OPINION: Waiting for Oscar

By David Lyell, L.A. Unified Teacher

imageAs we approach Oscar weekend, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Academy. Thank you, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences voters, for recognizing that the movie “Waiting For Superman” had about as close a connection to reality as Bill Gates does to the struggles of working class families.

Thanks to the monstrous marketing effort to reach Academy voters and the kindness of a cruel friend, I recently suffered through this fluff piece for free. My conclusion: I want my two hours back.

Here’s a brief synopsis.

Public school teachers: evil. Charter schools: good.

Charter school proponents: good. Public school proponents: evil.

Public school teachers: They just care about their jobs and not the children. Education Reformers Michelle Rhee, Steve Barr, and anyone who wants to operate a charter school, including your crazy
Uncle Buddy: good.

The solution: More charter schools, clips of old TV shows, soft music and slow-paced, soft-spoken patronizing narration.

The movie’s director Davis Guggenheim is an alumnus of Sidwell Friends School. Starting tuition for Lower School (they’re too smart to call it Elementary school) is $31,960. Optional bus transportation between Washington, DC and Bethesda, Maryland campuses costs $695 one-way and $995 round-trip. Lower School Aftercare (though optional) ranges from $1,500 to $5,500. So at the beginning of the movie, when Guggenheim drives past Westminster Elementary School in Venice and contemplates sending his kinds there, he’s probably really trying to decide whether to take his family to Milan or Rome for the weekend.

Guggenheim reportedly staged at least one scene, where a mother is touring Harlem’s Children Zone hopeful her child would be able to attend. The only problem–which viewers aren’t told–is she had already learned her child would not be attending the school. When Gugenheim was asked by a reporter about this, he defended the deception by saying that the scene is how she would have played it.

When a reporter asked if there were other scenes that had been staged, he replied, “None that I can think of.”

So when the film’s proponents criticize anyone who thinks the movie is one-sided, we all need to remember that Guggenheim apparently can’t even be bothered to recall how this movie was produced.

Charters started as a way to explore innovative teaching practices and they do have a place, but they should also not be promoted as the sole solution to the problems plaguing public education, as this movie would have us believe. They should not be given space to operate on already over-crowded, under-funded public school campuses, especially when school boards refuse to address the problems educators have been screaming about for decades.

Gates gave at least $2 million to the Oscar marketing push. It still wasn’t enough for voters to overlook the glaring deficiencies in this for-profit movie disingenuously marketed as being in the interest of the public good.

So as we enjoy the Academy Awards this weekend, let us be thankful for Academy members who attended public schools, developed solid critical thinking skills and gave voice to those talents the best way they knew how: they voted.

To read more of David’s work, please see his blog at www.davidlyell.blogspot.com.

More stories by David Lyell on Intersections South LA:
OPINION: A field report from the Public School Choice 2.0 Advisory Vote
OPINION: The School Board Election: What L.A Unified doesn’t want you to know
OPINION: Value-added assessments: has the data been cooked?

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

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  1. Johnny Justice says:

    I loved this movie, and thought it was spot-on. I have been involved in public and private education for many years, and believe me there isn’t much here that doesn’t ring true with my experience. There are many private and charter schools that are affordable. I would rather have a choice in my child’s education and the numbers quoted by the reviewer/opinionist(?) are numbers that are worth spending if you can. Education is very important, worth far more than most bills we have to pay. Also home-schooling is FREE. Much better than a government employee teaching my child. I went to public school in rural KY and although I hated school, my teachers ranged from poor to excellent. There are many many great teachers out there. The government is failing us..not so much the teachers.
    I believe we should make all education local.
    Why on earth do we send money to D.C. so that it rolls around in hundreds of bureaucrat offices, let it mix through all of the wasteful crap that the D.O.E. does, only to send it back to the local level? It makes no sense. Local and State are better than federal. Almost always.
    And tenure should be scrapped.

  2. Vint McCabe says:

    Having had to battle tooth and nail a few times with public school teachers to ensure that they 1) Didn’t conintue to tell their elementary classes “not to talk to their parents” about what went on in class, or things like “I am in charge, not your parents” and 2) That a middle school math teacher stop riducling my daughter in front of the class (purely for her own amusement, it seems), I found that a LOT of what was documented in “Waiting For Superman” is, in fact, true. The two incidents I mentioned (along with some requests for better safety guards regarding buses, etc.) resulted in a record being complied on me, a police officer (an “officer friendly” there to talk to the elementary classes) being asked to talk to me (I engaged him first, and was surprised to learn that the school Principal had asked him to talk to me — until I remembered the “enemy folder” she had compiled on me, because of complaints against a teacher — said teacher was eventually convinced to leave, long after my complaints); and my daughter was made to repeat a math class, even though her grades were just fine (I only learned about it all _after_ the fact).

    Add to this, the fact that I went through some of the things kids do in the film — I attended one of the WORST middle schools ever in Texas, complete with an English teacher who played cards — with students — during class — and I believe I have some ground for agreeing with the filmmakers — not the teacher who (understandably) defended the system in this essay.

    The thing is, I always went out of my way — and had my daughter join me — in thanking teachers who did a great job, writing letters to them and their principals, even buying a book/or chocolates or some sort of fairwell gift when my daughter moved onto the next school level. But I’m a firm believer in the fact that public teachers _do_ have too much power in the USA, which results in the a LOT of bad and mediocre teachers staying in the system. Getting rid of the tenure system (and if that means getting rid of or revamping the teachers union, so be it — children are more important) would be a great start.

  3. Having chosen NOT to attend Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in Washington, DC, when its tuition was much lower than today, I can attest to the equal value of public education in DC compared to that provided by private Friends and St Albans schools.

