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Education in U.S. gets big screen close up

The Associated Press, Thursday, September 23, 2010, 11:39pm (PDT)

The troubles of the U.S. education system are getting a big screen close-up.

There are no fewer than four education documentaries slated for release by the end of this year, including "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a poignant look at the lives of five children hoping to escape the dismal outcome of students at neighborhood public schools by winning entrance to a successful charter.

The film by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth," has already created a stir in education circles and opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday.

Those in the education community hope the films will do for education what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for the environmental movement by putting a much-needed spotlight on the failures of schools in America.

"In the education reform world, for the last 15 years, people have been saying, 'We need a movie, like a big movie, to come along and tell people what is really going on," said Joe Williams, the president of Democrats for Education Reform. "Now in one year we've got more than we can handle."

Also on the list for red carpet treatment: "Race to Nowhere," created by a mother-turned activist upset at a high-stakes test culture in public education; "The Lottery," which profiles four Harlem children hoping to win a slot at a charter school; and "Lunch Line," a look at the history of school lunch.

Critics say the films, in particular "Waiting for 'Superman'" and "The Lottery," provide an overly simplified viewpoint that hold charter schools up as a universal solution and paint teachers and unions as enemies to change.

"I'm afraid our members will think they're demonizing us," said John Wilson, executive director of the 3.2 million member National Education Association. "They're judging us by the worst of us, instead of the best of us. For our members, it's not going to be that uplifting."

But education reformers — and filmmakers like Guggenheim and Vicki Abeles from "Race to Nowhere" — say the unions have had years to improve education with little success as test scores lag nationally and high school dropout rates dominate.

"Educators know this isn't working for the kids and they don't feel empowered to make a difference. The film is doing a tremendous job of empowering people," said Abeles, who lives in Lafayette, Calif.

Her documentary focuses on the health problems school children have because of stress at school — from stomach aches to depression to drug abuse. Abeles decided to make the film after she saw her own three children suffer physically as they plowed through four or five hours of homework each night after coming home from soccer practice or play rehearsal.

She advocates for parents and schools to reduce how much homework children are given and to help kids focus on being children rather than little adults with resumes.

"Everyone expects us to be superheroes," one student says in the film.

National experts say the films are symptomatic of a culture where young professionals who worked for Teach For America or other organizations that place newly minted college graduates in inner-city schools are having their own children. They see the disparities between what their kids have and what they saw when they were teaching.

"I think a lot of really bright, smart, creative people have gotten involved in the problems of urban education and they are willing to take a fresh look at how to solve the problems," said Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of Columbia University's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. "I think that's really the heart of it."

"Waiting for 'Superman'" opens with Guggenheim reflecting on his decision to send his children to a private school in Los Angeles. As they drive to class each day, the family passes by three public schools. Parents believe in the idea that every child should get a great education, Guggenheim says.

"And then when it comes time to choose a school, your priorities shift," Guggenheim said at a recent screening at the Toronto Film Festival. "You go to this place of, I will do anything for my kid, and you don't care what it is."

The film follows Daisy, a driven Los Angeles fifth-grader who dreams of becoming a doctor or a nurse; Anthony, of Washington, D.C., who wants to study and escape the path that led his father to a fatal drug addiction; Bianca and Francisco, both from struggling New York City neighborhoods but who have determined, relentless parents; and Emily, a middle-school student from Silicon Valley who worries about getting into college.

Each places their future in the hope they'll get into a high-performing charter school, which have public funding but their own set of rules. High demand means there isn't a seat for everyone. Students are picked in a lottery.

Teacher unions, painted as being a roadblock to reform, say the film does a disservice by focusing only on charters, when public schools are the only institution that can guarantee every child a quality education.

"My challenge to the David Guggenheims of the world is, 'Come back to public schools and bring your support and enthusiasm and resources to make those schools work," Wilson said.

Guggenheim said he is not blaming unions for all the ills of public education. He said the film also points a finger at politicians, school bureaucrats and others.

"The union piece probably screams the loudest, but I'm tough on all the adults starting with myself," he said.

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AP Movie Writer David Germain and writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.

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