Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I was contacted recently by someone at K-12, the online educator for grades kindergarten through twelfth grade, who offered to send me, gratis, to the new documentary, Waiting for Superman. In return for the free tickets, they asked me to write a review of the movie and post it, here, on my blog. You can read more information at the bottom of this post** and trust that my review is objective and that I was NOT paid to write something positive or negative!

I went on Saturday night to see the movie with great anticipation. I had taped and watched Oprah's show a few weeks ago when she had the director of the movie, Davis Guggenheim, some of the kids from the movie and their mothers, as well as other American luminaries, including Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee (the recent superintendent of Washington, D.C. schools) and Geoffrey Canada, from the Harlem Children's Zone . Despite the Oprahfication, the conversation was fascinating, so I really looked forward to seeing the movie.

I wasn't disappointed, because the documentary was educational, heartbreaking and, above all, sobering. The portrait it painted of the American educational system -- its history, attempts at reform, champions, success and failures -- was illuminating and emblematic, I think, of American culture in general. I was especially struck by statistics comparing where the American educational system rates in a list of other industrialized western countries (at the bottom) and Americans' actual perceptions of where they rate (number one). It's why I raise my eyebrows at the chants of "greatest country on earth" or "best healthcare system in the world" and why I object to having my patriotism questioned when I voice real dislikes and suspicions about this nation of ours.

The movie is relentless in its coverage of all the players in the system but comes down particularly hard on teachers' unions, illustrating the original good intentions of those unions but underscoring how arcane regulations and bureaucratic obduracy have become an almost untenable burden on the system. The movie uses very clever and engaging graphics to illustrate statistics, and one of my favorites was The Lemon Dance, the secret code principals use to deal with bad teachers. You really have to see it to believe it.

The individual stories depicted in the movie were typical documentary-fare -- disadvantaged, often minority children in large urban areas with hard-working parents who are trying with all their minimal resources to find a better place for their children. But, as I followed these children through their abysmal schools and watched as they and their parents tried to work within the system to find better choices, I felt my head glued to the back of the chair, pinned and horrified, stunned by the gross inequities and seemingly insurmountable odds. I thought of my own children and their relative position of privilege. I thought of our local charter school that we have had the good fortune to become a part of -- and the fact that it works so incredibly hard to give opportunity to many children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The movie doesn't even go into the plight of special education in our country, a glaring omission in my mind, but woven into the individual stories are many examples of people working to make improvements, those people like Geoffrey Canada who have made significant change in their communities and are almost saint-like in their mission and vision --

There are too many points to convey in a blog post, but I encourage everyone to see the movie, whether you have children or not, to become aware and, hopefully, to commit to helping to change the way the children of this country are educated. It's imperative.

**Like the parents in the film, Waiting for Superman, K12 believes that access to a quality education is one of the most important things we can give our children.   K12 is the leader in online education for grades K – 12, with tuition-free, public school programs in more than half the States and D.C., as well as a private online school – the K12 International Academy – serving students across America and in more than 40 countries. Students in K12 schools get the best of both worlds: engaging, online curriculum along with award-winning books and hands-on materials, plus one-to-one attention from highly qualified teachers. All students receive an individualized learning plan, creating an educational program that is tailored to their learning style, pace, and needs.

Learn more by visiting K12.com or connecting with our community of parents and teacher on K12’s FacebookTwitter, and Blog. Discover more about K12’s California online public school option at CAVA.  

If you cannot receive html emails, these are the  links included in the boiler plate above:
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  1. Your blog was forwarded to me by someone who has been offended by some of your comments and characterizations of those you do not agree with. I find it hypocritical that you suggest that your patriotism is allegedly questioned by your dissent (no doubt recycled charges against the opposition that have never been substantiated) while questioning the intelligence of people who do not share your opinion on health care etc. With regard to this particular post, I am curious how you reconcile the state of american education with the undeniable fact that our educational system has been under exclusively democrat, leftist, progressive (pick your label) rule? It seems to me the state of affairs is sufficient reason to be against government control of everything, particularly our health care.

  2. Being a parent and a family-member of many public-school teachers, I am heartbroken by what is happening in our schools. I don't know if I have the guts to see this right now - I'm already so sad. But I'm so glad that you have the guts to see it, and tell us about it. Thank you, as always, for encouragement and insightful writing. XOXOXO

  3. Alethia - Ah, perhaps a friend of Dave's or Redland's? Sigh. You dissenters love the anonymity, don't you?

    I'm not sure if it's how you phrased it, but I'm trying to parse out your charge that I am hypocritical? Not sure what you're referring to -- As for offending those with whom I do not agree -- well, I try hard not to attack individuals' characters, but I don't apologize for my own viewpoints and for when I write about or defend those issues that I know a bit about and that I have strong feelings for.

