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‘Waiting for Superman’ forum elicits diverse reactions, universal concern

Last night, Russell Mosley stepped up to a microphone in the auditorium at Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis and told the audience how the movie “Waiting for Superman” affected him.

“I was upset because I was Anthony,” he said, referring to one of the five kids the film follows.

An African-American fifth-grader attending a terrible school in Washington, D.C., Anthony never knew his mother and lost his father to drugs at an early age. In an effort to ensure his life unfolds differently, his grandmother attempts to win him admission into a public boarding school that sends nine of 10 students to college.

Anthony is one of 61 kids competing for 24 open spots, and the movie, a long-awaited effort by Davis Guggenheim, the documentarian who made “An Inconvenient Truth,” chronicles his family’s efforts to win one of them. The film does a terrific job laying out the crisis in American urban education today, in no small part because we see the ramifications of seemingly arcane policy debates from Anthony’s perspective.

Last night, Mosley did not elaborate about his life, but presumably part of what he meant to communicate is that somewhere along the line he caught a rare break, as — partial spoiler alert — did Anthony. Today, he is chair of the board of Minneapolis College Preparatory, a charter that will open next fall under the joint supervision of Minneapolis Public Schools and Chicago’s Noble Network of schools.

“Most people look at me and they see this polished guy,” Mosley said, breaking up.

Movie follows five students
It was one of a number of emotional moments during a dialogue hosted by AchieveMpls, which has been fielding calls from energized community members since the film opened here a month ago. The first movie acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Superman” follows five kids, four of them poor minorities, in Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Palo Alto, Calif., as their parents try, quite literally via lottery, to win places for them in high-achieving charter schools. 

President and CEO of the nonprofit, which works to support MPS, Pam Costain hoped last night’s event would start a conversation not about the movie’s many controversies, but about how to move forward. And people certainly wanted to talk.

Molsey’s fellow charter board member Rosita Balch stepped to the microphone to say she saw “Superman” nine times.

Following Blach was an AmeriCorps volunteer in a struggling St. Paul high school who identified himself only as Colin. With a staccato delivery he reeled off one systemic absurdity after another, professing to understand none of it. “What does Finland do?” he asked. “They’re smart there.”

While the crowd roared with laughter, Jennifer Godinez, deputy director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, shouted that perhaps Colin should be the state’s next education commissioner.

MPS teacher Barbara Katner said she saw the movie, which lands hard on bad teachers and the unions that protect them, “against my better judgment.” “I’m glad I did,” she told the audience. “I’m worried about how we are going to go forward.

“It is about race, and we are afraid to talk about it,” she continued. “What are we afraid of — success?”

Unions hit hard in film
Possibly the evening’s bravest speaker was Minneapolis Federation of Teachers head Lynn Nordgren, whose angry members leafleted the opening of “Superman.” In the film, teachers’ unions are depicted as rigid monoliths more interested in protecting the incompetent than ensuring that Anthony and his peers are positioned for success.

The characterization isn’t entirely fair to Twin Cities unions. Although there are plenty of contentious issues on the table between Nordgren’s union and MPS — not least of them seniority and tenure reform — the MFT has championed a number of reforms, including district sponsorship of charters.

“When I saw the movie, I was frustrated, I was sad, and a little bit angry,” Nordgren said. “But I’m glad I saw it.

“There are nights that I go to bed crying,” she said. “Most teachers I have seen walk into the classroom, roll up their sleeves, open their hearts and see what they can do.”

Still, more reforms are needed, said MPS parent Lynnell Mickelson, one of the founders of Put Kids First, a local group advocating teachers’ contract reform: “Our schools must be able to hire and retain the best, most engaging teachers they can lay their hands on, without regard to seniority or whether that teacher already works in the district.”

People need to let school board members know that voters will support them for making tough choices, she added.

As the forum drew to a close, AchieveMpls staff made sure audience members went home carrying a list of ways they could get involved, including volunteering with the nonprofit.

“Why are we working so hard to promote ‘Waiting for Superman’ and to bring you all together tonight?” Costain asked. “Because the situation is urgent.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2010 - 11:12 am.

    Wow. Has there ever been another mainstream movie that has so directly effected public policy?

    In my opinion, this completely redeems Davis Guggenheim for redefining the meaning of “An Inconvenient Truth”.

  2. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 10/28/2010 - 11:22 am.

    It is important that we focus on research based changes that help student outcomes. getting rid of bad teachers is certainly important, but they are a tiny slice of the profession. We need to focus on training and supporting the teachers we do have. Half of teachers leave within the first 5 years. This is extremely wasteful. There are proven supports that work to turn around schools, but they require supporting teachers, not tearing them down. A focus on student data, collaborative teachers working together, and more intense teacher training are proven to turn schools around. Encouraging teachers to work in competitive isolation just perpetuates dysfunction.

