Education reform documentaries stir state response

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 02-Nov-2010

Two powerful motion pictures were previewed recently in Oklahoma City, drawing diverse advocates of education reform to view the films and participate in panel discussions about charter schools, parental choice and other issues.

A packed crowd from across the metro area came to see “Waiting for Superman” at its only local venue, the AMC Quail Springs on the north side, for a recent Sunday screening.

The documentary is a stirring presentation about dysfunctions in public school policy, opposition to school reforms by teacher union leaders, and controversy surrounding the lottery admissions system used when there are not enough slots for aspiring students at high-performing charter schools.

A panel discussion, the likes of which has not been seen since before the 2001 MAPS for Kids vote, drew a lineup of leaders from every corner of the political spectrum. Panelists included were Ed Allen (American Federation of Teachers), Chris Brewster (Santa Fe South High School), Brandon Dutcher (Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs), and Carol Kelley (Harding Charter Prep High School).

Additional speakers were Joe Kitchens (Western Heights superintendent), Joe Levitt (Tulsa education reformer), Tracy McDaniel (KIPP Preparatory in Oklahoma City), Bill Price (attorney and education coalition leader), state Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa, Karl Springer (Oklahoma City public schools superintendent) and Lance Tackett (coordinator of Teach America, a quality teachers’ program).

Kitchens advocated an approach to reform he characterized as “one child, one teacher, one school” at a time. Known as an articulate and creative superintendent, he said public schools in the coming decade “have to be ready to retool ourselves.” He pointed out that unprecedented social mobility, with students coming and going frequently, presents challenges to educators that were not faced in earlier generations.

Allen noted “the union took hits in this film, and deservedly so.” He pledged his local would “be part of the solution, not the problem.” He said, “We will do what it takes.” Allen was involved in historic negotiations at U.S. Grant High School that led to the departure of roughly half the failing school’s teacher pool.

Dutcher characterized improving education for inner city youth, especially blacks, as “the greatest civil rights issue of this era.” He credited Rep. Shumate for that characterization of the issue. Dutcher observed there are many possible causes for the seemingly overwhelming problems that face today’s students. Regardless of the cause of those problems, he observed, “We can’t just throw up our hands and give up.”

Tackett agreed low-income children face special challenges, which leads some to surmise, when it comes to educational improvements, “maybe it actually can’t be done.” He noted that three decades ago, some Americans did not believe the conditions that faced legendary urban educator Jaime Escalante, as portrayed in a popular film, actually existed. “I feel encouraged, because now people understand the injustice that currently exists.” 

Kelley said the breakdown of American families contributes significantly to the challenges presented to tax-financed educational institutions like hers, but said, “Economics is not an excuse for inaction. … The success of any school lies in the teachers.” McDaniel, who runs the local KIPP School, recounted the performance gaps among urban school children, and sketched the intense program at KIPP schools that are bringing academic success to minority students.

Brewster counted himself as “admittedly conservative” in analyzing family breakdown and other contributing factors to educational failure. He challenged parents and educators to continue to love children after they grow up and are no longer “little and cute to hold.”

Rep. Shumate reported that one of the heroine’s of the “Superman” film, Michelle Rhee, no longer is working as superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. He said reform in Oklahoma will require “an all hands on deck approach.” After the panel discussion, Shumate reflected, in words reminiscent of some comments he made during the discussion: “There is no Superman. He’s not coming to save the day. But the people in this room are Supermen. They have to do what’s right.”

Price and Dutcher were the strongest advocates of parental choice in education, including access to private schools for students from failing schools, or those with special needs. Price and Dutcher recalled the success achieved in the 2010 legislative session in achieving support for special needs children in Oklahoma, in the form of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships program. Price lamented that most countries of the world have more educational choice than America. He encouraged Oklahoma’s new attorney general to support reforms to “create the kinds of schools we saw” in “Waiting for Superman.”

When she offered additional observations late in the panel, Kelley said “more rigor in classrooms” was essential. She said “administrators need the authority to hire and fire teachers, and need budget authority within their school.” The “site-based management” systems Kelley seemed to be describing were advocated by many local civic leaders during Oklahoma City’s historic MAPS for Kids process, but were not implemented in most daily school governance.

Leavitt commented that the emergence of documentaries on school challenges, aimed at wide audiences, and national introspection about educational performance, is feeding “a singular moment in time” that can lead to true collaboration and reform. He said the “Race to The Top” process was feeding reform.

Last Wednesday (October 27), “The Lottery” documentary was shown at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. That film showed the true stories of several minority children and their families who, desperate for better education, work and study hard at highly-challenged regular public schools or, in one case, a private school. They pin all their hopes on admission to the Harlem Success Academy.

Among those attending the event was Jeff Reed of the Foundation for Educational Choice.

Only one of the children makes it when the lottery is held, although a second child gets a shot at a better educational experience.

After the art museum event, Robert Ross of the Inasmuch Foundation, and the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, introduced the film and moderated a discussion, as he had at the earlier film showing. Joining an open discussion were Shumate, Dutcher, Price and charter school founder Janet Barresi.

Price stressed the need to get rid of tenure and “trial de novo” for dismissed teachers, a reform the union has said is under consideration. Barresi recounted successes at Harding Charter Pep, stressing the “no excuses” themes.

Dutcher pointed out the new documentaries are a sign the landscape is dramatically shifting in school reform. He observed, “These movies drive home the point that ‘public education’ simply means producing an ‘educated public’ – whether that takes place at a traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school or whatever.”

Note: Patrick B. McGuigan is a certified teacher, and taught for two years at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school in east Oklahoma City. Portions of this report will also appear in a forthcoming issue of The City Sentinel.