    As for your statement that it's an "undeniable fact that our educational system has been under exclusively democrat, leftist, progressive rule" -- well, that's just false. Every single administration, both conservative and liberal, has made attempts at reform of our educational system with, most recently, the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" program. I don't think the education of our children is a partisan and/or political issue. The documentary I reviewed goes over that as well as showing that reform is not a partisan/political effort. It's an imperative, both morally and economically. It's apparent that you haven't seen the documentary, and I'd urge you to, so that discussion about it and about education can be informed.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Elizabeth - I am so sorry you are getting trolls responding to your eloquent, personal response to the the film. Thanks, as always for your energy, commitment and drive. Don't let these people get to you. You are superwomen.

  5. Hi. There definitely is a lot to cover about the movie! Several people left links on my blog to critical reviews, which I plan to to check out. Thing is, no matter what the reason for the state of our public schools, it's inarguable that they need serious improving. On that, I hope, we can all agree.

  6. Ruby's K teacher saw the documentary this weekend and was shuddering just telling me about it.

  7. There were some very good news today about Google having to reveal the names of the cowards who hide behind anonymous profiles in order to stalk bloggers. I believe that stalking by proxy would be a legal stand as in one who is aiding and abetting the stalking. Hmmm....

  8. Hmm... I may just go see it, although the fact that you mention it particularly highlights the teacher union issue gives me pause. Scapegoating teachers is just too easy to do, and doing it often deflects us from seeing the deficiencies elsewhere, which are many and just as relevant. Personally, my parents never let me blame a bad teacher if I underperformed in a class, even if I happened to have a bad teacher.

    And, as you said, there is the issue of accesibility for kids in underserved areas. Even the K12 website discriminates against them. The time commitment for the parents is excessive if both parents work full-time, possibly more than one job if they're low-wage earners. Granted, this is also a problem for parents whose children attend brick-and-mortar schools, but parent participation is more critical for this program, as it is with home schooling.

    I am always hijacking your blog, Elizabeth. You post issues for which I have strong opinions. My apologies ... again!

  9. Thanks for a most interesting post. And judging by Alethia's response, it's not just the education system that is in need of a good ol' hand, but democracy, too. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? And does Alethia realise that her nation (your country, as it happens) was UNDER Republican governance for eight loooooooooong years? Probably not, poor thing.

    Great post, as usual. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  10. Oh dear, Elizabeth, a wonderful post trashed again by that troll. I find it hard to understand. Maybe again you might need to moderate comments. You need not put up with this.

  11. I'm looking forward to seeing the film. I can't say I blame them for not tackling the special education issues. That's a whole other film or series of films. In any subject chosen for your movie, you have to narrow the focus.

    It never ceases to amaze me about the severe LACK of intelligent comments I see left on yours and other blogs sometimes. It's almost funny to see how, as the comment unfolds, it proves itself true as far as how our educational system is flawed.

    And even more kudos to you. You could have picked a million Superman images. To pick a Max Fleischer Superman image? Shows me how together you really are.

  12. The movie looks interesting. Education is so necessary to make a democracy flourish, ignorance allows fear mongering and for the growth of fascism.

    Not that I think Obama is a fascist, quite the opposite. I'm thinking more about my own government and prime minister.

    The world seems to be sliding towards fundamentalism on all sides and it worries me. We are all the same and what we do to one group, affects all of us. The differences we see are all so superficial.

  13. Elizabeth, In a previous post you have questioned the intelligence and knowledge of people who disagree with you. This seems to be an attack on their character not just a healthy respect for their viewpoint much less an understanding of what they believe. Case in point, you seem to believe that tea party people have no knowledge of who allegedly funds them. A two pronged attack on the "grass roots" nature of the movement and their awareness. Thus the charge of hypocrisy by complaining that you are labeled "un-patriotic" by the other side.

    I do recognize having more closely perused your blog, that you seem to be a bit all over the place. You don't like the government yet you seem to think they have an ability to "change" and do good as though "it" were a person. (Perhaps you have not been able to shake ingrained lurch to blind faith of a religious upbringing).
    By your own admission your views are informed mostly by your feelings and passions. And I suppose this is the unbridgeable chasm between conservatives and progressives.

    My goal was not to insult but to question the rational basis for your position(s). We tea party trolls (for the benefit of your audience) see the educational system as a perfect example of what will become of our health care system. Irrespective of what legislators in Washington attempt to do (fyi - the Obama administration ended the successful school voucher program in DC - union pressure - so much for a non-partisan issue)local schools are run by leftist/progressive unions & special interests who are more interested in power than education. It is not a leap to see that our health system left in government's hands would suffer the same fate. Thanks for your response. Have a nice day. The anonymous troll.

  14. I did hear an interview with the director on NPR where he said that he was sorry it seemed that teachers' unions seemed to be bashed. He wanted to make clear that his point was more that we, all the adults in these kids' lives, share responsibility for making the system better and that the beaurocracy often gets in the way of the actual goal.

    I can't wait to see it. Thanks for your thoughtful review!

  15. Alethia: You are mistaken. I do not dislike government but, rather, believe it to be of the people, by the people and for the people. I dislike the Tea Party Platform and haven't been impressed by the intelligence of its primary speakers. What exactly does a Tea Partier believe should be done about the healthcare system (I've never heard anything coherent, actually), for instance, and if Tea Party folks are elected to positions in government, are they automatically considered "government" and therefore bad?

