Friday, September 28, 2012

Hey Daniel Barnz, I Know EXACTLY Why I'm Protesting Your Movie!

I just cross posted a piece I wrote for WHYY's NewsWorks about last Sunday's less than empowering Parent Advocacy panel at Education Nation, which was followed by the NYC premiere of the film Won't Back Down, which was met with a protest across the street.

Since then I have read countless scathing reviews of the film (see them aggregated at Rotten Tomatoes) as well as amazing accounts of the day from others I shared the experience with, including the intrepid Leonie Haimson and student activist Stephanie Rivera.

What grabbed my attention today however was the seemingly disingenuous plea of the film's director, Daniel Barnz on the Huffington Post.  This guy is taking a beating for this movie, and I can only imagine he feels like he is trying to paint himself out the corner he now finds himself in.  But if you are paying attention, he's not really making much sense.   From the Huff Po piece:
In conceiving the film, I was inspired by the parental activism at the heart of the parent trigger laws, and I believe that parents should play a decisive role in the education of their children. But Won't Back Down does not tell the story of a parent trigger law. Instead, it tells the story of parents who must come together with the teachers to transform the failing public school. (Bold emphasis mine, underlined emphasis NOT MINE, it's Barnz's!)
Barnz seems to want it both ways.  He wants to be able to say that the movie is based on actual events, because as he says above, he was "inspired by the activism at the heart of the parent trigger laws" but also wants to separate himself from the Parent Trigger Law because in his pretend version of the legislation, 50% of the teachers in the school also need to buy in.

While this is indeed a difference between the real and fictional legislation, it does not excuse him discounting the protestors at the NYC premiere, who he said didn't know what they were protesting.  Check it out:
This is a movie that is all about the importance of making your voice heard.  These people out here, that's what the're doing tonight and I applaud them for doing it.  I just wish they were protesting what the movie is actually about because I know that they are protesting something that they think the movie is about, when in fact, it is not.
As someone in the midst of that protest everyone there was damn clear about what we were protesting. Barnz can't have it both ways.  The film can't be promoted as based on actual events, and Barnz can't say he was inspired by the Parent Trigger Law, and then turn around and say that when protesters show up to his movie protesting the very same Parent Trigger Law that we don't know what we're talking about.   As a parent, and parent advocate that works to improve the system from within, not tear it apart, here is what I found so deplorable about the movie.  

There were scenes involving both of the main characters that were so heavy handed, so contrived to make viewers hate the public school system and the teachers union, that they became excruciatingly painful to watch.   

For example, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs into the school (she spends a lot of time running frantically from place to place in this movie...) to get her daughter out of a closet she had been locked in because her checked-out, compassionless teacher refused to let her use the bathroom and then locked her in the closet as punishment when she wet herself.  After Jamie rescues her daughter, the little girl unleashes her anger and frustration on her mother, screaming at her that she is poor, stupid, and uneducated and it's all her fault. 

Reformers continually discount the effects of poverty on our educational system, and in Won't Back Down this is brushed aside in one concise quote from Jamie.
I can't wait with 10,000 studies about how being poor effects education, I can tell you that being poor sucks and my kid can't read.
In the film, Jamie's daughter is dyslexic.  Perhaps the lack of services for her dyslexia is the reason she can't read, but instead of exploring those issues the audience is clobbered over the head with caricatures of bad teachers and callous union leaders.   

The parents and educators that protested this film do not discount the day to day struggle some parents face in the current education system.  One of the many issues we were protesting in conjunction with this film is the myth that closing a school and converting it to a privately operated charter has a significant chance of bringing about the change parents may seek, particularly if they have children with special needs.   

In fact, I was honored to protest beside Katherine Sprowal, whose son Matthew was "counseled out" of Eva Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy because of his Attention Deficit issues.  Since her story was profiled by Michael Winerip in the New York Times, she has become a passionate parent advocate.  Why don't 20th Century Fox's Rupert Murdoch and Walden Media's Phillip Anschutz pony up for a story about Katherine and her son Matthew, done wrong by a famous charter chain and well served by a public school? 

That'll never happen, I know, so back to the film they DID bankroll... 

Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) struggles with her son who has trouble doing his work and seems to have a learning disability or developmental delay of some kind.  We also see the incredible love she has for her child; her desire to protect him and keep him safe is palpable.  His learning issues are clearly a tremendous source of strife not only for her as a parent, but as an educator, and it is implied in the film that somehow the child's learning issues are the reason for the troubles in her marriage.   

In an attempt to thwart Nona's crusade to take over the school, union leaders produce a flyer with a title something like "Why Nona Alberts shouldn't run a school."  We see the flyer on the desk of union leader Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) as she struggles with whether to use the flyer.  She decides not to use it just as she finds out that her boss has already sent it out.    

