Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America Movie Poster Image
Persuasive documentary makes a case for early learning.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 63 minutes

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Positive Messages

High-quality early education is powerful: It creates healthier and happier adults, which creates a safer, higher-functioning society and stronger economy. Clear message is that early childhood education is a good investment for the United States, and film makes no bones about pushing this agenda. Themes include communication, perseverance. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Racially and economically diverse group of people advocate for high-quality early education. Professors, experts, preschool teachers, parents all speak to research on and their own experiences with value of education; they make a convincing case. Diverse classrooms featured. It's worth noting that all early childhood educators shown on-screen are female (where are the male preschool teachers?). 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America is a convincing documentary that drives home the message that the United States should invest more energy and resources in early childhood education. Communication and perseverance are themes, and the movie's clear, strong message makes a case for the positive outcomes of high-quality early childhood education. It features a diverse group of educators, policymakers, parents, and administrators sharing what they know about pre-K education (the featured classrooms also show a diverse student body). It is worth noting, however, that all of the featured preschool teachers are female, while most of the state governors who participate are male. There's no swearing, drinking, sex, or anything else that could be inappropriate for young viewers, but the emphasis on educational policy and practices isn't likely to interest young viewers; instead, this movie is persuasive for those with an interest in education and early childhood. 

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What's the story?

STARTING AT ZERO: REIMAGINING EDUCATION IN AMERICA makes a convincing case for the importance of early childhood education, including preschool classrooms with dedicated teachers, parent/caregiver involvement, institutional support, and engaged young learners who will hopefully grow up to be productive, confident citizens. The movie features interviews with educational experts, as well as current and past state governors, including Steve Bullock of Montana, James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, and Kay Ivey of Alabama. 

Is it any good?

With a wealth of experts and charming footage filmed in preschool classrooms, this documentary makes a compelling case that early childhood education is crucial for the United States' future. In between segments in which policymakers and specialists underline their beliefs that pre-elementary education is a solid investment in a successful workforce, statistics paint a picture: 70% of today's moms are in the workforce, compared with 11% in 1960, yet educational policies on childcare haven't undergone a similar shift. And 4 million children enter kindergarten each year, but only 20% have previously attended a high-quality early learning program. Preschool, says former North Caroline governor James B. Hunt Jr., is a "secret sauce" that, if the United States gets it right, "will help us be successful in every other way. This is the key." 

Perhaps the most compelling segment of Starting at Zero is its focus on the early childhood education renaissance of Alabama, a state that's made significant investments in young learners. We see well-kitted-out preschool classrooms, preschool teachers at their annual conference, and the universities that Alabama's early childhood education department has convinced to beef up the focus on pre-K students. Most persuasively of all, we learn that Alabama has instituted "pay parity": A pre-K teacher is paid exactly what K–12 teachers make. Seeing as many preschool teachers in other states earn less than babysitters, this sweeping initiative perhaps does more than any other to encourage great teachers to concentrate their energies on the pre-K classroom. Starting at Zero makes a strong case for an often overlooked area of education, and it's important viewing for educators, policymakers, parents, and anyone with an interest in education. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the documentary's subject: early childhood education. What type of early childhood education did you and your family have? What was positive and negative about the experience? What resources do educators need to do their jobs more effectively?

  • Does this documentary approach its subject matter objectively, or does it have an opinion? Is it OK for a documentary to take a specific stance on the topic it's covering?

  • How does Starting at Zero promote communication and perseverance? Why are these important character strengths?

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