Went with Aracely (WritersCorps teaching artist), Annie (amazing artist and long-time WritersCorps student), and my 20-year old nephew, Gus. We spent an hour or so talking (some of us ranting) after watching the movie. Here's some of what we said:
Yep, Guggenheim knows how to make a movie;
The children who provide the basic story line of the movie are wonderful, as are their parents;
The movie is already getting such a conversation going and that’s a good thing. And also a dangerous thing because Guggenheim misrepresents so much;
He does say that only 20% of charter schools get better results than public schools (“better results” means test scores), but that line is in passing while the story arc of the movie (as Gail Collins put it in her piece in NY Times) makes charter schools seem like the answer to the problem;
The movie basically says money isn’t the problem, but doesn’t mention the huge amount of money the charter schools he features have been given (by Gates, Broad, etc etc);
The movie talks a lot about the negative consequences of public schools as large bureaucracies beholden -- as institutions in a democracy are -- to diverse participants, but doesn’t raise any negative consequences of the “corporate” approach of many charter schools and being beholden to funder, etc;
Doesn’t show kids whose parents can’t or don’t advocate for them, immigrant parents who don't speak English, parents working three jobs, etc. Uses language of equity, but doesn’t exhibit awareness of what equity means in any real, on-the-ground sense;
Nothing at all about the value of public institutions in a democracy, or about why due process might be important and why we might not want teachers' jobs not to be at whim of each random supervisor or group of politicians or parents or anyone with a particular axe to grind. Nothing about what negative consequences of attaching teacher pay to student test scores might be;
Geoffrey Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are featured prominently, but there’s very little description of the entire program, only the school. The entire program of course began by saturating one square block with every single service residents needed, then moving out and out and out until a larger part of the community was covered. Mentioned but in such a way as if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t get it that even their middle school is one education venue in a whole line, beginning with Baby College for pregnant women and their partners. What HCZ is doing is way beyond the school. As many are saying about this: "Well, at least we now know what real change costs!"
Every time Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is on screen she's accompanied by devil dramatic music playing. The music alone makes her come across as a monster;
Unions are definitely the Bad Guy in the movie, but there's no mention for example, that in the states where students have highest test scores, the teachers' unions are strong, as they are in the countries lauded as successful (Finland, Japan);
Basically no teachers speak in the movie, give their sense of the problems and what they’ve seen work in their classrooms, schools, and communities;
Michelle Rhee is presented as a hero and there’s nothing in the movie about her actions that led to Fenty being voted out (which of course happened after the movie). Nothing about how, as DC has gentrified, the children taking tests there are not the same children who took them a few years ago;
We talked of those we know teaching in charter schools who tell us about the high percentage of children "counseled out." The movie said nothing about this;
The movie states that things have gotten worse in schools in the past decade, but doesn't make the connection that these are the years No Child Left Behind -- and emphasis on test scores -- has reigned;
The movie uses words like “working” or “success” without definition. Seems like the measure is improved test scores. There were many things our group discussed about this — including:
The audience reacts so warmly to the children whose stories are being told because these children are bright, curious, articulate, adorable, etc NOT because they answer questions right or do anything related to testing. We love them because of their natures and how they express themselves.
When asked why they want to get into the “better” school they’re entering the lotteries for, these children speak of having a better life, getting out of their neighborhoods. Their comments recognize that the problems are shared ones — economic, social — and because those problems aren’t being addressed, they want a way out.
One of the boys, when asked how he feels about the boarding school charter school his grandma is trying to get him into, says his feelings are “bittersweet.” He wants to have the best chance for himself, but he doesn’t want to leave his family and friends.
In her op/ed piece linked to above, Gail Collins writes that her own narrow wrath arose at the lottery system shown — how it’s made a piece of performance art and how children are made to feel that this one moment will make or break them. Of course the quality of school one attends is major, but our little group talked about how we want children to feel confident in making the best of even bad outcomes.
We spoke about the movie’s assumptions (as Obama and Duncan also say) that the point of education is future jobs so that the USA can remain #1. We wondered if we really want our children to give up childhood (play, individual exploration, unstructured time to be curious, etc) for capitalist intentions.