Monday, January 25, 2010

Waiting for Superman

My friend Kelly Amis saw Waiting for Superman at Sundance and gave me permission to share her comments – it looks AMAZING!


I had the chance to see the premiere of "Waiting for Superman" today at Sundance -- the new ed reform documentary by the guys who made "An Inconvenient Truth" (Participant Media & Davis Guggenheim). I also had a little chat with the producer. This film was the first one picked up at Sundance (by Paramount) and it is going to be HUGE...possibly monumental for education reform. Here's an inside scoop:


The big, fabulous news is that they (the producers and director) GET IT. I knew they were highlighting charter schools, but didn't know they would also take the teachers' unions (and to lesser extent, bureaucracy) to task in such a big way. The three main points of the film are basically: American kids are doing terribly, tenure's ridiculous, and parents need many more high-quality school options. 


The heroes of the film are a handful of parents and kids, almost all trying to get into charter schools, and almost all minority. On the policy side: Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee are the lead stars, and, adding to them, Howard Fuller (which made me very happy, and also made me laugh b/c Howard told me last year that he had been interviewed by "some guy with brown curly hair". You're amazing in it Howard-- and about to be quite famous!), and Eric Hanushek. Also a nice cameo by Steve Barr (the producer mentioned they wanted to include Steve much more but couldn't work it in).


In terms of tenure, they explain "the Lemon Dance," mention "Rubber Rooms," etc., and feature Michelle on her proposal to offer teachers much higher pay for giving up tenure. When they say that the union wouldn't even let that get to a vote, the audience groaned out loud. The filmmakers did a great job of capturing Michelle's passion, commitment...and all the backlash she faces.


In that story and others, the film takes a very tough look at Randi Weingarten (I personally believe the AFT leaders gets way too much acclaim for her words--which do not parallel her actions--and was glad to see these non-education experts getting that.) Best detail: as Weingarten gives her interview, she's got a kente cloth hanging on the wall behind her. Speaks volumes.


But that is related to one issue the film does not, and I learned purposefully did not, really address: race. While most of the kids featured are black or Hispanic, the film does not talk about the achievement gap directly. The producer said they did this so that white viewers wouldn't think the problem is only with "other" kids. They want to show that all American kids are not where they should be. Which is true, and, as she also said, low-income kids of all colors get worse school choices than others, but...  Somehow, this bothered me. This was the only major gaping hole in the "story." Basically, race was ignored, and we could probably argue about whether this is a pro or con (I'd love to hear other opinions).


The film is very pro-charter school, and the schools that stood out were Harlem Success Academy, KIPP (some great old footage of David and Michael, and Harriet Ball, in the 'early' days) and SEED in DC. But they do clarify that not all charter schools are up to par.


The research/statistics are really good and they also do a fantastic job of making very complicated issues pretty clear and straightforward. I didn't love the graphics/animation, but that's me (I didn't like the art, and was annoyed by all the "kids" being white). And the "Superman" hook...not really my cup of tea although they did incorporate some funny archival material Michael Moore-style including one bit from an early Superman tv show.


So, this film is going to be a big deal and it is overall great news for education reformers: it supports school choice and bringing sanity to the profession of teaching. With regard to my little film TEACHED, Superman does cover the same primary issues I'm focused on (I have a much smaller budget, of course!) but leaves room for follow-up with a much stronger focus on the inner-city, mostly minority schools that concern me the most. Also, Superman doesn't interview any teachers (or adults about their educational experiences), so I've got that going for me. :)


Last note for those who asked: no go on getting DVDs yet...the film is not officially finished! They finished this Sundance cut just last Friday. So there won't be any DVDs for awhile. (There isn't even a trailer online yet.)


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