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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Coming Soon: The "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH" of Ed Reform?

Arguably the single most important spur to public acceptance and concern over global climate change as an issue came from Davis Guggenheim's 2006 documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." With that video, global warming moved from being a topic of scientific conferences, technical journals, and environmental activists to being a household term familiar to parents and children alike.

What "An Inconvenient Truth" and Al Gore did for climate change, Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" and Bill Gates may soon be doing for American education reform. Judging from reports emanating from this year's Sundance Film Festival, a popular-media tidal wave is taking shape, and it could well make all previous efforts to sell the Bush/Spellings/Obama/Duncan education reforms look like ripples in a backyard wading pool.

Mr. Guggenheim has compiled a "definitive" explanatory documentary of America's educational ills (based, of course, on his certainty that the current system is broken). A short item by Brooks Barnes in the NY Times on Monday, February 1 described "Waiting for Superman" as "a searing indictment of public education in the United States." So who exactly is Guggenheim indicting? Here's part of one Sundance attendee's review (Matt Belloni, from the Hollywood Reporter):

"In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of SUPERMAN feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O'Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading newspapers and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers."

Guggenheim has cherry-picked and packaged every hoary scare story from the last twenty-five years: the lazy and incompetent teacher, the reactionary and obstructionist union as represented by "villainess" Randi Weingarten (of whom one commentator notes that the movie "make[s] something of a foaming satanic beast"), the Democratic Party supported by those teacher unions, the lack of incentive rewards for "good" teachers, and not enough charter schools.

Sound familiar? Sound like a documentary, or an advocacy piece? Still not sure? Well then, go back to the top of this posting and check out the "Terminator"-like nuclear-bomb-blast scene surrounding the little blonde, white girl in the movie's advertising poster. Anyone but me reminded of LBJ's infamous, anti-Goldwater nuclear holocaust campaign ad, the one that was shown on TV exactly one time and pretty much decided the election?

And who are the stars of Guggenheim's film? None other than NYC's own Geoffrey Canada, supported by Michelle Rhee and KIPP founders David Levin and Mike Feinberg, backed by a song written and performed just for this movie by John Legend.

So where is the Superman who can save our little blond children from these incompetent teachers and their devil's-spawn unions? Where's Clark Kent when we need him? Never fear, that bespectacled, geeky guy is here, only this Superman's street-clothes identity is Bill Gates. Numerous reports from Sundance indicate that billion-dollar Bill has shown more than a passing interest in this film. In fact, he was a highly visible participant at the Sundance Festival's "Waiting for Superman" screening, actually sharing the stage at the Q&A afterward with Guggenheim and Canada. He even twittered gushingly from the screening that there was "not a dry eye in the house." (Sniff, sniff).

Remarkably, in that Q&A following the movie's premier, director Guggenheim chose to let Mr. Gates speak for him. "Guggenheim was happy to defer questions to Gates, even admitting, 'I'm so glad Bill is here!'" When the director cedes his place to a third party with no involvement in the movie's creation, one has to assume said director is not terribly comfortable with his knowledge level on the subject matter, and/or that there's another agenda. Not hard to guess what that would be.

Distribution rights to "Waiting for Superman" were sold to Paramount Vanguard before the movie was even shown at Sundance. Then again, it was Paramount who distributed Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth" to the tune of $50 million in receipts. They must be seeing deja vu all over again.

A few years from now, we may look back at "Waiting for Superman" as the real beginning of the end for American public education. Davis Guggenheim's documentary could become the key propaganda piece that persuades a dull-witted, gullible, and uninformed American public that only Superman Gates, Lois Lane Rhee, and Jimmy Olsen Canada can save their children from the locust-like hordes of brainy, ultra-educated, young Chinese men and women who are just chomping at the bit to step ashore and eat their lunches. If Mr. Gates and his steamrolling billions have anything to say about it, you can bet we'll be seeing and hearing a lot more about "Waiting for Superman" in the coming months.

Just in case you think this is a one-shot deal, brace yourself for another one, due on May 7. It's a film titled, "The Lottery." Yeah, you guessed it -- another "documentary," this one about the charter school lottery process in Harlem, starring Geoffrey Canada, Eva Moskowitz (Harlem Success Academy), Dacia Toll (Achievement First), and Joel Klein. The movie's position? How about this excerpt from a review from the CNBC website:

"The Lottery exposes the backwards politics and nefarious agendas of politicians and special interest groups who stand in the way of improving a failing public school system."

I never realized that I'm a backwards special interest group with a nefarious agenda. But hey, at least I'll be able to have some fun at the movies!! Looks like 2010 is going to be a long, long year.


melody said...

