Through the Education Lens

Waiting for Superman: A "Signal Moment" In Education?

CJW, September 22, 2010 11:12 AM

waiting for superman.jpg

Photo Credit:  Patrick McMullan
New York magazine

"The excitement and agitation around "Superman" might seem hyperbolic, overblown.
Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education,
when a confluence of factors - a grassroots outcry for better schools,
a cadre of determined reformers,
a newly demanding and parlous global economy,
and a president willing to challenge his party's hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies -
has created what Duncan calls a 'perfect storm.'
It's a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools
and the firing of crappy teachers.
It's a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread-
and which gives a movie like 'Superman' a rare chance to move the needle.
-----John Heilemann, New York magazine

Movie Trailer Below:  "Waiting For Superman"

by C.J. Westerberg

I recently had a conversation with yet another passionate pro-public education person (who isn't for great public education?).  In this case, this was a parent, self-described as a liberal, who had some ideas about education which didn't fit the mold.  But no surprise.

It doesn't seem to matter these days as much (at least compared to other issues) whether one is red or blue when it comes to education.  The lines are blurring or completely crossing when it comes to ideological absolutes as it relates to specific initiatives, history and political parties that were once symbolic  - namely those associated with teacher unions, charter schools and government involvement. 

With all the controversy attached to the recent opening of "Waiting For Superman" -- what looks to be a successful mainstream documentary film about education (is this possible?) -- we thought one of the more interesting angles was the producer's journey as it related to his own political views.  New York magazine serves up the most provocative behind-the-scenes view with the extensive must-read by John Heilemann titled "Schools: The Disaster Movie".   

The producer, Davis Guggenheim, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, does have a compelling narrative which reflects the unusual nature of education in our political landscape.  One of the most contentious issues "Waiting" has ignited is the role of teacher unions with some flammable insight provided by Heilemann.   A few excerpts:

"Davis Guggenheim had no intention of starting a fight with his movie. . . .

Guggenheim knew whereof he spoke. . . .

What caused him to reconsider taking another run at the topic was the experience of driving his children to school in Venice, California. At 46, Guggenheim is an unrepentant liberal and supporter of the public schools. And yet here he was, passing three of them every day on his way to the private institution that his kids attend, 'betraying the ideals I thought I lived by,' as he puts it in 'Superman.'

This cascade of lefty-yuppie guilt led to Guggenheim's first epiphany: to put himself in the film as its narrator, which would let the piece take, he says, 'the tone of an op-ed.' His second was to make in effect two separate movies, welding them together only at the last minute. Movie No. 1 would be the story of the kids and the charter-school lotteries, while Movie No. 2 would deal with what Guggenheim calls 'the folly of the adults' - from the parade of presidents of both parties pledging fundamental change but delivering none, to the administrators shuffling bad teachers from school to school, to the union bosses chanting "It's all about the kids" while working feverishly to protect their members -  every contractual right and privilege. . .

 . . . The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.
. ."

Here's the intro excerpt:

The Harlem-based educator and activist Geoffrey Canada first met the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in 2008, when Canada was in Los Angeles raising money for the Children's Defense Fund, which he chairs. Guggenheim told Canada that he was making a documentary about the crisis in America's schools and implored him to be in it. Canada had heard this pitch before, more times than he could count, from a stream of camera-toting do-gooders whose movies were destined to be seen by audiences smaller than the crowd on a rainy night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game. Canada replied to Guggenheim as he had to all the others: with a smile, a nod, and a distracted 'Call my office,' which translated to 'Buzz off.'

Then Guggenheim mentioned another film he'd made - An Inconvenient Truth - and Canada snapped to attention. 'I had absolutely seen it,' Canada recalls,  . . . . but still had his doubts. 'I honestly didn't think you could make a movie to get people to care about the kids who are most at risk.'

We hope the net-net take-away from Guggenheim's effort is to galvanize every parent and member in every community to seek to become more informed and actively engaged in the education of our children, both at the national and grassroots level.  The best action of all for parents?  Be more involved in your child's education - both at school and home - whether your child attends public or private school.   Ask how you can be more effectively engaged? 

If you do not have children or no longer have children attending school think of the myriad of ways you can make a difference in your community - through mentoring, donating time and/or money, and volunteering (read to child once a week, Boys & Girls Clubs of America).  

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I've seen the movie (at a film festival). The message? Teachers (and their unions) bad, charters good. In terms of coherency, the film doesn't really explain the history of public education in this country, despite what the film's website says. See the film but really, it is not a fair-minded or well-made film.

I had an opportunity to speak with the director. I asked him why he didn't explain, from the beginning, that the difference between "regular" public schools and charters is that regular public schools have to take ALL comers and charters can write their charters so they do not take all comers. Charters, by and large, do not provide special ed services. There's a huge issue there. Charters, by and large, do not provide ELL services. Again, a huge issues especially for urban districts.

The director had no answer and why? Because, despite what he says in the New York magazine about fearing people will think his film is pro-charter does nothing to try to be even-handed. (And my opinion of the article is that it is so skewed as to be unreadable. Again, an even-handed look at the subject would help the reader.)

Charters, overall, have not proven themselves to do better ( or worse) than public schools. What we need to do is ask ourselves why districts across the country put the blame on lack of innovation only on teachers unions. Can that be true? Our states, our cities, our school districts can't do innovative, piloted programs for better education because and only because of teachers unions? Nonsense.

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