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Can “Superman” save the conversation on education? New films explore reform

on October 8, 2010

Hundreds of moviegoers were more than willing to brave the 45-minute line in front of the Piedmont Theater on Wednesday night for a free screening of Waiting for Superman, the controversial new documentary that some movie reviewers say could change the face of American education. The screening, which included a question and answer session with Oakland Unified School District superintendent Tony Smith, received about 1,000 RSVPs, but was only able to accommodate the first 412 people.

Waiting for Superman is the latest film from An Inconvenient Truth director David Guggenheim, and is a scathing look at America’s public education system, specifically the barriers that hard-working urban students and their families face in trying to obtain a quality education. The film touches on topics such as “drop-out factories” (schools where over 40 percent of the students never make it to graduation); the elaborate process of getting rid of underperforming tenured teachers; and the heart-wrenching charter school lottery system, in which a handful of kids are randomly selected from among hundreds of hopeful applicants to competitive schools.

The film takes its name from a line delivered by educational reformer and Harlem Children’s Zone creator Geoffrey Canada, who recalled crying as a child the day his mother told him that that Superman was not a real person.  (In the movie, Canada, dressed in a blue shirt and red tie reminiscent of his favorite superhero, tells the audience, “There’s no one coming with enough power to save us.”) Throughout the film, interviews with policymakers, students, and parents are intercut with clips from the black-and-white “Superman” TV series, emphasizing the film’s message that educational reform must come from society itself.

Superintendant Tony Smith addressed the audience after the screening, urging Oakland residents to read through his strategic plan for school district, volunteer in Oakland schools, and to participate in education task forces for the district. “Schools are really complex places,” he said, adding that he while he did not agree with every aspect of the film, he welcomed the conversation. “This is a chance for dialogue.”

Smith cited statistics that one in eight American public school kids go to school in California, despite the fact that the state is 48th in education spending. Smith also reminded the audience about the funding challenges faced by the Oakland school district, which was forced to cut $122 million from its budget for the 2010 to 2011 school year, and may face further cuts when the state budget is eventually passed.

An audience member asked Smith his thoughts on a cartoon sequence in Waiting for Superman in which a teacher opens up children’s heads and pours in information. “That is actually the opposite of what we want,” Smith said, calling that part of the movie “disturbing.” “It reduces the notion of good teaching. We want to promote critical thinking.”

Waiting for Superman has been garnering positive reviews from movie critics, and currently holds a “93 percent fresh” rating on movie ratings site  But some educators have criticized the documentary’s portrayal of teachers unions and public schools as overly harsh.  Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek senior editor interviewed in the film, calls teachers unions “a menace and an impediment to reform.” In another animated scene, public schools are shown doing “the lemon dance,” where bad teachers (complete with literal lemon heads) are shuffled around from school to school within a district, due to the complications of firing tenured teachers.

Edy Scripps, a first grade teacher from ACORN Woodland Elementary in East Oakland, was among a small group of protestors at Wednesday’s Piedmont Theater screening, most lofting signs and clad in neon green Oakland teacher’s union t-shirts. She held a “We are Superwomen” sign and handed out photocopies of a critical Waiting for Superman review from The New Yorker, which questioned the film’s simplification of complex issues in education.

“This movie leaves out the voices of public school teachers who are effective,” Scripps said. “It’s great that there’s a debate, though. People need to care more about education.”

The protestors did not try to dissuade moviegoers from attending the film, but instead handed out fliers titled “The Real Facts about Waiting for Superman,” which argued that states with more unionized teachers do better that states with weaker or fewer unions. Some of the protestors said that they had not seen the film yet, but hoped to do so as soon as possible.

“The film says teachers unions protect bad teachers. It makes [former United Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten look like Darth Vader,” said Rick Ayers, a prominent education writer and former Berkeley High School teacher, during an interview in a coffee shop earlier in the week. “Teachers don’t want bad teachers around either. The majority of teachers are bleeding all over the table. What the film misses is that it’s not so much about getting rid of bad teachers, it’s about keeping good teachers.”

California Capital Investment Group, partially formed by Oakland developer Phil Tagami, the developer behind the Fox refurbishment, and one of the frontrunners for the Port of Oakland’s renovation project, was one of the main sponsors of Wednesday’s screening. Tagami has two children who attend Crocker Highlands Elementary, and said that he hoped the movie would spark dialogue around improving education. “Right now, the state of education is failing,” he said. “We need to improve it, and talking about it is the first step to change.”

While Waiting for Superman is certainly generating the most conversation about education, it is not the only documentary currently addressing school reform. Playing a few miles away at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, Race to Nowhere, a documentary by Bay Area parent Vicki Abeles, takes a different view on why the school system isn’t serving its students. In contrast to Waiting for Superman’s warning that American students are falling behind on math and science proficiency, Race to Nowhere focuses on the negative psychological impact of the extreme pressures placed on students to be competitive for college starting at a very early age.

Race to Nowhere includes two featured case studies from Oakland campuses—the Fremont Federation of Small Schools and Oakland Technical High School. At Fremont, a teacher talks emotionally about her decision to leave her teaching position despite her love for her students and craft. Students from Oakland Tech discuss long homework hours, the pressure to cheat, and concerns about how they will be able to pay for college.

Despite the challenges facing students, teachers, and administrators in OUSD, the district’s chief still got a superhero’s welcome. During the questions and answer session, one audience member remarked to Smith, “I want to say that you’re pretty much close to Superman for us,” as the crowd clapped in response.

“Thanks, I appreciate the support,” said Smith after a pause. “But I honestly don’t think Superman is coming.”

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Vernon on October 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    This is the link to the New Yorker article you referenced:

    A sane and even-handed look at the ‘crisis’ in public education and what changes may or may not actually be most effective in addressing the difficulties of poor, urban school districts.

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