To close or not to close

This fall, as the pace of education”reform” in New York cranked up, I started to pay more attention to what was going on. With two children in my local public school, I quickly realized that the more I looked, the less I liked what I saw. I began to write about the subject to try to get my head around it, and eventually started to shoot video for a possible film about education.

We often get involved with documentary projects when we find that the information that we are getting from the media doesn’t match up with our own experiences. In the last year, with a powerful push from “Waiting For Superman”, there has been a loud drumbeat of “reform” in the mainstream press. I like reform as much as the next guy, but I was seeing, and hearing a lot about negative effects of the policies that were being enacted.

“Superman” illustrated that charter schools are wanted and desired, but severely glosses over the fact that only 15% of charter schools “perform” better than public schools. This figure also doesn’t reflect the fact that the charters that tend to show fantastic results also have much greater resources and the ability to “counsel out” less desirable students. It’s a compelling, professionally made doc, but I was more impressed by Diane Ravitch’s takedown of it than I was of the film.

As we conceptualize what a film about schools might look like I have also begun to shoot some video. These recent clips- and the following thoughts- are serving as part of my brainstorming process as I being to imagine how to put together a film on the subject.

I have to admit that when I went to see Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, in conversation with Malcolm Gladwell at the NYPL last week, I was a bit skeptical. My own experience with the “reform” of public schools in NY has not been positive. Ms. Kopp is a seductive and thoughtful speaker though, and I was soon listening with a more open mind. She was introduced by Sam Cullman, who runs the The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers at the NYPL. He had high praise for great teachers and unveiled scorn for ones that were not so great. He lauded Ms. Kopp for bringing the best and brightest to the teaching profession. What’s not to like about raising millions of dollars in order to bring “the best and the brightest” to struggling schools? According to many advocates for teachers, there’s a lot to not like.

At the beginning of their discussion Gladwell joked that he wouldn’t be able to ask any hard questions but that he would try to, by channeling the thoughtful organizer of the events, Paul Holdengrabber who likes to lob challenging questions with a wily smile and a pause.

As the leader of an exponentially growing organization that recently raised $100 million dollars of financing, Kopp was very careful with her words. About halfway through the discussion the subject of schools in New Orleans came up. She glowed with enthusiasm about how the charter movement had created incredible gains in learning there. She talked about how the decimation of the schools by Katrina had created the opportunity for bold systemic change and how that change is a possible model for reforming other urban school districts. As you can see in the following clip Gladwell took great pleasure in discussing the idea of “blowing up the whole system”.

If there was anyone in this room crowded full of the best and the brightest, the intellectuals, and students, who didn’t think this was a good idea, they didn’t make themselves known. Not present was a parent from New Orleans, Karran Harper Royal, that I saw speak the night before. She was speaking at the launch of an organization called Parents Across America. The group was formed in response to a growing sense that none of the people interested in “reform” were listening to, or giving a voice, to parents.

A few days earlier I had filmed at a meeting where 22 schools were slated to be closed across all five boroughs. Thousands of parents and teachers came to speak on behalf of their schools, and every elected official who spoke urged, even demanded, that the schools be given more resources and not closed. One would think that if closing schools was good for communities then the elected officials would support the policy. In fact, there was not one local elected official representing the districts where schools would be closed who supported this idea. The parents fighting the closings knew that they would not be listened to, and after the first of nearly 400 scheduled speakers almost everyone in the room walked out. Those that remained spoke in support of the closings because the charter schools that they were involved with would be given extra space in the abandoned buildings.

A couple of weeks earlier I had attended a public hearing regarding one of my local schools. A few days before I had written about how the current department of education policies in New York City seem to be increasing division. A local politician echoed these sentiments during her comments.

While I understand that these are complex issues, it seems that when we take firm stances in one direction or another without listening to each other, we get very little positive movement. As we continue to think about what a documentary about School Reform in 2011 might look like we are trying to take all the voices into consideration

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