Jeremy Sawyer reviews a new film produced by the Grassroots Education Movement in New York City in response to the anti-teacher documentary Waiting for "Superman".
May 18, 2011
Students, teachers and parents join a flashmob protest outside a New York City screening of Waiting for "Superman"
SICK AND tired of Waiting for "Superman"? Despair no more. The hero is us.
This is the inspiring message of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a film created by the everyday superheroes of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a New York City coalition that mobilizes against policies that underfund, undermine and privatize our public school system.
In a play on the title of the documentary on the environmental crisis by Al Gore and director Davis Guggenheim, the film explores a series of "inconvenient truths" that expose and debunk the myths of corporate education "reform." In the starring role is a movement of teachers, parents and students calling for genuinely progressive reforms that can truly make a difference in the lives of children and communities.
In September 2010, Guggenheim, having won the praise for his film made with Gore, lent his voice to the Hallelujah chorus of corporate reform with Waiting For "Superman", a misleading documentary that views American public education through the lens of some of the nation's most powerful figures and institutions.
That film touted corporate reformers as education "experts"--and painted teachers, tenure and the unions that protect them as the enemy. The film completely ignored the effects of broader social problems, such as poverty and racism, while pointing to charter schools and privatization as magic solutions. Though Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth offered some criticism of the role of corporations in destroying the environment, Waiting For "Superman" enthusiastically promotes destructive corporate policies in the realm of education.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Attend the premiere screening of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, as well as a panel discussion featuring author Diane Ravitch, on May 19 at 6 p.m. at Riverside Church (enter at 91 Claremont Ave.) in Harlem. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. To attend, RSVP to the film's website.
But many others suffered through the film in silence and may have emerged demoralized about themselves, their public schools and their communities. If Superman isn't coming, are charter schools and a hostile corporate takeover of public education the only hope? The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman responds: You are not alone. Together, we can fight for real reforms.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE OPENING minutes of the film are breathtaking as we are thrust into the middle of the battle for public education now raging in New York City. We are taken inside massive community protests from high schools to the city's Department of Education (DOE) headquarters in the January chill.
We see and feel the frustration with the DOE's undemocratic education policies, as well as landmark moments in the past year of the grassroots struggle for real reform in New York. We get the sense that taking on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's dictatorial control over New York schools--as well as and corporate school deformers around the country--will require a growing movement for true democracy and justice in our schools, communities and society.
The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, written and directed by New York City public school teachers and parents, narrated by Julie Cavanagh, Brian Jones and Darren Marelli, produced by Mollie Bruhn, Julie Cavanagh, Lisa Donlan, Darren Marelli and Norm Scott.
The handful of images of teachers in Guggenheim'sWaiting For "Superman" consist largely of caricatures from The Simpsons and School of Rock. If Guggenheim had trouble locating actual teachers to speak to, he will find them in The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman. Far from standing in the way of reform, these teachers are fighting together with parents and students on the front lines of the struggle for quality public education.
The film's friendly guides are Brian Jones and Julie Cavanagh, New York teachers with 20 years of collective experience and the down-to-earth charisma that comes from hours mentoring children, working with parents and joking with colleagues.
In the world of Waiting For "Superman", people like Cavanagh--an experienced teacher at a successful public school in a Brooklyn housing project--are not supposed to exist. As a dedicated activist who teamed with her school community to fight to protect her students' special needs services from an invading charter school, she is a monkey wrench in the charter operators' plans to infiltrate public schools.
These are teachers we can relate to. Jones, who comes from a family of teachers, tells humorous stories of his frustrating, yet exhilarating, early years of teaching. How different he seems from the suits and data-crunchers who run our schools--people seemingly bent on causing chaos and dislocation in the daily experience of teachers, parents and students.
Eschewing the corporate talking heads that permeate Waiting For Superman, Jones explains, "We wanted to explore the truth about education reform, so we did something shocking: we spoke with parents and educators." Their voices reveal uncomfortable realities that the deformers try mightily to sweep under the carpet.
While Waiting For "Superman" laments the fact that The Man of Steel can't save public education, the cast of "experts" promoted in Guggenheim's film is more akin to the Legion of Doom, the comic book super-villains.
These self-anointed saviors--who generally have little or zero experience in education--scapegoat teachers and transform children into data points. They promote the same unregulated business model that "took this country to the brink of Armageddon in 2008," in the words of Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Refreshingly, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman takes a hard look at the zealots, billionaires and educational "entrepreneurs" who want the keys to our schools. From former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, to Bill Gates, to Harlem Children's Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, the film exposes some serious political and personal nastiness.
