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Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Cartel" Documentary Earns an "F" from the NY Times

Clearly, the latest wave in the "education reform" movement (anti-union, pro-voucher, pro-charter, anti-tenure, pro-teacher accountability via standardized tests) is manifesting itself in high-end documentaries supported by the likes of Bill Gates. Sundance saw the release of "Waiting for Superman," with Gates at hand and even on stage for the post-showing Q&A. Then there's Bob Compton's upcoming "A Right Denied," featuring Harvard MBA, Wall Street investment manager, and KIPP Academy Charter Schools of NYC Vice-Chairman Whitney Tilson.

And just this week, "The Cartel" (about NJ public schools, particularly Camden's) hit the big screens and was reviewed on Friday for the NY Times by Jeannette Catsoulis. Actually, "reviewed" is hardly the word for what she wrote; better to say trashed, skewered, shredded, ripped, and thoroughly humiliated in every possible sense for its argumentation, presentation, and even film-making values. As a film project, she obviously rates it a total F. There's a vast (and, too often, intentional) gulf between reasoned advocacy and flat-out propaganda, although few seem really to care any more.

Catsoulis's review is so devastatingly harsh, it would be positively hilarious if it were not for the knowledge that so many of the converted will just see this as further support of their "ed reform" positions. Regardless, for those who might, like me, take some comfort in having the "emperor's clothes" publicly called out for what they really are (or should I say, aren't) by an objective reviewer with no particular stake in the issue, I have included the full text of her review below. Those wishing to try a second (and critically similar) review source, as opposed to Kyle Smith's slavish, slobbering write-up in the NY Post, try Stephen Whitty's review from the (NJ) Star-Ledger.

Herewith, Ms. Catsoulis's positively priceless review from the NY Times:

Children Left Behind

Published: April 16, 2010

A mind-numbing barrage of random television clips and trash-talking heads, “The Cartel” purports to be a documentary about the American public school system. In reality, however, it’s a bludgeoning rant against a single state — New Jersey — which it presents as a closed loop of Mercedes-owning administrators, obstructive teachers’ unions and corrupt school boards.

Blithely extrapolating nationally, the writer and director, Bob Bowdon, concludes that increased financing for public schools is unlikely to raise reading scores but is almost certain to raise the luxury-car quotient in administrator parking lots. To illustrate, Mr. Bowdon rattles off a laundry list of outrages — like a missing $1 billion from a school construction budget — and provides a clumsy montage of newspaper headlines detailing administrative graft.

The evidence may be verifiable (and even depressingly familiar), but its complex underpinnings are given short shrift. Instead Mr. Bowdon, a New Jersey-based television reporter, employs an exposé-style narration lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion. In one particularly egregious scene he parks his camera in front of a weeping child who has just failed to win a coveted spot in a charter-school lottery — another tiny victim of public school hell. Later, confronted with the president of the New Jersey Education Association, Mr. Bowdon performs the rhetorical equivalent of poking a lion with a stick and running away.

Visually horrid and intellectually unsatisfying, “The Cartel” demonstrates only that its maker has even more to learn about assembling a film than about constructing an argument.

Here, here!


Bruce said...

The problem is that most of Bowdon's "shocking statistics" range from gross misrepresentations to outright foolish misunderstandings. See my own blog summary at "Cartel Recap" on Schoofinance101 on Wordpress (.com).

As a professor of school finance who lives every day in national and state databases on school funding and student outcomes and who has advised many national organizations on the development of indicator systems for comparing schools/districts and states, Bowdon's presentation of "shocking statistics" is quite honestly the most offensive, absurd and amateur presentation I have ever witnessed - regardless of political angle. In fact, those who favor Bowdon's policy viewpoint should arguably be more offended than those who oppose him, because he represents their view so poorly.

Even if there were/are good arguments to be made on this topic, and from his perspective, Bowdon fails miserably in doing so - at the most basic level.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem Bruce, since you claim to be a profesor of school finance is not how much money we are pouring into schools
but is it educating children to be better students and productive citizens?

Anonymous said...

Attacking Mr. Bowdon's film making, is in my opinion, a Red Herring, a smoke screen to invalidate positions and arguments some of know know to be true - first hand. The documentary was pretty average, I've seen a lot worse, I've seen way better. Some yellow journalism yes, but overall invalid: NO!

I certainly hope the indicators that you developed do not show that the American public education system is a success and worth money.

There is a little more going on here in addition to amateur film making and yellow journalism. American public schools are dangerous (do I need to provide examples that have not been in the mainstream media?), they are not worth the money (do you deny that we are not getting a good deal?), the examples in the film about high school graduates not knowing their times table is true, I know first hand from having taught math in college.

"Affensive, absurd," yes, that is what our public school system has become, databases, indicators, a smart professor, not withstanding.