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New Documentary Casts Critical Light On Education, Creating Buzz In State

Tells Of Families Trying To Help Their Kids Avoid Underperforming Schools

Grace E. Merritt

October 06, 2010

A new documentary on the state of public education in America will open in Hartford and New Haven next week and is already creating a buzz in the state, which has the largest academic achievement gap in the nation.

"Waiting for Superman," by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," the influential documentary on global warming, tells the stories of five students and their families' efforts to get them into charter schools and escape underperforming neighborhood schools in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

"I'm very glad that it's starting the conversation," said Alex Johnston, CEO of ConnCAN, a school reform advocacy group and proponent of charter schools. "It tells a story that everyone can understand about why we face a crisis in education in America and why we need reform."

The film, which is generating comment nationally on Twitter, TV and blogs, will open in Connecticut at the Bowtie Palace and Bowtie Criterion theaters in Hartford and New Haven on Oct. 15. The movie's director, Davis Guggenheim, will be in Hartford Nov. 11 as a panelist at the Connecticut Forum for a live discussion titled, "Our Great Education Challenge."

The five children in the film see charter schools as a way to get a decent education and their hopes hinge on whether they win a lottery to get into one.

The movie portrays the public education system as hindering, rather than encouraging, academic achievement and portrays teacher unions as the villains. It champions charter schools, publicly funded schools run by a private board.

The movie's limited release in late September coincided with NBC's Education Nation summit featuring President Barack Obama, a charter school proponent who released millions in federal grants for charter and magnet schools across the country last week. Johnston pointed out that the movie's release also comes weeks before the November election.

"We are in the midst of a time of real opportunity in Connecticut, with a new governor coming in, and we have an opportunity to make a change," Johnston said. "School districts are embarking on their own reforms. Nobody needs to have this conversation more than we do in Connecticut with [the] largest achievement gap."

He was referring to the startling contrast in Connecticut schools, where low-income fourth- and eighth-graders lag an average of three grade levels behind their peers in math and reading. Forty percent of the state's low-income students drop out of high school each year, which economists warn will have a devastating effect on the state's economy.

But the state is beginning to participate in the school reform movement sweeping the nation. Spurred by Obama's Race to the Top competition, which promotes charter schools and linking teacher evaluation to performance, Connecticut's legislature passed a package of school reforms in May. Among other measures, the new laws will strengthen high school curriculums, require schools to offer advanced placement classes and encourage parents to join school governing councils.

Meanwhile, two committees have been examining how to close the achievement gap and improve graduation rates and another is examining how the state pays for public education, including charters and magnets.

Connecticut educators agree that the documentary is timely and opens the issue for conversation, but worry that it oversimplifies the complex nature of public education and could polarize that conversation.

"I just hope this thing doesn't come out as a one-sided solution to the extraordinarily complex problem of dealing with public schools that are asked to do extraordinary things to address poverty in this country," state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said.

"Let's look at the facts and the data," he said. "There is a need to reform our public schools and [a] need to address the achievement gap. We have got to fundamentally reform our schools if we are to become competitive in this state and nation."

Kathy Frega, spokesman for the Connecticut Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, said she hopes "Waiting for Superman" will reveal the difficult circumstances urban teachers work under to improve the lives of thousands of students.

"With the conversation that the film will likely spark, our hope is that greater numbers of citizens will join teachers in advocating for much-needed resources for urban schools," Frega said.

Kevin Basmadjian, assistant professor of education at Quinnipiac University, predicted that Connecticut teachers may feel threatened by the documentary.

"Anywhere there is a strong union perspective, like Connecticut, I think there is going to be a little bit of discontent with the perspective of the film, which says teachers need to be a little more accountable. This film takes a more aggressive look at teachers' role in school failure," Basmadjian said.

The film also suggests that charter schools hold promise as an answer to the education system's programs, although various studies have yielded conflicting results on their effectiveness.

Connecticut's 18 charter schools have had mixed results on test scores so far, with some faring slightly better or the same as public schools on the state mastery test, but all performing below the state average on the SAT.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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