Review: ‘Starting at Zero,’ starring Tracey Strichik, Steve Bullock, Ralph Northam, Cynthia Jackson, Tara Skiles, James Ernest and Sunny McPhillips

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Starting at Zero”

Directed by Willa Kammerer

Culture Representation: The documentary “Starting at Zero,” about the U.S. education system for children younger than 6 years old, interviews white and black people (and one person of Asian descent), mostly from U.S. states in the South and Midwest, who are educators, politicians, academics and parents representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Because access to a good education is usually determined by socioeconomic factors, most of the people interviewed say that more U.S. states need to do a better job at making it a more level playing field for people to have access.

Culture Audience: “Starting at Zero” will appeal primarily to people who are concerned about education for children under the age of 6, but the documentary puts so much emphasis on states in the South (especially Alabama) and the Midwest that people who live in other regions of the U.S. might be turned off by this bias.

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The child-education documentary “Starting at Zero” (directed by Willa Kammerer), for all of its noble intentions, is a very flawed and extremely dull film that was in serious need of good editing before this movie was released to the public. “Starting at Zero” is supposed to be about pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education in the United States, but more than half of the movie looks like a public-relations promotional video to glorify the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE), as if it’s the only government-funded pre-school department that works well in America. It’s best not to play an alcohol drinking game to take a drink every time Alabama is mentioned in this documentary, because that will definitely result in alcohol poisoning. The movie is only 63 minutes long, but it feels like it’s a lot longer.

In the production notes for “Starting at Zero,” Kammerer says that the movie (which is her first feature-length documentary) started out as exploration of why ADECE’s First Class Pre-K program has been consistently ranked #1 for more than a decade by the National Institute for Early Education Research. (There’s no mention in the documentary that Alabama is consistently ranked one of the worst states in the U.S. for education. More on that in a moment.) But as Kammerer and the other filmmakers got deeper into making the documentary, Kammerer says that they “realized there was so much more to the story—that it had roots in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, and other threads in Oklahoma and Montana, Chicago and Omaha and beyond.”

The problem is that the movie pretty much ignores the “beyond” part, by sticking to interviewing people who are connected to the pre-school education system in the South or Midwest. It’s a huge misstep for a documentary that’s supposed to be about the overall pre-school education system in the U.S., even though the documentary is actually a narrow look at only certain regions of the country. “Starting at Zero” gives the impression that the filmmakers didn’t want to spend the time, money or resources to include other regions of the U.S. outside of the South and Midwest. And that myopic view is just going to alienate a lot of viewers when they see that this is a documentary focused primarily on pre-school education in Southern and Midwestern states.

The fact-finding in this documentary is amateurish and, at times, atrocious. “Starting at Zero” cites statistics but does not list any sources for those statistics, which will make viewers wonder how credible those statistics are. It’s very disappointing that a movie about education seems like it was made by people who have no education in research, such as this basic standard: Always cite your sources.

And in being too eager/biased in promoting Alabama as an ideal state for pre-school education, the filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” completely ignored something that’s common knowledge to many people who are in and outside of the U.S. education system: Alabama is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of all U.S. states in education. According to U.S. News and World Report, Alabama is ranked dead last out of all 50 states in overall education and ranked at #49 out of 50 in education for pre-K to 12th grade.

The lack of diversity in “Starting at Zero” isn’t just with the U.S. regions covered in the film. Although there are several black people interviewed in “Starting at Zero,” Latinos are completely shut out of the documentary, and the only Asian who’s interviewed in the movie (Harvard University professor of public economics Raj Chetty) gets less than a minute of screen time toward the end. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Latinos are the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. It’s really appalling that a documentary about the education of future generations in the U.S. leaves out significant representation of these racial groups in the documentary.

Only one person in the documentary realistically discusses the issue of how racial diversity impacts U.S. public schools. Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare, comments: “There are groups of children—immigrant children, children of color, children from under-served and under-represented communities—that are being left behind because of unconscious bias, because of equity issues.”

