Patti Wenzel

“Waiting for Superman” explores charter solutions for schools

By - Sep 26th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photos courtesy Parmount Pictures

If Oprah’s golden touch can turn obscure authors into New York Times best sellers, the documentary Waiting for Superman is destined to become a multi-million dollar blockbuster.

Opened in limited release this weekend, the films makes its Milwaukee Film Festival debut at 2 p.m. today at the Oriental Theater. Festival organizers say the film is a sell-out, but last minute seats may be available at the ticket window 15 minutes before the curtain.

Waiting for Superman is the creation of Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth. Guggenheim’s latest work looks at the sorry state of public education in America and some of the programs that might make a difference.

Guggenheim follows five students –ranging from Kindergarten to middle school — and their families as they try to enroll in public charter schools. These students and families feel they have to get into these charter programs to avoid the tracking, bad teachers and bad programming in their district public schools, and also to ensure that their children graduate from high school and get into college.

The filmmaker appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last Monday to discuss the documentary, along with charter school champions Washington,D. C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. Guggenheim said the impetus to make the film followed his 1999 film The First Year, which focused on first-year teachers in some of America’s toughest schools.

“I just couldn’t escape the fact that I was driving by these (public) schools and not doing my part, ” he said. “I was helping my kids, but what about other people’s children? How can I make a movie that will make parents care about other people’s children as much as our own?”

In addition to following the five students and their families as they wait to find out if they make the cut in a lottery for their charter choices, the film explores the statistics of public education in America.

Some of those statistics include U.S. students ranking 25th in math and 21st in reading out of 30 developed nations;  2,000 American high schools being classified as “drop-out factories” because more than 40 percent of their students don’t graduate, and with four years left to meet No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent proficiency standards, most states are only at 20-30 percent  in reading and math.

The film has already received critical acclaim, winning the  Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. But not everyone is happy with it, and most screenings are met with organized opposition.

The protests are not based on the statistics, nor do they question the state of America’s public schools — its due to the film’s tone. Hundreds of teachers protested outside a Manhattan theater Friday, angry that the film blames them for failing students and failing schools, and doesn’t address shrinking education budgets, poverty, parental unemployment and lack of health care for students.  Oprah’s website was inundated with angry comments from teachers, blasting the “bad teacher, bad school” message.

Stan Karp from Rethinking Schools says that instead of “a balanced piece of journalism that clarifies complicated issues for a general audience, the film takes the side of the business model ‘reformers’ in an increasingly polarized debate over education policy.”

“The message seems to be that public education is a failure because of bad teachers and their unions. This is a grossly inaccurate and unhelpful oversimplification of the problems our schools face and what it will take to address them,” Karp said. “Yes, some public schools are in crisis and failing their communities. But many others are serving their children and communities well. The film does not frame these issues well or explain what support schools need to improve.”

Gates, Rhee, Guggenheim and Oprah feel charter schools are the model to follow and excluding those charter’s that have blatantly failed, public school districts should embrace  the innovations and techniques employed in them. Oprah is so enthusiastic over charters, she donated $1 million to six such schools from around the country.

As we have seen in Milwaukee, the problems with public education are easy to identify but the solutions are elusive. Are charter schools the “Superman” we are all waiting for to save our public schools, or is there another superhero on the horizon with a better idea?

I don’t know, but Waiting for Superman definitely put the spark back into this heated discussion.

Following the screening, a panel discussion on the state of public education will be held in Room 508 of the Kenilworth Building at UWM. Panelists will include Garrett Bucks, executive director of Teach for America Milwaukee; Cherise Easley, campus director at Milwaukee College Preparatory – Lindsay Heights Campus; Terry Falk, Milwaukee School Board member; Dr. Howard Fuller, director, of the Marquette University Institute for the Transformation of Learning (who is featured in the film) and Mike Langyel, President, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.

Categories: Movies

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