    Many of my views are informed by my passions and feelings but some I might humbly say are formed by my experiences -- and healthcare inequity is something that I actually do know a bit about.

    Finally, we can agree on one thing and that's the unbridgeable chasm between progressives and conservatives. I find it very interesting and perhaps significant that studies of the actual brains of "liberal" and "conservative" peoples are markedly different, both structurally and characteristically. For more on that, see http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-sci-politics10sep10,0,2687256.story for starters.

    In the meantime, I wish you'd email me your complaints, points, etc. This was a simple (way too simple) review of a movie ON A PERSONAL BLOG -- my one comment about patriotism was a snarky aside NOT meant for anyone in particular but written because when I or anyone else, for that matter, deplore anything about our country, I am labeled "unpatriotic" or "go live elsewhere" etc. etc.

    Lighten up, in other words -- there are a million blogs that probably speak to you and I'm curious why you'd even bother to read mine!

  16. @Kario: thanks for the clarification on the director's view.

    @Alethia: I regularly disagree with Elizabeth, but she has never leveled a personal attack against me. However, I do not make personal attacks myself and am specific in my points of argument. She is very open to reasonable discourse. I suggest you stop making generalities (progressives control all education) and take the time to state specifically what you disagree with (there is no recourse or accountability in the procurement process when vendors who have been prepaid fail to come through on their sides of agreements).

    @Elizabeth: given I don't personally identify as either liberal or conservative, I wonder where my brain would end up on that scale!

  17. Thank you, Elizabeth, I saw the Oprah show, too, and as a former public school teacher I can't disagree!

  18. Great post, Elizabeth. I haven't seen the movie and don't know if I will. My concerns stem from a concern of yours that you mention in your post: why isn't the education of children with disabilities mentioned in these reform movements?

    That's why I'm not sure I trust the filmmakers. My gut feeling is always that a move toward charter schools will be a move toward isolating kids with disabilities. Charter schools will beg off such education, claiming it's not part of their 'mission,' or that they lack such resources. It's doubtful that a charter school particularly for kids with disabilities would get adequate funding--and, of course, if you're talking about cohort education, a large group of kids with disabilities in the public schools do not fit neatly into the largest cohorts, such as CP and autism. And parents of kids in those cohorts can certainly make the case that there's wide variation in those cohorts. So, are charter schools an end-run around the responsibility to educate children with disabilities? If you ask questions of the waiting-for-superman types, they'd probably say, oh, yes, those kids deserve education, but they're a 'special' group whose needs we can't meet. huh?

    And just fyi, in the policy world, there's another view of Rhee as well, and parents in DC are split about her performance, with white parents mostly in favor, and black parents less so. In some ways, using the DC public school system as an example of what's wrong with American public schools is a little anomalous. DC has a bureaucracy with a unique history that has to do with the history of DC itself, the rise of the African-American middle class through public sector jobs, the abysmal way that a largely white Congress treats the funding of public institutions in DC (Congress had final say over all DC government funding), and a complex need by the DC bureaucracy to protect workers in what can be argued has been a profoundly racist situation. It's not like other school systems, has little in common with them.

    Yes, there is corruption in the DC public schools. Yes, they are horribly screwed up. But little will be solved by mass teacher firings. Or by charter schools. Raising up educational standards is, in part, a need to ameliorate the horrific effects of unbelievable poverty and destructive family situations. Kids without parents, adequate food, and appropriate supervision are not going to suddenly take off because 'better' teachers are hired. The problem isn't educational standards--it's poverty.

  19. Jeneva: As always, all your points are so well taken and a challenge for me to think more deeply about the issue. Here in Los Angeles, my boys go to a charter school, and we have many children with disabilities -- primarily moderate (autism, cerebral palsy, etc.) but certainly there's a commitment to different learning abilities. We also have a pretty amazing charter school called CHIME, which is full inclusion from kindergarten through middle school. I tried to get Sophie into it many years ago, but the lottery system didn't work for us! The further I get out into school with Sophie, the more I regret not pushing for full inclusion from the get go.

    And thanks for the info about DC public schools and poverty. Similar situations exist in healthcare, as you know, and the outcomes for children with disabilities when they grow up in poverty. Ironically, it doesn't take a brain scientist to figure these things out, no?

  20. Elizabeth, I'm really glad to hear that the charter schools in your area are inclusion schools. There are very few charter schools in Maryland, thus, my wonderings and concerns about them. If charter schools were/are required to make a commitment to kids with disabilities, regardless of the other aspects of their mission, I would be on board. Inclusion education has made a huge difference in Robert's life.

    Thanks for setting me straight.

  21. Great post, Elizabeth! I agree when you say that there is too much to this movie, and it can't all be covered in a blog post. I saw this movie a few weeks ago and I also recommend that everyone see it if they can. It's very fascinating to see "behind the scenes" and find out why the system works the way it does. Thanks for the review, and whether anyone agrees or disagrees with the message of the movie, thank you for encouraging people to see it.

    Disclaimer, I work for K12, Inc and found your post through a colleague.



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