And speaking of unconscious bias, “Starting at Zero” has some racist editing too, because every time someone mentions “poor” or “under-performing” students in a voiceover, the film shows children who aren’t white, usually African American children. It reinforces a racist stereotype that non-white students are the only kids in school who could possibly be bad students or poor. The reality is that there are poor people and bad students of all races in America, but the filmmakers of this substandard documentary don’t seem to have a grasp on that reality.

Another major blind spot in “Starting at Zero” is how it barely mentions that being able to afford pre-school child care is a huge issue for many families. Not everyone can afford the “best” pre-schools in their communities. “Starting at Zero” has absolutely no one in the movie who says they’re struggling with being able to afford pre-school childcare, but it isn’t surprising that this perspective is shut out of “Starting at Zero,” since the movie fails on so many levels. Of the long list of people interviewed for this movie (see below), only two are parents who talk about having kids in a pre-school program, and they don’t talk about how it affects their finances.

The movie preaches that every state should eventually have the type of great pre-school child care that will be free to all, in order to “level the playing field” in U.S. education. Several people in the movie declare that since government-funded U.S. education is on the state level, not national level, it will be up to each state to make these improvements. Easier said than done.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam comments, “When one family has the means to send their children to early childhood education programs and another family doesn’t, it’s really what starts the gap. And we can either invest in it responsibly at an early age or can try to catch up later. The math is very simple.”

But the movie never answers this question: “Who’s going to pay for it?” Too many people are already angry at their state governments for raising taxes, and they don’t want higher taxes for the government to pay for these pre-school education programs. And although some people in “Starting at Zero” say that education is a non-partisan issue, the reality is that education funding is a partisan issue when one party can be more resistant than another to raise taxes to improve funding for severely under-funded public schools for children.

And speaking of funding, there’s no real discussion in “Starting at Zero” about the fact that school teachers for children are underpaid and how these severely low salaries are a major problem in attracting “quality” educators in public schools for children. A lot of people in the documentary spout vague platitudes about “high-quality education,” yet it’s irresponsible for the documentary to ignore that it’s harder to attract “high-quality” educators on the pre-school level if the educators aren’t even being paid a living wage.

Some of the ADECE people in the documentary brag that in Alabama, pre-school teachers and kindergarten teachers who work for government-funded schools are paid the same salary. But the documentary doesn’t mention is that teachers on this level all across the U.S. are usually part-time employees (they don’t get health insurance or other full-time benefits from their job) who get such low salaries that it’s not enough to be considered a living wage. ADECE has a program that brings pre-school teachers to people’s homes, but the documentary omits specific information about how much money it costs for Alabama to provide these home services and how many households actually get these services.

“Starting at Zero” spends a lot of time repeating things that are common knowledge, such as the fact that kids start learning before they go to school and that the type of pre-school education a child has will make a difference in how well the child does in school. The more educated a society is, the more likely the society’s economy will prosper. Therefore, it makes sense to invest in and care about a child’s education even before the child enrolls in school.

You don’t have to be an educator or a parent to know all of that, but there are several people who repeat these things throughout the film. Because this constant repetition is put in the movie, the filmmakers seem to think viewers are too stupid to understand the first time someone said it in the documentary. “Starting at Zero” makes the same mistake that a lot of documentaries make: It overstuffs the movie with talking heads who say the same things over and over.

The filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” don’t seem to understand that a documentary isn’t automatically good if you put as many interviews as possible in the documentary. In fact, interviews with too many people can make a documentary look cluttered and absolutely boring, especially if many of the people being interviewed don’t have a lot of charisma. It should be commended that the filmmakers made an effort to have numerous sources to interview, but this documentary needed better directing and editing, by putting into practice the concept of “quality over quantity” in the final cut of the movie.

