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Kwon & Juan Review: Part 1 – Waiting For Superman

Team K&J, being entirely impressive and possessing mind-boggling endurance (or just being big time movie geeks), went for a two-fer this past weekend, taking in the Davis Guggenheim-helmed Waiting For Superman, a documentary that tackles our broken education systemand the Johnny Knoxville-led injury-filled romp, Jackass: 3D. Enjoy our chat-like reviews in two parts!

Kwon: So we double-featured our faces off this week.

Juan: We did and it was good. I found out you hate popcorn eaters and I am a popcorn eater. Thank goodness I ate before hand.

Kwon: I DID, however, consume the most unnecessarily large container of french fries out of desperate hunger, so I would have made an exception for you.

Let’s begin with…

PLOT:

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems. [Sundance Film Festival]


Juan: The story is a character driven tale of a few students moving through our education system with running commentary from some of the great educators and entrepreneurs working today.

Kwon: Wow, this film ripped my heart out. There are so many revelatory aspects to this issue and there’s SO MUCH people don’t know about the process. Public education is legitimately terrifying. What did you think?

Juan: I completely agree. I was totally engrossed in the lives of these kids who are living our broken education system. It was at once hopeful, terrifying, and incredibly endearing. While the film had some story problems, glossed over a few major issues, and used the old 1960’s movie clip to tie everything together crutch; it was also completely relevant, a true indictment of education, and has brought a great amount of awareness to the major issue.

Kwon: Yes. Essay-based documentaries have become the standard in the age of Michael Moore. But I really appreciate that this film was much more focused on the people and less on ‘creating’ the narrative. Their stories really speak for themselves.

Juan: Actually that’s a great note I’ve been hearing a lot from documentary film lovers. We’re forcing stories into documentaries to make them more entertaining, and we’re losing focus on the reason we’re making them. Case in point: the amazing Oscar winner last year “the Cove” that resembles a heist movie to perfection. Which is not to say the right movie doesn’t deserve both, but you’re totally right. We’re not force feeding anyone here, and to that end it serves the the film’s motive. Hats off, Jiun, hats off.

‘CHARACTERS’ OF NOTE:

Geoffrey Canada (born January 13, 1952) is a American social activist and educator. Since 1990, Canada has been president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York, an organization whose goal is to increase high school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem.




Michelle A. Rhee (born December 25, 1969) is the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C. in the United States.





Randi Weingarten (born December 18, 1957)[1] is an American labor leader, attorney, and educator, is the current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a member of the AFL-CIO, and former president the United Federation of Teachers. New York magazine called her one of the most influential people in education in New York state.




William Henry “Bill” Gates III is an American business magnate, philanthropist, author and chairman[3] of Microsoft, the software company he founded with Paul Allen.







Kwon: So Randi does not come off well, and by extension, neither does the teachers’ union, which is shown to provide endless and excessive cover for inadequate, uninspiring teachers who have exactly zero interest in shaping minds or even earning their money. That section in the film is accompanied by some horrifying hidden camera footage of teachers kicking back at their desks while students PLAY CRAPS IN CLASS. It’s pretty unconscionable. We can’t really speak to intentions, but if the film is any indication, the function of the union has little to do with serving the greater good… or any kind of good at all.

Geoffrey is presented as a teacher for the new age, a progressive educator with energy and gusto. The kind of teacher you normally only see in movies. The one thing that struck me was his admission that it takes every teacher a few years just to be decent. It took him 5 years to become good. Lesson: Teaching is an actual job.

Juan: Michelle Rhee in my eyes is a real show stealer because she is such a controversial figure in the world of education. She made a decision to go against teacher’s unions, and is pitted against Randi in many respects in an attempt to break some of the oldest tenets held by teachers. More specifically, tenure.

Kwon: I agree. That’s a terrifying job, that I would never want. And I really get the sense that she’s trying to do the right thing, which in this case, is most definitely not the popular thing.

Juan: Finally, Bill Gates is essentially in the picture to give a broad view of what happens to students in the job market when the system has failed them. He does a great job of discussing the largest issue facing America today, and that is loss of jobs to better educated work forces overseas.

Kwon: Yeah, Bill’s the man.

Juan: The movie was directed by a pretty great director, who made watching a slideshow into a feature film (An Inconvenient Truth), which was pretty impressive and incredibly entertaining.

Kwon: Fact. Yes.

Juan: The introduction to the film is absolutely gorgeous. Well shot and thorough. It’s strange because while it has more of a narrative I didn’t feel like I really got to know any of the children that well. They were archetypal in man respects, and I think I liked it that way. It made more of an overarching statement about all kids.

Kwon: I agree. They are merely a handful of examples, representing a much bigger collective in America. And one of the things I found myself doing is figuring out which situation best represented my high school. I think my school was most like Emily, the girl in the suburbs whose public high school gets wonderful marks… but really only if you’re tracked at a certain level. I was fortunate enough to benefit from this tracking system… but I would imagine my life would be notably different, had I been placed in a lower tier.

Juan: I had a public school upbringing too. I hit up the magnet school in poorer locations though. I lived in Washington DC which was in one of the better areas for education.

I am a little torn because I think this film sort of tows the party line. As in Obama’s party line about charter schools being the miracle solver. That’s not to say they aren’t great. It just seems like as a populace we tend to embrace one solution, and then run after it haphazardly. It’s part of what I feel makes it so hard to evoke real change in our country because we’re always after these ‘cure-alls.’ While I understand that the concept is teachers are the problem. I was really affected by the examples that were being touted.

