Sunday, October 24, 2010

Event 2: Teachers react to criticism in education film

Denver, Colo., -- A flabbergasted crowd came out of the Regal Cinema, squinting in the bright mid-afternoon sun. For this group of movie-goers, however, the harsh light of day isn't the only to be shed on them this fall. On Friday, over 250 metro-area high school teachers attended a matinee of Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," a documentary about the state of the American education system and the teachers who work therein.

"This is not supposed to be a feel good experience," said Peter Mehlbach, a social studies teacher at Lakewood High School, who purchased tickets for his colleagues to see the film with a grant from the Boettcher Foundation Teacher Recognition Awards Program.

The film pleads for drastic measures of change, rubbing salt in wounds of failing school districts. "The reform train's coming down the tracks and it's dark out and it's coming for us. We have to advocate for ourselves and for our profession," said Ron Castagna, principal of Lakewood High School. "If we don't, reform will happen to us, not with us."

"Waiting for Superman" criticizes teachers' union for impeding such reform action on the district levels, focusing in part on the efforts of Michelle Rhee, former superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools. Rhee sought to fire poor-performing teachers from the district and implement a merit-based salary structure for high-peforming teachers. Both measures failed. Guggenheim blames unions.

"I was disgusted by the teacher and union bashing in the film, so disgusted I can hardly stand it," said veteran teacher Don Collins, who credits the Colorado Education Association for helping him keep his job when the state faced labor disputes in 2006.

Lakewood High School teachers met for two hours following the film. Some, like Collins, were concerned that "Waiting for Superman" misrepresented unions and did not offer concrete solutions to the problems it addressed. "Some of the problems we face have to be fought at a higher level. That's what the union is for, to make bigger strides than we can alone," said Castagna. "The union can get our profession back."

Other teachers found inspiration from the film's lackluster review of their peers' performance.

"I want to do more, everything I possibly can to be better. It's terrible when teachers just do the same thing year after year," said Dorsee Tucker, who teaches social studies at Lakewood. "When do you stop trying to improve your craft? Why just be mediocre?"

Guggenheim has raised the question of teacher efficacy to the national level. The American Federation of Teachers says the film unfairly places the blame on teachers. They argue Guggenheim is a good storyteller but not a good reformer.

Time magazine's review of "Waiting for Superman" points out that maybe telling the story is what the US needs to kick-start real conversations about change.

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