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Movie Review: Waiting for Superman; Are Teachers Unions Education's Big Problem?

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After hearing about it from many sources, including, in my interview with Arianna Huffington, I decided I needed to see Waiting For Superman.

When it comes to movies, I want to entertained. So I tend to resist paying to see documentaries. I'm glad I did go to see this one.

It made me cry... a lot. It is touching, heart wrenching, infuriating. You must see it. then act.

The movie is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.
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The movie tells several stories-- how schools and school districts are destroying people, neighborhoods, even our economy. It walks us through the lives of several parents and their kids who are in schools that have failed, schools that literally hurt children, as John Taylor Gatto, former best teacher in NYC, has said, dumbs them down.

The movie weaves stories of teachers unions with the story of Michelle Rhee's efforts to reform the Washington D.C. failed school system. It reaches its peak message showing real parents and their children waiting, as the balls drop, to see if they make it, by pure chance, into the charter schools that will give the kids an opportunity to break out of the failed school cycle.

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Here's the conversation I had with Arianna Huffington about Waiting for Superman, the day before I went to see it. (The interview focused on her new, excellent book, THIRD WORLD AMERICA; How Our Politicians Are Abandoning The Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream

RK: ... one of the areas that you say is most important is education and you mention the new movie that is just out. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

AH: I write about the release of Waiting for Superman which basically, in a very evocative, powerful way connects us to the crisis in education. We all know that again our public schools are failing our children, that there are many good public schools, but there are also many dysfunctional public schools. We all know that there are many phenomenal teachers, but also there are teachers who cannot teach who nevertheless have tenure and continue to teach children. And you know we have this phenomenon where only 1 in 2500 teachers is ever fired compared to 1 in 37 or 1 in 67 lawyers and doctors so clearly there is something askew here.

We have not again brought that sense of urgency that Geoffrey Canada who is turning lives around in Harlem is bringing into the movie and when you see the lottery that takes place in the movie for children to be able to leave their dysfunctional public schools and go to a decent public charter school nearby, you see that the middle class American dream has beame of chance, literallcome a gy.

RK: You know, it's interesting because just a couple of weeks ago I interviewed John Taylor Gatto who is an award-winning, the best teacher of the year for New York City and then New York State and he wrote a couple of books about how schools dumb us down. You and he describe the same thing, how the history of American education comes from the Prussian educational model, preparing students to be obedient soldiers and compliant citizens and that that's what our schools are still working to do and really what you talk about is how they really have to drastically change and just doing that anymore is just no good for America. So, where should it go?

AH: Well, first of all, we need to acknowledge that right now we cannot possibly continue to fail our children. I mean we need to all agree that what passed as education reform, the Leave No Child Behind Act, was really a sham. It was exactly a bipartisan coming together that did not address the problem and that is what our system is capable of producing, it appears, just bipartisan sham. So now we really need to challenge those who stand in the way. If teachers unions stand in the way because of tenure that needs to be addressed. You know I think the President is doing some really good things here, the Race to the Top is a really good step forward. We see a real tipping point here. The people and parents are organizing, the movie is capturing people's attention and really the movie is incredibly pro-teacher. We need to make that very clear. It just acknowledges that we need to separate the good teachers from those that need to find another different job.

(thanks to Cheryl Biren for transcribing the full interview, which will be published Sunday, October 10, and broadcast on the radio October 13th.)

I walked out, after the film ended, with the impression that teachers unions that put teachers first, not students, are the problem. Their contracts prevent public schools from evaluating teachers, let alone firing them. Those stats Arianna mentions are incre click here dible-- one in 2500 compared to .one in 37 or one in 67 fired.

I posted a brief comment on facebook, saying I liked the movie, and was surprised to see some commenters attack the movie-- saying it's anti-public school, anti-teacher.

I disagree. Here's what I replied:

Anti-public education? I didn't see that. I saw that public education is hamstrung by contracts with unions, so NO form of teacher assessment is allowed. It covered Michelle Rhee's efforts to reform the D.C. school system.

It covered NY City's "rubber room" where bad teachers are sent at full pay, at a cost of $100 million a year, because union contracts don't allow them to be fired.

I left feeling teachers unions conflate student need with teacher job security need. An attack on teachers unions is not an attack on education.

BTW, the link you provide make claims about the movie that are totally untrue, like the movie advocates to put billions into private schools.

I finished watching the movie feeling that public schools need to be rescued from teachers unions, that teachers unions were misguided and one of the prime causes of our educational system problems.

One article attacks the movie as advocating for putting millions into private schools. I don' think it does that. I think it gives us good reasons for pressuring unions to make major changes. Protections for teachers should be tempered with protections for students and accountability for teachers.


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Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project.

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