The Lottery: Parents Want and Deserve More for their Children’s Futures

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The Lottery by Madeleine Sackler is a documentary that captures the dire state of public education in  Harlem, New York. Sackler presents  statistics that show that the achievement gap between African-American and white students is constantly growing. As a result of thousands of parents’ interest in a high-quality education for their children, successful charter schools like Harlem Success Academy are mandated to hold lotteries and turn away families every year.  Through the presentation four hopeful families vying for a spot in Harlem Success Academy, the film reveals that the public school system is failing and children essentially have to be “lucky” to receive a good education.  Although the film may appear to be a charter school advocacy film, The Lottery underlying purpose is to shows that parents want and deserve more for their children. In order to make it possible, the flaws of the public school system need to be addressed.

Statistic of the Achievement Gap (Sackler,2:49)
Statistic of the Achievement Gap (Sackler 2:49)

As shown in the opening scenes in the film, the average black 12th grader is performing at the same level as a white 8th grader (Sackler, 4:45). 58% of black 4th graders are functionally illiterate (Sackler, 3:08). Who is at fault for this significant achievement gap? Is it the students, the parents, and/or the teachers? According to Sackler, it is a combination of the bureaucratic, failing public school system and the false belief that parents in urban neighborhoods do not care about their children’s education. Teachers, principals, and education reform advocates appear in the documentary to share their view of the issues with public schools. By using Harlem Success Academy, Sackler and charter school advocates show that it is possible for minority children to attain academic success in public school. The film shows that although successful charter school models are painted as a threat to the community, the number of applicants for 475 seats at Harlem Success Academy continues to increase each year (Sackler).

To drive this point, Sackler frames the discourse around of the stories of four out of 5000+ families who enter the charter school lottery. This allows the audience to take a glimpse into the trials and tribulations in the lives of those who desperately want their children to receive a high quality education. The four 5-year-old children (Eric Roachford, Gregory Goodwine Jr., Christian Yoanson and Ameenah Horne) tug at the audience’s heart through their innocence and wit. The stress of being a part of an arbitrary, life-changing process was clear as the parents’ hopefully waited for their children’s names to be called. In the end, Ameenah and Gregory are the only two students out of the group who were lucky in the lottery.

The film seems to be targeted towards viewers who do not know a lot about education reform or the charter school movement, and it explains everything at a rudimentary level. Eva Moscowitz (the founder of Success Academy) explains “On our practice exams, 100% of the students ace the exam. There is no school in Harlem that has more than 58% of students passing” (Sackler, 15:19). Unlike most public schools, Harlem Success Academy wants their students to graduate from college rather than simply passing standardized exams. By presenting these statistics, Sackler dispels the belief that poverty is the main reason students of color are not doing well in public school. These statistics are powerful and numbers truly speak louder than words. Moscowitz  goes on to pose the question  “If we in the charter school movement can provide education at equal or less per pupil spending, why can’t the other schools do it? “ (Sackler, 18:17). From this point, Sackler begins to highlight the bureaucracy of the Department of Education and why many  public schools are unable to provide a high quality education for students.

Harlem Success Academy faces opposition from public officials and public school administrators because it causes parents to question the status quo. If parents see children going to a public, charter school that boasts high academic achievement, they begin to want the same in their zone schools. We see the extent of this opposition in one of the most crucial scenes in which Moscowitz tries to get the space to open a second school and ‘community members’ vehemently protest outside of P.S 194. However, the documentary reveals that United Federation of Teachers (UFT) hired these protesters through the ACORN group. For the remainder of  the documentary, UFT is painted in a negative light and is pin-pointed as one of the many reasons some public schools are failing.

Although the focus on the UFT strayed away from the Shackler’s main point of the film, it is important to see what is one the underlying cause of the educational disparities in public schools. Moscowitz  explains that the teacher’s union contract is “600 pages in length”, and prevents meaningful change from occurring in the classroom (Sackler 27:13). Sackler implicitly and explicitly places the blame on administration that is more concerned with their jobs than the future of the children.  Joel Klein (NYC superintendent) adds to this point by explaining that shutting down ineffective public schools becomes controversial due to  “adult politics” since school staff may not “be able to find jobs immediately…” (Sackler 48:00 ).

With statistics of the flawed public school system and evidence of the UFTs questionable tactics, the film seems to be one-sided since it primarily presents the views of charter school advocates. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sackler explains, “On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated” and she tried to speak to someone from the UFT ( However, they refused and did not allow her to “film inside a traditional public school”. Due to their refusal to participate, the UFT’s voice was left out of the film and the charter school advocates’ opinions were placed at the forefront.

