Education's 'Inconvenient Truth'?

Posted: September 21, 2010

ARE WE on the cusp of a major awakening that could push public schools to the reform they so badly need? Is there a film that could crystallize all the angst over public schools and smash through the status quo?

The answers are "yes" and "maybe." John Heilemann, writing in New York magazine, says, "A confluence of factors - a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous economy, and a president willing to challenge his party's hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies has created what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls 'a perfect storm.' "

Heilemann believes, as do I, that the film "Waiting for Superman" may be the catalyst that moves the needle toward reform.

One reason is that the film is creating such hope (and such angst) that the Los Angeles teachers union posted a flier on its website attacking the film even before its release and called for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to rebut it.

Another reason is that the director, Davis Guggenheim, is the director of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." This film credit gave him access to all the biggies in the school-reform movement, and his Hollywood heft and liberal credentials insulate him against charges of producing a right-wing hatchet job on teachers and their unions.

Guggenheim told me that we now know what to do to educate and advance every kid. He said, "In recent years, we've cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods."

I echo this. And my mantra is - it's a mystery? We know what to do. The only question is do we have the will to do it?

Guggenheim said he made the film for those parents who need something to cut through the blob of all the education issues that never seem to get resolved.

I think this film challenges all those who always spin out their arguments about what we can't do in schools rather than getting busy doing what can be done.

Guggenheim quotes Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., Public Schools, who says, "The public schools are built for the harmony of adults."

He thinks this film will make that harmony uncomfortable and direct attention to schools serving the interests of kids.

One subtle part of the film that I found especially meaningful is Guggenheim's tracking of a girl in Woodside, Calif., living in an area where the median home value is a million dollars. Of course, the expectations would be that the local high school must be great.

But he shows her parents realizing that the school can't take her to her highest potential, and they enter a lottery to get her into a high-achieving charter school. My message: Don't trust the fact that you live in a "nice" neighborhood to think the public school is the best option for your child.

Besides the Woodside girl, the film follows four other students trying through the lottery system to get into successful charter schools.

Seeing these kids over an extended period in the film really grabs you. It makes a compelling argument that if they don't win the school lottery, the odds of them not making it will greatly increase.

The lottery metaphor dominates the film. The idea that a drawing, with some balls spinning like the Lucky Lotto on TV, can determine your child's academic future is troubling - and obscene.

My wish after seeing this film, talking to the director and interviewing many of the major school reformers out there is that we just may be a point of pushing aside the blob of school-business-as-usual.

Every year, Philadelphia and many other cities engage in a project asking everyone to read a carefully chosen book to get some buzz going on an issue and to have a positive effect on it.

My idea this year is to ask everyone to see "Waiting for Superman." If a critical mass of people in Philadelphia see this and talk about it in everyday conversation, I believe we'll understand that we have to reject the bad schools and the siren call of those who say it's only about needing more money, more computers - or more time.

GO TO THE website www.WaitingforSuperman.com and check out the trailers.

You'll find you're not alone in believing there are things in the public schools that are dreadfully wrong. As Arne Duncan said about the film, "Nobody wants to call a baby ugly. This movie is like calling the baby ugly. It's about confronting brutal truths."

It was enlightening to hear Duncan saying he was distressed by unions taking huge amounts of dues not to develop better teachers, but to be a huge lobbying network often on the wrong side of the education issues.

There's nothing inconvenient about that truth.

Teacher-turned-talk-show-host Dom Giordano is heard on WPHT/1210 AM.

Contact him at askdomg@aol.com.

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