The movie in question is a controversial documentary now playing at Sundance 608 focusing on troubled American public education and its impact on poor kids.
The movie doesn't look at budget cuts, ravages of the recession or all manner of racism when it comes to education. Instead it focuses on the promise of charter schools and the problem of incompetent teachers and inflexible unions in failing public schools. Documentarian David Guggenheim (of "Inconvenient Truth" fame) plucks at the heartstrings as he follows five families and their frustrating efforts to get their kids into the charter schools they believe will lead toward success.
At a packed public discussion of the film between the 4:30 and 7 p.m. showings at the theater on Tuesday, UW education professors Michael Apple and Gloria Ladson-Billings rapped Guggenheim's premise and point of view in front of an audience primarily made up of teachers and education students.
"Let's look at charter schools. The movie itself states that only one out of every five charter schools is doing a better job than regular public schools. It then ignores its own data, and focuses only on charter school successes," Apple noted. "The charter school that gets the most attention is Geoffrey Canada's school in Harlem. There's much to like in this school. Smaller class sizes, persistent personal individual attention, a focus on the health of the children. But what the film doesn't tell you is that Canada's charter school gets huge amounts of money from foundations and private donors and spends much more per child than is available to impoverished children in other schools."
Ladson-Billings, a national expert on educating African-American children, was blunt. "Children should NOT be sitting, waiting in an auditorium, to find out if they won a lottery to get into a school. A right to a good education should be like the right to clean water.
"And, since when, did teachers become the demons?" she asked, adding, "What about the leadership at a school? The highest paid person in the building should be taking responsibility for the failues as much as taking responsibility for the successes," she added.
When I saw the film last weekend, I came away with many of the same questions Apple and Ladson-Billings raised. Guggenheim points the finger at teachers, but doesn't provide any context for the challenges that many schools face when it comes to educating kids in neighborhoods where there are few jobs, little stability and a dim, but probably realistic, view of the future.
But I also thought of the schools that are bucking the odds, and where these successful public schools are in Guggenheim's perspective on the world of elementary education. Has he ever been in a good public school classroom? Is he aware that they exist? I could certainly name plenty of schools in Madison where he could see great things happening. My guess is that if only one in five charter schools is deemed successful, that's a figure public schools, even in cities like Milwaukee or Los Angeles, could match.
Following this theme, anyone with an interest in education should be aware that last week three Madison schools -- Hawthorne Elementary, Sherman Middle and Black Hawk Middle -- were recognized for their outstanding performance by the Department of Public Education. These are schools that David Guggenheim should have known about...high poverty, highly diverse schools where (unionized) teachers are working exceptionally hard to help their students achieve. And guess what? They're succeeding.