While their machinations may enrich themselves and the powerful interests for which they speak, they leave our children and communities bankrupt. The film has a brilliant idea: why not invest in proven educational reforms, such as smaller class sizes and experienced teachers?
Chills ran down my spine when the film juxtaposed images of flood-ravaged New Orleans with infamous statement of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." Although I already knew the answer, I still found myself asking, "Is this seriously what they want for our education system?"
Interestingly, the film explores the lesser-known origins of charter schools as centers of innovation that were started by educators and communities in search of alternative educational services and options for students who needed them. Mona Davids, of the New York City Charter Parents Association, relates how control of charters has been hijacked by corporate interests, in stark opposition to the original idea.
A great strength of the film is the rarely heard voices of current and former charter school parents who expose how charters serve a completely different population than public schools. Charter schools have fewer English language learners, fewer children with special needs and far fewer children who live in poverty. Many of these parents decided to leave their charter schools once they found they had no voice in school decision-making.
Despite the selective nature of charter schools, the film points to a Stanford University study showing that only 17 percent of charters perform better than their neighboring public schools, 46 percent perform equally, and 37 percent of charters perform worse. This damning evidence of charter schools' inferiority is conspicuously absent from Guggenheim's film.
As a school psychologist in Brooklyn who works with children with a variety of disabilities and special education needs, it was gut-wrenching for me to hear the story of Lydia Bellehcene, a parent and Community Education Council member whose child's charter school lost its psychologist and social worker. Bellehcene's child did not receive mandated special services for a year and a half.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE INCONVENIENT Truth Behind Waiting For Superman also stands unapologetically in defense of unions and the due process rights known as tenure.
And why shouldn't it? Countries with successful education systems are overwhelmingly unionized. While Waiting For "Superman" sounds the alarm about the U.S. falling behind countries like Finland in education (which equals "competitiveness" in the terms of Corporate America), it never investigates what makes schools in other countries successful.
Thank GEM for making a real documentary. We learn that Finland's teachers are 98 percent unionized. Their unions fight to keep class sizes low and make sure a rich curriculum--rather than high-stakes testing--drives learning. Furthermore, only 4.3 percent of Finnish children live below the poverty line, while an outrageous 23.4 percent of American children suffer this fate, many without health care or adequate housing. Instead of bashing teachers' unions, shouldn't real reforms give a good bashing to the poverty and neglect of our inner-city neighborhoods?
GEM's film provides the historical context that Waiting For Superman lacks, placing the attacks on teachers in the context of the 30-year offensive against unionized workers.
John Bettis, a parent and member of Concerned Advocates for Public Education (CAPE), poignantly describes a world without teachers' unions: "We would have a teaching staff, young, inexperienced, shuffling from job to job, unable to advocate children for fear of losing their job. That's the fantasy world for the privatizers." What should our unions be fighting for? You simply have to watch the film to see an amazing speech by a young teacher who wants to see his union transformed.
The filmmakers don't pretend to have all the answers, but they'd like to begin with the corporate reformers' demand for their own children (who don't attend public schools): adequate resources. Leonie Haimson, director of the organization Class Size Matters, scoffs at reformers' claims that funding doesn't matter. Yeah, is that why the elite reformers pay $30,000-plus per year for their kids' elementary school tuition?
Significantly smaller class sizes would please kindergarten teacher Mollie Bruhn, who has seen her class go from 16 to 26 students in recent years, with the time for individual attention and connection with each student dropping drastically. More teaching and less testing would be another sane demand.
The film ingeniously brings home the connection between real reform and pedagogy through vivid examples of culturally innovative curriculums being carried out by--that's right--public school communities. Measure that, test manufacturers!
The appeal of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman comes not from a Hollywood-sized budget, but from teacher and parent-sized hearts. At 65 minutes, it's the perfect length to watch with friends, family and colleagues, and is guaranteed to provoke discussion afterward.
The film is a call to arms for all those who want to win a world-class education for every student. It asserts that we must stop bailing out the rich and start bailing out people, schools and communities. We will need teachers, parents, and students standing together to make this a reality. Be careful, as the film may just inspire you to join this struggle and not look back. To quote a song from the film: "Are you waiting for the savior? Wake up--the hero is you."