What can a small group of committed individuals do to affect change in a very large and complicated system like the public schools? This is a question that activists ask ourselves regularly as we come together to try to address various issues in education, and the ideas that come out of these meetings have varying levels of impact. Unfortunately, most of these groups have little to no funding and are limited in numbers, which means that the plethora of good ideas far exceed what we are capable of pulling together. This is especially frustrating when we are also trying to do the educating, organizing, and mobilizing that our well-funded union, the United Federation of Teachers, should be doing.
Of course, each idea is different and is intended to address different goals. Fight Back Fridays, for example, are intended to mobilize school communities to fight the attacks on public education and take back the dialogue surrounding “reform.” Members of a NYCORE action group are hoping that a summer speaker series will help to interrupt the inculcation that comes with alternative certification teacher training and expose our newest teachers to some important historical knowledge they may be lacking. The members of the Grassroots Education Movement have been working to support schools fighting charter co-location, which has included organizing for and turning out to myriad public meetings.
But on a larger scale, how can we possibly compare to the well-financed corporate reformers whose preferred policies have dominated the national agenda in recent years? The documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” for example, which pushes privately managed charter schools as the silver-bullet answer to education’s problems and teachers unions as the enemy, was underwritten by individuals and foundations whose net worth is in the billions of dollars. The movie received an astounding amount of hype. As educators and parents organizing a grassroots campaign to fight these privatization tactics, it sometimes feels like we have little to no chance to counter the message these corporate reformers are pushing.
But it’s amazing what a group of committed educators and parents can do with almost no resources, a good idea, and a video camera. The Grassroots Education Movement has created a response to “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” that challenges some of the most blatant lies and over-simplications the movie presents. In “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman,” parents share horror stories of “winning a lottery” but being told that the charter school that their child won access to would not be able to accommodate their special education needs. The movie is full of facts and statistics that are paired with parent and teacher anecdotes, and together the two create a powerful framework for better understanding the realities of privatization here in New York City and nationally.
One of the most shocking moments for me when I first saw GEM’s movie was the visual presentation of data from multiple charter organizations that tout their test scores as evidence of transforming education. I watched wide-eyed as the line for “average” reading or math scores was plotted alongside the line for enrollment; as the lowest-performing students left or were counseled out to return to traditional public schools, “average” test scores went up inversely. The CEOs who run charters make the claim that they are out-performing public schools by using selective data that ignores issues such as attrition rates and inequity in funding.
The new film also challenges the claim in “Waiting for ‘Superman'” that teacher protections are one of the main impediments to education reform. As teachers and parents explain by highlighting their own experiences, the “inconvenient truth” is that teacher protections allow teachers to advocate for their students without fear of retribution, and they keep good teachers in the classroom by helping to ensure positive teaching (and learning) conditions.
In contrast to reforms borrowed from the corporate world, “The Inconvenient Truth …” offers a list of real reforms that could truly transform our schools into the positive learning environments we know they could be. These include critical changes that are not yet prioritized by many of those who make decisions about our schools including smaller class sizes, more teaching and less testing, expanded pre-kindergarten/early-intervention programs, and equitable funding for all schools.
GEM’s movie was made by parents and classroom teachers working together with no funding at all, but it has already started disrupting the simplified version of the facts presented in the well-funded “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” When the Maysles Institute in Harlem screened “Waiting for ‘Superman'” the first weekend in April, they paired it with an early cut of our response. I led a discussion after one of the screenings and the feedback was incredibly positive. Attendees said GEM’s fact-based analysis caused them to completely re-think what they had heard in the original movie. Education professors from multiple universities have requested copies so that they can screen the two movies together. Without the existence of “The Inconvenient Truth” the story presented in “Waiting for ‘Superman'” would go without a formal challenge in these settings, and when I think about the widespread impact the film is already having I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with the individuals who created it.
The official movie premiere is May 19 at Riverside Church, and RSVPs are flooding in. I for one am excited for a real celebration of an incredible tool that can be used to interrupt the agenda of the corporate reformers, and that people seem eager to get their hands on. There is certainly a lot in education to worry about at the moment, not the least of which is Mayor Bloomberg’s budget that includes the elimination of over 6,000 teaching positions. Just one week before the premiere, GEM will be at the May 12 rally to demand that banks pay their fair share and that the budget is not balanced by layoffs and cuts to public services. The day after the premiere is the next Fight Back Friday where schools will create their own localized actions to fight the budget cuts. But on the night of May 19 we will come together around the creation of a useful educational tool that extends beyond our own network, and so the evening will serve as both a call to action and a rare moment to celebrate a real success.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.