Education reform documentaries stir state response

 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’

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.