Last weekend a friend invited over a small crowd to have dinner and watch the movie. Watching it with others and with wine was good.
My overall response to the movie is that it is propaganda. Maybe that is always true of documentaries, I haven't watched too many of them. The music used, the slow motion as parent and child walked to school, the images of the Capitol and sounds of the Pledge of Allegiance all work to create a certain feel. A clip from School of Rock was shown at one point to illustrate bad teaching. (Really? A movie?) The entire film builds around the suspense of several students attempting to get into charter schools. It is a well-made film. I understand why so many people were persuaded by it.
Just in case it isn't clear, I think we have significant problems in our urban schools. That may be the only thing I agreed with in this film.
Now to my concerns:
- There was lots of talk about how our country is falling behind the rest of the world. Actually, we've never been ahead in test scores. We've always fallen somewhere in the middle. It doesn't seem to have slowed us down very much.
- Lots of statistics were used without any information - where are those stats from? what tests are being discussed?
- Good schools, effective teachers, positive results - all terms used frequently without any explanation as to how they are defined. (I'm guessing I define positive results differently than Davis Guggenheim does.)
- Bill Gates arguing that innovation requires well educated citizens - I might be more interested in his thoughts on this if he hadn't dropped out of college - he seems to have succeeded just fine.
- Quote from the voice over: "This is the damage this school has done to this neighborhood." discussing an inner city area. I find it hard to imagine anyone really believes the school has caused all the problems the neighborhood faces.
Another huge issue for me was the idea that there are so many bad teachers. At one point a statistic was thrown out about the percentage of teachers, doctors, and lawyers who lose their license (credentials, board certification, whatever) and the percentage of teachers was significantly smaller than that of doctors or lawyers. However, a significant number of teachers leave the profession in the first three to five years and that information was never addressed. I believe that many teachers who should be removed from the classroom, remove themselves early on. I would guess that is not so true for doctors or lawyers. Related to this I was very frustrated by the continuing suggestion that tenure means a job for life. That is completely untrue in K-12 education. Removing a teacher requires a process and it takes time, but it is far from impossible. If we want to blame anyone for this we should put that blame on principals who might prefer to move teachers around (The Lemon Dance as it was called in the film) rather than take the time to remove them. Finally, if we got rid of all these 'bad' teachers, who would replace them?
In light of all that is happening across the country with teachers' unions (and other public sector jobs) I found it frustrating that unions were somewhat demonized in this film. People they interviewed seemed to accept that they would have to deal with bureaucracy to do what they wanted to do, but were unwilling to deal with unions. Why is bureaucracy better than unions?
Final thought, a quote near the end asked, "What happens when a school fails a kid?" I believe we ought to be asking what happens when society fails a kid. The issues are larger than 180 days, six and a half hours each day.
I took five pages of notes as we watched the movie. There is so much more I could say, but this feels like it covers my major concerns. You're welcome.