I left the movie feeling very sad. Perhaps it was an effective play on my emotions, but I was just floored by how schooling isn't fair-- a prospect this documentary thrusts into the spotlight as it wedges its way into the never-ending discussion on school reform. Prior to heading out to see it this evening, I had read the reaction from People for Education, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (or its former dean, anyway) and others as covered (mostly) by the Toronto Star.
Being of a certain mind, I wanted to go see the movie for myself rather than rely on the different voices that had spoken out about the movie, such as the groups above (PFE has a 'Superman' page, the Society for Quality Education has also entered the fray).
The documentary does an effective job of painting (admittedly with some broad strokes) the challenges facing the American system of public schools. Despite some of its most pointed criticism, I didn`t walk away from the film with a distaste for teachers`unions (no more than I may already have, anyway) and didn`t feel it was really that harsh towards them. It was equally harsh to the bureaucratic status quo (schools upon districts upon states upon federal) as it was about teacher tenure and a laughable teacher evaluation.
I cringed at the denouement (spoiler alert), watching Bianca as she and her mom missed out on the Harlem School lottery. In 20 seconds, that six-year-old child`s face showed her reaction and acceptance that she`d lost her last shot at having a better life than her mother. The last frames of this child show only acceptance that she, at that age, already knows she won`t get a competent education and ultimately do better. The producers are hoping that sense of hopelessness inspires change, but with battle lines so entrenched I cannot say they might be successful. This debate in the U.S., and to some extents here in Canada, has moved beyond a reasoned conversation and become a shouting match.
That any child, particularly one at that age, should have to realize they are done, educationally, is sad, no matter where it happens. I`m not that naive to think children and families don`t reach the same horrid conclusion on this side of the border, but I`d like to think it happens far less often.
Having said all that, I don`t think this is a carte-blanche endorsement of the charter-school movement. Though I have not delved into the mounds of research that are likely available, my fundamental problem with charter schools is the significant barriers to entry. I have also seen precious little attempts at taking the things that are working in the best charter schools (in and of themselves a minority of all charters) and doing system-wide reform. I have seen how some of the things Ontario has chosen to adopt from the reform movement (ex: teacher advisers / student success teachers) have been implemented system-wide. The untold story of the ministry Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat has had a more positive than negative influence on changing how core subjects are being taught in our schools.
I would agree with the film more than Annie Kidder on the role schools play in society for the underprivileged and improverished. The film stance is that bad schools contribute and are perhaps a foundational reason for why we fail those who are at the bottom in our world. Kidder says:
The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families.She goes onto say strong teachers, strong schools are an essential part of that, but it leaves me straining for that vision of the integrated approach that I know Kidder supports because she has spoken about it in the past. I think the reality may be it is easier to move towards that starting with schools. Improve them and then the rest of the supports will follow or, at least, find an amenable home as they are being implemented.
It also gave me another opportunity to note the disparity between K-12 reporting in this country and that in the U.S. The Education Writers Association has a treasure trove of resources for journalists on this movie and the issues it delves into (*sigh*). I only wish we had any Canadian equivalent for any journalists up here who might have wanted to tackle this.
Lastly, if you have any interest in K-12 education, go see this documentary. Watch, ingest, digest, react. We may not agree this Superman solution is the answer, but we need to be having this conversation.