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‘Waiting for Superman’ leads AchieveMpls to plan a community forum

If the phone calls that AchieveMpls, a nonprofit that works to support Minneapolis Public Schools, has been fielding are any indication, lots of Twin Citians have seen “Waiting for Superman,” left fired about the importance of radical change in our public schools, and yet felt adrift about how to turn their feelings into action. President and CEO Pam Costain wants to do something about that.

On Wednesday, Oct. 27, AchieveMpls will host a community forum at Jefferson Community School from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Details are available here. Half a dozen high-profile education boosters will be in attendance and will make brief opening remarks, but it’s Costain’s hope that the “experts” will serve as conversation starters, not lecturers.

“We don’t know what it’s going to be, exactly — it’s a brave experiment,” she explained. “It’s not even a discussion about ‘Superman,’ it’s about how to move forward.”

For those who haven’t seen it, “Superman” is a much-awaited film by the documentarian who made “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim. Hopes are high it will do for the crisis in American education what the earlier film did in terms of making global warming a household concern.

If the idea of a documentary about education reform sounds dull, know that it’s been playing to capacity crowds — a screening Costain hosted recently attracted 400 hopeful attendees — and that many viewers are so energized that they’re barely able to stay in their seats.

Guggenheim follows five children in struggling urban districts as their parents try to find a decent school for them to attend. The kids’ aspirations and devastatingly adult understandings of the stakes are juxtaposed against the educational trajectories they’re likely to have unless Superman soars onto the scene. At the end, viewers must sit through heartbreaking footage of the charter-school admissions lotteries that are the children’s best hopes.

Of course, “Superman” also is very controversial among many education boosters here who believe it unfairly paints teachers’ unions as rigid, monoliths whose members care more about protecting inept teachers than about kids. Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers even leafleted the film’s Minneapolis opening.

Nonetheless, MFT head Lynn Nordgren was quick to accept Costain’s invitation to speak at next Wednesday’s forum.“She didn’t hesitate,” Costain said. “She said, ‘I hate the movie,’ and she told me why.”

“These conversations can’t be easy for her,” Costain added.

Indeed, as anyone who has seen the film or spent time trying to get a handle on the hydra-headed monster that is the failure of the modern urban public school, they are painful conversations. But Costain is also hopeful that, having stirred passions, Twin Cities educators and the people who love their pupils are ready to stop rehashing what hasn’t worked and start talking about what might.

In addition to Nordgren, the forum will feature Minneapolis Foundation President and CEO Sandy Vargas, Costain, Pastor Andre Dukes of Shiloh Temple, who heads the Northside Achievement Zone, and the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership’s Jennifer Godinez. 

Because it is a brave experiment, AchieveMpls has no idea how many attendees to expect. Anyone who knows they will be there is encouraged to e-mail events@achievempls.org. Costain doesn’t want anyone to worry about going without RSVP’ing, however.

She hopes the audience will fill with people who are similarly committed to children, and with people who, because of the movie or for any other reason, might for the first time be considering that they have a role to play in making things better.

“The situation is urgent,” said Costain. “Children of color can learn, and their families are motivated. It is time to create a movement of support.”

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/22/2010 - 10:59 am.

    I’d encourage everyone with an interest in the very important topic of how to fix the mess in education to not get completely carried away by Superman rhetoric. There is a great review of the film in the New York Review of Books, that I would encourage everyone with an interest in this matter to have a look at.

    Link: http://bit.ly/cbcROZ

    Just one quote to whet your appetite:

    “Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic.”

    In education reform, it seems everyone has an ax to grind. This makes it difficult, sometimes, for parents and average citizens to see through the fog-makers, so the more discussion, the better.

  2. Submitted by Nate Pete on 10/22/2010 - 12:48 pm.

    I would venture to guess that public schools also can and do produce “amazing results” at a one in five ratio.

    Just another promotional video with somebody selling something, in this case charter schools. No need for facts, lets just cherry pick the best of the best and show that.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/22/2010 - 04:09 pm.

    I’d encourage everyone with an interest in the very important topic of how to fix the mess in education to get completely carried away.

    Every year, our public schools fail tens of thousands of kids who are sent out to the world to live the miserable life of functional illiteracy. And every year, defenders of the status quo tell us “don’t get too excited…next year is going to be different”.


    I don’t think anyone has the answers neatly packaged and ready to serve, but if people of good will work together and ignore the white noise of the DOTSQ we may finally start to make some positive headway.