Kwon: Yeah. One thing I foresee is people walking away with that misguided blanket assumption. The real issue is that we need better teachers, qualified teachers, and we need to PAY them.

Juan: I think the idea of awarding good teachers more money is a good idea. Making sure that a good teacher continues to be good is also something important to keep in mind. Tenure is a scary crutch that I didn’t realize was controlled by a teacher’s association.

Kwon: What really blows my mind about the curse of tenure is the way the school systems are forced to deal with “underperforming” teachers.. namely, the lemon dance.

Juan: Yes! please explain.

Kwon: Every year, schools trade off their bad teachers to each other, in the hopes that somehow those teachers will be less awful in a new environment. Teachers that ‘dance’ out of this ridiculous process end up in some sort of holding pen, where they are PAID to sit in a room and do crossword puzzles while the system tries to figure out what to do with them. They are paid to be shitty employees. It’s the definition of lunacy. In what other profession would this be okay?

Juan: I just can’t believe that every county has this same policy. And wasn’t it sort of insane that the head of the teacher’s association (Randi) resembled the devil?

Kwon: Seriously, she makes them all look insane.

Juan: I mean what age are we living in that the person at the head of a teacher’s association takes the pulpit like she’s a reverend bestowing the holy eucharist. Do you have any idea what the education world thinks of this movie? Have they taken this lady out of power yet? Is she in the middle of a lemon dance to middle management or the clergy?

Kwon: OMG, she’s totally lemon-dancing!

Juan: Note, a comment from Rick Ayers at University of San Francisco:

“The film dismisses with a side comment the inconvenient truth that our schools are criminally underfunded. Money’s not the answer, it glibly declares. Nor does it suggest that students would have better outcomes if their communities had jobs, health care, decent housing, and a living wage. Particularly dishonest is the fact that Guggenheim never mentions the tens of millions of dollars of private money that has poured into the Harlem Children’s Zone, the model and superman we are relentlessly instructed to aspire to.”

In Ayers’ view, the “corporate powerhouses and the ideological opponents of all things public” have employed the film to “break the teacher’s unions and to privatize education”, while driving teachers wages even lower and running “schools like little corporations.”[22] Ayers also critiqued the film’s promotion of a greater focus on “top-down instruction driven by test scores”, positing that extensive research has demonstrated that standardized testing “dumbs down the curriculum” and “reproduces inequities”, while marginalizing “English language learners and those who do not grow up speaking a middle class vernacular.

Kwon: I get that schools are underfunded, but it is also true that there are bad teachers who refuse to teach and they are still employed. And the film doesn’t delve as deeply into certain specifics, but what I take away from it is that it’s clearly not working the way it is now.

Juan: Sure – I mean in a feature there really isn’t too much time to do much on giant subjects other than gloss over the major speed bumps and impediments that are making it harder to get to what we want.

Kwon: I was speaking to a friend of mine who has actually just opened a charter school in the city and we were discussing statistics. The achievement gap between a child from a low income neighborhood and a child from an affluent community is so wide, it’s unbelievable. And apparently, by the age of 3, a child from a family of means knows 30 MILLION more words than a child from a low-income household.

Juan: 30 Million?

Kwon: Isn’t that insane?

Juan: It’s sad and scary to think that we create these structured environments where it’s nearly inevitable for people to be stuck in the place they are in. Worse still is that we don’t live in a time where we can deal with it. The stats about job placement going overseas and most countries being much smarter than ours was unbelievable. We literally aren’t creating a work force for our industries, and so they have to recruit overseas.

Kwon: But we still rank #1 in confidence…

Juan: Yes – we’re #1 – an amazing short lived segment. I’m waiting for the 3 1/2 hour version of this film. Seriously there better be some massive scene extensions.

Kwon: There HAS to be. I can’t imagine Guggenheim hearing that and NOT responding with a forceful “WTF?”

Juan: I think what the film did an insanely good job of was showing how aware the children were of the stakes. They saw their parents afraid for their lives, and knew that something horrible would happen to them if they didn’t magically get picked. For everything that this film didn’t do I have to give it major high fives for their depiction of the silly system in place for choosing kids to get into “good” schools. Random selection is such an arbitrary mechanism to decide on the fate of children. And the most important lesson is that if everyone is terrified of their public school that must really say something about what we’re doing to the kids there

Kwon: Yes. You celebrate for the kids that get into these alternative schools. But the ones that don’t… ugh, hello waterfall tears. It’s just so incredibly wrong. It’s tragic that a little boy at 10 can have the existential awareness of his circumstance and know that he wants something “better for his kids”, but is left to rely on the luck of a lottery draw. Like… he’s TEN.

Juan: It’s almost like you could cut directly to a slaughterhouse because of the way the parents and children seem to view it. And who is to tell them they are wrong. If they live in a district where the feeder school is bad then generally speaking you’re probably not going to get the best education in the world. And quite possibly not really have a chance at life. That’s something that’s even scarier. That we force children who are being underserved through the system because we cannot accept their failure. Then on the other side of a bad high school they have a degree, and aren’t even eligible for a 4 year college.

Kwon: Yes, they get pushed through (or age out) without actually learning anything.

VERDICT:

Kwon: Personally, I think this is a film everyone should see; for all the usual reasons you recommend a film (superbly made), but also because it’s just that important.

Juan: Agreed. You will be tempted by popcorn flicks of all kinds Friday through Sunday, and maybe you don’t want to eat a real juicy steak in the middle of a movie, but remember that it’s better for you and is more filling.

Kwon: Nice analogy. You CAN finish with dessert though… which we did. By watching Jackass 3D… [stay tuned]

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