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, already has created a stir in education circles and opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
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, president of Democrats for Education Reform. Now in one year weve 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.
Im afraid our members will think theyre demonizing us, said John Wilson, executive director of the 3.2 million member National Education Association. Theyre judging us by the worst of us, instead of the best of us. For our members, its 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 isnt working for the kids, and they dont 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 résumés.
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 Universitys Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. I think thats 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 dont 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 theyll get into a high-performing charter school, which have public funding but their own set of rules. High demand means there isnt a seat for everyone. Students are picked in a lottery.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who is portrayed as part of the problem in Waiting for Superman, said the documentaries play loose and free with the facts about the performance of charter schools as a whole. She said the films vilify unions and teachers while not celebrating what is right in public education.
Any time that public education is spoken about and the urgency of helping all kids is portrayed and depicted, thats a good thing, Weingarten said. I welcome using these films as a platform to talk about the challenges. I am concerned that the heroic work being done by 3 million public school teachers is not being recognized and the challenges they go through are not being recognized.
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 Im tough on all the adults starting with myself, he said.