  4. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/23/2010 - 07:03 am.

    Surprising words out of you, Tom.

    “work together”

    Let’s have a little chat about unions, shall we Tom?

    Do you think that you can work together with them?

    I’ve mentioned the situation in Finland to you elsewhere. Can we learn anything from that? Does this unionized solution work? Shouldn’t we try it if your only real concern is “for the children”?

    Of course that ISN’T your only concern here, is it?

    When I said earlier was: “I’d encourage everyone with an interest in the very important topic of how to fix the mess in education to not get completely carried away by Superman rhetoric.”

    This did not mean arguing for the status quo. We actually know how to fix many of the problems at hand, but it will take less rhetoric, more action, and more resources.

    Trying, yet again, to politicize this situation is not going to help.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/23/2010 - 06:14 pm.

    Bill, you’re willfully ignoring the vast differences between Finland, it’s socio-economic, cultural and political history and ours.

    Yeah, sorry, I noticed.

    When the NEA re-invents itself as a guardian of professional standards for the teaching profession, ala the AMA, IEEE, and the ABA we’ll talk.

    As long as it remains in the hands of socialist widget drillers, t committed to retaining political, financial power and control of the school system, there is no place to start any menaingful discussion.

    You say the schools need “more resources”?

    Yeah, well I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked every other union supporter over the years; how much is enough?

    How much money will it take to guarantee the academic success of the schools to graduate +90% of students, Bill?

    $5 mil a year? $10? $100? A billion?

    I’ve never had anyone with enough integrity to give me the only answer a unionist knows: “Just More”.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/24/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    Weak, Tom. Really weak.

    You’ve just proven my point. Your anti-union stance gives the lie to your claim that you have any interest in “working together.”

    Hogwash? Once again we see that you are only interested in working together with other people when they share your point of view on, say for example, unions.

    How much is too much? I can tell you one thing, it is not less, which is effectively what politicians and people of your stripe have been trying to sell now for too long. People are getting tired of the Pawlenty/Emmer/Swift line of cutting our way to prosperity and better education.

    “People of goodwill?”

    Hogwash, Tom.

  7. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 10/26/2010 - 11:00 am.

    Anybody notice how quickly the discussion about doing what’s best for kids got lost?

    Thank you AchieveMpls for hosting the discussion.

    Can we all agree:

    every kid needs to be prepared for some level of higher education so they have the knowledge and skills needed for self-sufficiency; and

    the current system isn’t meeting this expectation?

    If we can agree on this, perhaps we can take a fresh look at what public education should look like.

  8. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/26/2010 - 06:44 pm.

    I don’t think what you say is in dispute, Tim. But I am not sure that a fresh look is needed either. We already have a pretty good idea of what works. I mentioned the situation in Finland and this idea was blown off by certain parties because the system is unionized.

    Certainly our schools are NOT going to be improved by effectively cutting the amount of money they are getting now as one of the gubernatorial candidates has proposed.

    There is an old saying about playing with the cards you’ve been dealt that should be kept in mind. Instead of trying to destroy unions, perhaps people should think about how to work with them to improve things.

    Let’s face it. There is no magic bullet and believing that somehow a fresh look is going to solve our problems will devolve again into navel-gazing.

    We need responsible teachers. We need responsible students and parents. We need principals who have themselves been master-teachers and are not simply holders of a doctorate in higher ed or re-treaded business people.

    Once again, I highly recommend the work of Diane Ravitch who has a very good record in the field of education – and has a seminal and hard-nosed book about this situation that is well worth reading:

    Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

    Amazon link: http://amzn.to/9V4kjs

    There are 96 reviews of the book at this time and 72 are five star.

  9. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 10/28/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    Bill: You’re right, there are no magic bullets.

    That said, there is enough evidence supporting key elements of what needs to happen in schools for all kids to be successfull.

    1) A strong school leader; 2) an effective and relatively stable teaching core in the school; 3) the expectation that all kids can meet/exceed standards; 4) regular assessment of student progress and modified instruction, as needed; and 5) building relationships with families.

    Are unions necessarily a problem – no. Is more money necessarily the solution – no.

    Given some of our student results, we should be way past navel-gazing, or thinking just a little system-change will make the difference.

    If we can create the conditions that allow the five points listed above to occur in every school, we’ll begin to make real progress in helping all students succeed.

    Unfortunately, for the few schools that are able to succeed, they have to “fly under the radar” to make it work.

    Our “system” should encourage these developments – not stifle them.

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