    Perhaps it is telling that our Capital City – run by the Federal government, not parents – has historically provided such high-quality public education.

    We all have anecdotes from our school experience. One answer to the ballyhooed public education dilemma is simple: Higher pay upon hire. Attract quality teachers and keep them. The freely-available Times article referenced here sheds light on the complexities of the issue, including the origin of the work “tenure.”

    Instead of promoting an end-around of public education, privatizing something that can and should be free to all, fix the system. Tenure isn’t the problem. Government isn’t the problem. Begin with the pay, continue by exploring innovations begun in various locations and expect to remain involved and engaged in the process.

    Where I come from – the only city in this country without a vote in Congress – the rule is this: “If you don’t like it, stop whining and change it.” Those of us who complain about government failures had better begin looking in the mirror and realize that we all share the same burden to protect our freedoms – the right to a good education being the most fundamental of all.

  4. vint mccabe says:

    Jet: I think you’re missing the point about tenure for ALL public school teachers — something that they get not long after being hired. It means unless they commit a crime (assault a student, whatever) they are there for _life_ should they so choose. So if they turn out to be one of the worst teachers — or “merely” mediocre — our children suffer the consequences. Yes, tenure is a BIG part of the problem, in fact, I would venture to state it is 90 percent of the probelm. If you have a genuinely bad teacher, she or or he will continue exerting influence over students for decades (if college professors have to prove themselves for it, so should teachers at elementary, middle and high schools).

  5. vint mccabe says:

    One more thing Jet: If you watched the movie in question, they made it clear that the teacher’s union _wouldn’t even discuss_ the possibility of changes that would include doing away with tenure, and a system which would award (in salary) the best efforts of the best teachers (who would stand to earn six figure salaries under such a system). (In this movie, it is made clear that the proposals came about in large part because of Michelle Rhee, a _teacher_ who is now in charge of the Washington DC school district, and fighing (in vain it seems ) to change a seriously screwed up system. (Something NO ONE on either side can deny: If our public school system can’t be fixed — in it’s current “incarnation” — for over four decades, it’s time to dismantle it and build a better one).

    I’m a person who believes that unions, in the USA (since Congress, especially in the last 30 years, has proven it doesn’t care about the welfare/wages of the blue-collar worker) is very important. But when a union becomes so powerful and so inconsiderate that the good of the public (especially when we’re talking about the needs of children) is placed _behind_ the wants/needs of it’s members (and it’s officers), then the union has _become_ the same “monster” that it was created to fight against: a huge, unconscionable, corporate “entity”, which doesn’t listen to the people.

  6. Johnny Justice says:

    I am with you on this VintMaccabe. And JetPower, the problem is tenure and government, but I do agree with you on equal pay for excellent work.
    In all realms of our society people who fail should fail and those who do not fail shouldn’t. It’s just life. We shouldn’t keep people working who aren’t worth it, but we should reward those who are.
    Also I don’t think anyone on the national stage is talking about ending public education. I would however eliminate the D.O.E. Why send money to D.C. for something that is eventually local?…makes no sense.

  7. On the contrary, my point is that it’s easy to place blame on a tool, but it’s better to engage in the process of improving how the tool is used.

    Removing tenure will unintentionally steer talented teachers away from public schools even more than low pay and meager resources do now. Replacing free elementary schooling with fee-based schooling (which is by no means affordable for all) is contrary to our democracy’s principles.

    Since our ultimate goal is to improve education – and to do so sooner than later – we must compare the intent of tenure, and of other tools, to their results, excising their faults and expanding on their contributions.

    Clicking on my pseudonym will display the Times article; it details the issues better than I can.

  8. Johnny Justice says:

    Why is it an either/or situation? Why can’t it be higher pay without tenure?….seems to work all over the world, at least everywhere the government isn’t involved
    Fee-based schooling (and I don’t know what you are referring to – I’ll say again..I don’t know of any figure of importance that is suggesting eliminating public ed.)could certainly be comparable to what we pay for schooling now in taxes, fees and other forms of confiscation and theft.
    And what of our democracy’s principles refer to free public schooling?
    What do you mean by “placing the blame on a tool?”
    Are you talking about my mentioning the abolition of the D.O.E?

  9. I re-read your first note. It sounds like you and your daughter were subjected to a few seriously unpleasant school experiences. I’ve known friends with similar stories, and I’m sure such stories exist in DC and elsewhere (I have a few of my own). With these experiences is mind, I firmly believe that it costs less to use the good and lose the bad than it does to recreate a public wheel in a private image.

    Either/or works both ways: Why can’t it be higher pay and improved tenure vetting? Seems to work in colleges and universities.

    It is rarely the tool itself – whether it be tenure or performance grading – that is the villain. It is generally some implementation and/or unintended consequence – in this case, tenure’s protections for poor teachers as well as great ones, performance grading’s myopic qualities as well as its true values – that cause myopic cries of “throw out the bum.” The bum may simply need some cleaning up to come out smelling like the rose it is intended to be.

    If we were negotiating here, I would agree to drop tenure 18 years after fixing base pay for starting primary and secondary teachers at no less than $50k/annum, with standard year-over-year pay increases and continuing education courseware integration reviews.

    “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are democratic principles that refer to free public schooling for all children, regardless of financial circumstances. What could be less unfair than that? What is more liberating than a good education?

    I am concerned as you about Federal involvement in local affairs. My choice was simple: either work to fix what I don’t like or move somewhere that has a government I prefer. I’m still here, working hard to resist the temptation to ignore the good in something just because it is less than ideal. The more involved you get in the process, the more sense the phrase “More perfect union” makes.

    While charter schools have their place in the quest to improve education, reasonable Federal oversight has essential value. Re-balancing the apparatus so that it works reasonably well is the prescription.

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