There appears to be one key difference between "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman." Namely, the scientific evidence for global warming is overwhelming, while "Waiting for Superman" sounds like pure propaganda. Moreover, despite the media war against them, teachers remain among one of the most respected groups in the country. People most likely to attend a film like "Waiting for Superman" are probably on the literate/liberal end of the spectrum, not the tea party crowd, and much more predisposed to distrust Gates and Bloomberg than teachers. In a way, the film provides an opportunity to engage the public. A few well-executed pickets and public education sessions at the theaters where the film opens could make the whole scheme backfire on its perpetrators.

NYC Educator said...

On the other hand, Diane Ravitch's book will be out next month. This will be a highly inconvenient truth for the purveyors of the drek that these films represent.

And it will be up to us to make people aware that there is, indeed, another side.

Steve Koss said...

Unfortunately, the great mass of Americans don't know who Diane Ravitch is and don't read books anyway. As Marshall McLuhan described it years ago, books are a cool (involving) medium, while movies and TV are (passive) hot. Americans are definitely conditioned to hot -- look at how many people get their news from Fox or Rush Limbaugh (or Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow) rather than bother to read a newspaper. Guggenheim's movie will likely be seen by a hundred or a thousand times more people than will read Diane's book, and if Mr. Gates puts some of his billions behind the movie, you'll see it being distributed free to school districts everywhere. Sadly, the Guggenheim movie is far more likely to set the terms of the discussion than Diane's probably much deeper and more penetrating book.

NYC Educator said...

Then it's our job to educate the public, and we have our work cut out for us.

Anonymous said...

This "movie review" is just more doom and gloom from the anti-accountability crowd.

Why can't advocates of public education stop for a moment and see what's working in schools like KIPP, HCZ and others.

Sure, charters may not be a fix-all....but let's not ignore good ideas in the name of ideology.

I say this as a teacher myself. I've worked in enough schools to know that these "horror stories" this movie refers to are rooted in reality.

Anonymous said...

It's time we had a movie like this to break open the conversation.

As a teacher myself, I'm so tired of hearing excuses about why we should never be held accountable for anything.

There is no job on the planet where everything is completely within your control. You can't control who your co-workers are, who your clients are, etc.

But somehow, because teachers don't have a class of model students, they should be excused from doing their jobs?

The ed reform conversation is long overdue.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous to Anonymous, let's back way up here. No one is saying they want teachers free from accountability and no one is saying that charter schools are bad ideas. The problem in NYC is that what started out as a commendable clean-up of BOE corruption and failing/dangerous schools has become a dangerously stupid mania that holds standardized test results over all other stats, observations and reason. It's time for a comprehensive exposure of which kids are left out of the charter schools and competitive high schools; where do they go and what happens there? What happens to the teaching and administrative staff there? Why is enrollment of minority students in our top high schools down? And what do the majority of experts, backed up by clear stats, have to say about all of this?

Steve Koss said...

To Anonymous #1-2: Of course there are horror stories; no sane person would argue otherwise. And yes, the UFT has been a significant part of the problem and also set themselves up as easy targets by appearing (and perhaps at times being) more interested in the union than in children.

That having been said, and not arguing that there isn't plenty of blame for everyone to share, the crux of the matter comes down to a single word, the one you yourself used: CONVERSATION. A conversation is normally a discussion, a give-and-take between/among peers, with both sides not only respecting the other but willing to seek viable, middle-ground solutions. What we have in NYC with mayoral control is not a conversation, it's big money and decision by edict with no meaningful public input. Increasingly, that is the picture around the US, where huge sums of mostly right-wing money (from the Walton family, Scaiffe/Mellon, Broad, and well-meaning but underinformed people like Bill Gates) are unilaterally restructuring the very idea of public education to their own imagined shape with virtually no meaningful input from people who know better.

There are no conversations taking place today. There's just a lot of really bad policy (with unfortunate results in 10-20 years that is easily predictable now) and decision by fiat. The very people whose children are caught in the middle are rarely if ever a part of any of this process. Most often, they are belittled, disrespected, and dismissed as irrelevant, as we have seen repeatedly by Mayor Bloomberg here in NYC.

Steve Koss said...

Oops -- typing too fast without checking myself. Second sentence in third paragraph in the above comment should read:

There's just a lot of really bad policy (with unfortunate results in 10-20 years that ARE easily predictable now) and decision by fiat.

Anonymous said...

And I (Anonymous #3, I guess) wrote: ". . . no one is saying that charter schools are bad ideas." It should have read ". . . no one is saying charter schools is a bad idea", but they each have their own methods and ideas, right? Whatever. Where's Chomsky when you need him?

I think the documentaries (term used loosely) will ultimately draw a lot of good attention, as long as the journalism and commentary that follow are either serious or held accountable and rebutted.

foley catheter said...

Why we are so tired of hearing excuses about why we should never be held accountable for anything.

Its our responsibility to control things at least it worth a try. Or job is not easier like incontinence products