Here’s the list of interviewees in “Starting at Zero,” keeping in mind that this movie is only a little more than an hour long, not a docuseries:

  • Joe Adams, research coordinator of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama
  • Susan Adams, assistant commissioner for Pre-K, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Laura Baker, regional director coordinator of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Pam Baker, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Erin Barton, Vanderbilt Peabody College associate professor 
  • Camilla Benbow, dean of Vanderbilt Peabody College
  • Rebecca Berlin, senior vice-president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Misty Blackmon, regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Edwin Bridges, retired director of Alabama Department of Archives and History  
  • Steve Bullock, governor of Montana
  • Phil Bryant, former governor of Mississippi
  • Greg Canfield, Alabama secretary of commerce
  • Raj Chetty, Harvard University professor of economics
  • Lucy Cohen, HIPPY state lead of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jeff Coleman, CEO of Coleman Worldwide Moving
  • Shernila Cook, graduate and Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Tom Dodd, regional vice-president, Kaplan Early Learning Company
  • Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa
  • Amy Dunn, coach, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James Ernest, University of Alabama, Birmingham professor
  • Alice Evans, monitor of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jean Feldman, teacher/author
  • Stacy Ferguson, retired regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Dorothy Flowers, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Delliiah Hasberry, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent/Help Me Grow Alabama community liaison
  • Jana Hoggle, Satsuma City Schools director of Pre-K
  • Jan Hume, grants and budgets of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James B. Hunt Jr., former governor of North Carolina
  • Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare Learning Network
  • Laura Jana, pediatrician/author
  • Lee Johnson III, director of First 5 Alabama, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Archie Jones, Harvard Business School director/senior lecturer
  • Todd Klunk, W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer
  • Ken Levit, executive director of George Kaiser Family Foundation
  • Sunny McPhillips, lead teacher of Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of Alabama School Readiness Alliance
  • Ralph and Pamela Northam, governor and first lady of Virginia
  • Diana Mendley Rauner, president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Bentley Ponder, senior director of research and policy, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Dallas Rabig, Alabama State Coordinator for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
  • Jeana Ross, secretary of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Aaliyah Samuel, formerly of National Governor’s Association
  • Diane Schanzenbach, Northwestern University director of Institute for Policy Research
  • Javaid E. Siddiqi, president/CEO of the Hunt Institute
  • Tara Skiles, professional development manager of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Trellis Smith, Head Start state collaboration director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jim Squires, retired employee of National Institute for Early Education Research   
  • Katharine B. Stevens, American Enterprise Institute education policy scholar
  • Jera Stribling, director of Alabama Giving
  • Trayce Strichik, senior director, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Rachel Wagner, Devereux Center for Resilient Children
  • Emily Warren-Bailey, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Eria White, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent
  • Kash White, Alabama First Class Pre-K student

NOTE: Alabama governor Kay Ivey is not interviewed for the documentary, but the movie has footage of her giving a speech that mentions pre-school education.

Stylistically, “Starting at Zero” is structured like a tedious PowerPoint presentation, including having outlines on the screen that lists each of the documentary’s five chapters, with headings and subheadings. Footage of real-life pre-school classes is mostly used as anonymous background to the voiceover commentaries from the interviews. However, these visual features of the documentary aren’t the film’s biggest problem.

“Starting at Zero” might be only 63 minutes long, but it’s bloated with too many people, mainly from the South or Midwest, who repeat the same things about how “high-quality” pre-school education should be available to everyone in the U.S., without discussing the practicalities of how to pay for it. If you thought that the list of interviewees was long, imagine how it must feel to watch most of them repeating similar generic comments about education. Excruciating.

Most of the people interviewed are in privileged positions where they don’t have to think about how pre-school education will break their household budgets if they have children who need this type of education. A lot of people in America aren’t that lucky; pre-school education is out of their reach because they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, most pre-school educators’ salaries in the U.S. aren’t enough for a basic standard of living in the U.S.

The way that “Starting at Zero” ignores these problems and many other issues makes this documentary short-sighted at best, irresponsible at worst. If people want to see a much better documentary about pre-school education in the U.S., then watch “No Small Matter,” which takes a more comprehensive and more informative look at this important subject.

Abramorama released “Starting at Zero” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020.