a total lack of transparency and (2) the questionable policy of “legacy” preferences.

    While these problems can, conceptually, be easily fixed, they are not. This raises in my mind the question of whether, in practice, the lottery is often – especially when the stakes are too low to focus public attention – a way of lending a veneer of fairness to a process that is rigged in various ways by its administrators.

    In a way, it seems, this is what the Repair California promoters were trying to do: use the legitimacy conferred by sortition to promote a system in which real power was wielded by its administrators.


  3. I think the discussion here raises an issue that I discussed in my talk at Trinity College Dublin this past week–if you want to use a lottery defensibly, then you have to get the remaining steps of the decision-making process correct. If you make one part of an educational lottery unjustly–by having very few good schools, or by allowing legacies or the like to bypass the lottery–then it’s garbage in, garbage out. (The Far Side has a great comic strip that I used to illustrate this point in my talk.)

    A book I recommend on a related subject is Douglas Rae’s EQUALITIES. While it doesn’t talk much about lotteries, it does argue in the conclusion that 1) there are multiple dimensions to any theory of egalitarian justice, and 2) if you get every dimension right except one, it is quite easy for an anti-egalitarian to screw up the entire process just using the one remaining dimension.

    One final note. On the question of transparency and charter schools, two Stanford students–Jon Dolle and Anne Newman (who is now at Washington University St. Louis)–have some interesting work in progress on this subject. Perhaps one of these days they can be coaxed into blogging about it here.


  4. An interview with the film’s director is here–


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