The documentary also fails to show all tenets of how charter schools like Harlem Success Academy function and does not delve into the school curriculum at all.  At times, it seems as though Sackler attempts to capture too many issues in the one hour and thirty minute time frame. Besides a few scenes with the founder of Achievement First (another charter school model), the documentary does not include charter school leaders outside of Harlem. This can be viewed as a flaw since audience can be left with the impression that all charter schools are flourishing like Harlem Success Academy (which is not the case).

The narrative is significantly enhanced by Wolfgang Held’s simple cinematographic techniques. When filming the families, close-up shots and wide-angle shots are used to make the audience feel as though they are with them as they go through their day-to-day lives.

Joel Klein and Graduation Rate Statistics of poor-performing schools in NYC (48:08)
Joel Klein and Graduation Rate Statistics of poor-performing schools in NYC (Sackler 48:08)

Contrastingly, the charter school advocates, school administrators, union leaders etc. are captured from the chest-up with a black background. This makes the documentary seem like a dramatic, personal conversation with the audience. Additionally, the clear presentation of the statistics on the black backdrop allows  them stand out as important facts for the audience to keep in mind.

Sackler successfully intertwines the stories of the 4 families throughout the entire film in the midst of the drama between the unions, city officials and Moscowitz. Whether it is in the scene that  captures Ameenah  relaying what her hearing-impaired mother is saying in sign language or when Gregory Jr.’s imprisoned father is crying as he explains why a good education is important for his son, the reality of the film is tangible and powerful. Sackler also includes the opinions of parents who were not advocates of charter schools in the public space hearing at P.S 194. However, it  was evident that the parents that opposed the charter school were portrayed in a negative light. All of the scenes  showed them emotionally yelling while the Success Academy advocates spoke calmly and rationally (Sackler 29:00). With these  biased edits, the message  of the film becomes muddled.

Parents at the Harlem Success Academy Lottery (Sackle 1:07:35)
Parents at the Harlem Success Academy Lottery                 (Sackler 1:07:35)

At the end of the film on the day of the lottery, thousands of families  from various backgrounds are shown wishfully looking at the screen together waiting for their children to be called. Sackler uses these scenes to serve as a reminder that parents truly care and are invested in their children’s educational futures. In a Huffington Post blog post entitled “The Lottery: Looking Past Distractions to Solutions” , Sackler writes, “Despite this reality, it is the parents’ voices that seem to be left out of the conversation…Parents do not care if a school is unionized or not, or if the school is called charter or not. All they care about is that the school is educating their children at high levels.” (

Although The Lottery may appear to be a charter school advocacy documentary on the surface, it was intended to be a presentation of families who desperately want what is best for their children. Sackler could have limited  the details about the UFT and focused more on her initial goal of giving the parents a voice. Nevertheless, the important thing to remember  is that children should not have to be lucky to receive an excellent education. Sackler did a fairly good job of introducing some of the flaws of the public school system and the thousands of parents who partake in lotteries each year.

The film implicitly urges the community to fight for improvements in all public schools. As Sackler states in Thelma Adams’ “Charter Schools: Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler,  “the most “critical element” of education is “the fact that the public education system is under-delivering in certain communities.” ( The Lottery shows that high quality education is needed in all schools, and there are parents who are trying their best to give their children the opportunity to succeed in the midst of the bureaucratic public school system.  Regardless of what side of the education reform debate anyone is on, it is important to remember that children should come always come first.

Works Cited:

The Lottery. Dir. Madeleine Sackler. Variance Films, 2010. Online Viewing.

Adams, Thelma.“Charter School Controversy: A Q&A With The Lottery Director Madeleine Sackler.” The Huffington Post. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>

Sackler, Madeleine. “The Lottery: Looking Past Distractions to Solutions (VIDEO).”  Huffington Post 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>

Weiss, Bari. “Storming the School Barricades.” The Wall Street Journal Online. N.p., n.d5 June 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <>.

2 thoughts on “The Lottery: Parents Want and Deserve More for their Children’s Futures”

  1. I thought you gave a really good overview of the documentary. I really like how you described the techniques used to film the families vs the techniques used to film charter school advocates. I think this is a very interesting observation about how documentaries can play with our emotions, through methods other than just subject matter.

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