    For example, Mrs. Mikelson is very well meaning, but the cause she chose to fight has more to do with weakening labor than it does with helping kids. One of the groups she cites is the National Council on Teacher Quality. This rates states based on teacher regulations. The states with the best teacher contracts that are the most anti-union, according to this study, are Florida, Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina.
    These states have the worst education outcomes in the country according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

    The debate should be about what works for kids, not adults battle to destroy labor. Unions right now are leading the way in helping ineffective teachers, and getting rid of them if they don’t improve. Regardless, that is a tiny slice of the pie that won’t give us the biggest bang for the buck. It needs to be addressed, of course, but the focus neds to be supporting teachers.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/28/2010 - 03:08 pm.

    Anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in urban public schools could tell you that the WFS narrative is a gross oversimplification, based on a reading of the facts as selective as the most selective charter school lottery. Here are a few of the important facts the film glosses over or omits:

    – The very existence of the lotteries depicted in the film means that competitive charters screen out poor kids whose parents are too disengaged in their education to apply for said lotteries — kids who are pretty much always the most difficult students to educate and who end up getting dumped on “failing” public schools.

    – Despite this, on average charter schools perform no better statistically than public schools. (The film depicts the outliers on one end of the charter movement and the other end of the public school system.)

    – Teacher’s unions are strong and uncontroversial in school systems such as Finland’s on which the film heaps praise.

    – What those systems have that the US does not is cradle-to-grave social welfare, which improves poor kids’ educational outcomes more than anything a grade-school teacher can do.

    – Social welfare-like services that the public school system doesn’t have the resources to provide are the cornerstone of charter school programs like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which rely heavily on private charitable donations.

    The main problem with the education reform movement in this country is that practically everybody involved at the national policy level went to and has sent their children to elite private prep schools, so they don’t have the first clue about the day-to-day issues facing the public schools they berate.

  4. Submitted by Mary Grace Flannery on 10/28/2010 - 03:41 pm.

    I hope that as Achieve MPLS continues the conversation, it will focus more on the continuing vital need for a public education system that accepts all comers and how it can be strengthened, not destroyed. For some excellent fact checking and a different view of charter schools and the state of public education from that presented by “Waiting for Superman”, try reading Diane Ravitch’s review of the film in the latest New York Review of Books. Ms. Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at NYU, a leading education scholar and expert and an early supporter of school choice and high stakes testing. Her current research, conclusions and recommendations for public schoools in the US are articulated in her latest book; The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Worth a read if this is a serious effort.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/28/2010 - 04:37 pm.

    I will probably not see this film, but all the reports I’ve make it sound like a propaganda tool for the latest “fix” to education, this one pushed by the proponents of those who would replace all regular public schools with public and/or private charters, kill all unions and pay public school teachers starvation wages unless they can miraculously help students of varying abilities become superstar achievers (merit pay), and measure that achievement by test scores.

    We would do MUCH better to study Finland than to follow Arne Duncan, whose success in Chicago was reported as “not so much” after a study paid for by interested members of the business community. The study found, for instance, that some schools whose test scores rose appreciably had merely lowered their standards to assure higher grades.

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 10/28/2010 - 07:52 pm.

    Charter or traditional, the fixes that work are universal. If getting rid of weakening unions was the answer, then Alabama, Texas, and South Carolina would be the answer, but they are the worst in the nation. Changing union contracts won’t cure this problem, even if they need to be tweaked. Minnesota has had 20 years of school choice, and it has increased segregation. We’ve had 20 years of charters, and 2/3 of them fail. Charters definitely have their place, and I am no charter basher, but Charters themselves are not the solution. Support for teacher collaboration, teacher training, and focusing on student data results in a formative way are the solution.

    An endorsement from a guy like Thomas Swift is all one really needs to know to understand this is more a battle of controlling labor than it is about the kids. It should be about the kids, and labor rights and civil rights have always, always gone hand in hand. Battling labor rights in the name of the kids is perverse and wrong.

  7. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/28/2010 - 08:59 pm.

    Here’s a link to the Diane Ravitch article Mary Grace cited above: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/

    Well worth reading.

  8. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/29/2010 - 10:52 pm.

    We could and should be learning from the most effective district and charter public schools. Here’s a link to the Pioneer Press column a Macalester student and I wrote that was published Friday:
    http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_16461612

    Several people above did a nice job of quoting union talking points – including those made by Ravitch who has trouble getting basic facts right – for example – she says the charter idea originally came from Al Shanker – wrong – it wss developed here in Minnesota. Of course not all charters are great – but 15 of the 20 “beating the odds” schools identified in the Star Tribune this summer are charters.

  9. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/02/2010 - 04:15 pm.

    Joe,
    This is not and should not be a charter vs. traditional fight. When you frame it as such, you can be certain that there is more behind the argument than just student needs. Both have there place. When charter’s are used as a cudgel against public schools, you can bet your bottom dollar it is a battle against labor rather than for students.

    Charter or traditional, the research says if you support teacher training, teacher collaboration, and a focus on student data you will improve schools.

    Focus on keeping and improving the thousands of good teachers we do have. We should improve the way we deal with ineffective teachers, but such a deficit focus won’t help the kids. We need to focus on improving.

    We’ve had charters in Minnesota for 20 years. Still a gap. We’ve had school choice for 20 years. Segregation worse than ever. Performance pay is proven ineffective. Charter or traditional, try supporting teachers Joe. It’s proven to work. Just ask Finland.

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