Cut to Nona kneeling at her son's bedside (in her ex husband's house, because we have already been through another heavy handed plot twist where Nona takes her son to live at his father's new home so that he can attend a better school) to explain to him that people may be saying mean things about him and his mommy, so she needs him to understand what happened.   

Nona begins to tell her son that when he was a baby he had colic, and she didn't handle it well.  She urgently explains to him that one night he was particularly colicky, so she drove him around in the car to lull him to sleep.  We are then forced to watch as she confesses that she had been drinking and neglected to properly strap him in, had an accident, and he was thrown from his seat and hit his head.  Through her tears she tells him that this may be why he is "slow." This is what the union produced flyer exposed.  The union exposed the most guarded secret of a mother who had "failed" to protect her child when he was young and was now suffering as a result.  

This was then compounded by the tender moment when the child tells Nona that he isn't "slow" (even though every scene the kid was in revolved around his frustration that he is "slow" and his struggle to learn) and he kisses her in the same protective, loving way Nona kissed him goodnight earlier in the film. We have been told by the reformers for years that the union is out to protect the rights of teachers, children be damned.  But to portray the union as actively hurting a family to protect their interests, which in this case is supposedly to continue allowing a failing school to fail while doing nothing to improve it, is deplorable.  The scene literally made me nauseous.    

After the premiere was over the woman behind me in line for the ladies room said to her friend, "I wish there had been a 'where are they now' at the end of the movie!" Being the bigmouth that I am I couldn't help but whip around and inform this poor soul that this was NOT a true story, that those were NOT depictions of real people, and that this HAS NOT happened anywhere in the country.

To which the confused movie-goer replied, "But it says it is based on actual events?!?"  

My reply?

"Yeah, they lied."

Note to Daniel Barnz: I know EXACTLY what I am protesting.  

Before the movie I was protesting the Parent Trigger Law, the influence billionaires like Murdoch and Anschutz have on public education, and the misperception that charters are the answers to the problems in public education.  

Now that I have seen your movie I am protesting the fact that you lied to your audience and made them think this is a true story and your twisted portrayal of parent empowerment.

We're The Real Parents And We Won't Back Down

Cross posted from WHYY's NewsWorks

Yesterday marked the kick off of NBC’s third Education Nation, which is billed as a “year-round initiative to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America.”  The day’s events included both a student and teacher Town Hall, and a panel discussion on “Parent Engagement & Advocacy.” 

My ticket to the event came through the hard work of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and Parents Across America.  After parents were shut out of Education Nation in 2011, Leonie petitioned the network to give parents a voice.  She was given a block of tickets for the parent panel and told there would be time for questions from the audience. 

Although both the teacher and student town halls were two hours in length and had Q & A sessions, which according to attendees got quite lively at times, the parent panel had no Q & A, and out of 10 panelists, only two represented parents. 

The panel was broken into three segments, and it quickly became evident that this was not intended to be a true panel discussion.  The first segment included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Rosie Perez, the three lead actresses in the film Won’t Back Down, and the film’s director, Daniel Barnz.  

Won’t Back Down is a fictional story of a parent and a teacher who utilize a Parent Trigger law to take over a “failing” school.  Currently seven states have adopted some form of a Parent Trigger law, first adopted in California and then promoted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in other states.  Under the law if 50% of parents sign a petition they can decide to either 1) close the school, 2) fire a majority of the staff or 3) convert the school into a charter. 

Although the trailer and movie poster claim the film is “inspired by actual events,” to date there has not been a successful use of the parent trigger.   In Adelanto California, with the help of Parent Revolution, the same group that conceived of and wrote the original California legislation, 50% of parents signed a petition to convert the school to a charter.  Nearly 100 of those parents signed a counter petition however, and the community is now bitterly divided.  The ultimate fate of the school remains uncertain.

Doreen Diaz, one of the parents who lead the charge in Adelanto, was a guest in the second segment.  The only other parent on the panel was Vanessa Bush Ford, a member of the national PTA.  Ms. Ford stated her children currently attend private schools in Chicago, which meant the only public school parent on the panel was trying to close down her children’s public school and turn it over to a charter operator. 

This skewed perspective was not surprising, particularly when other panelists included the likes of Joel Klein, former Chancellor of New York City Schools, who currently runs Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp education division.  (Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox produced Won’t Back Down.)  Michelle Rhee, controversial former chancellor of Washington DC schools and current CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, was also a panelist.

The panel felt like nothing more than an infomercial for Won’t Back Down.  In fact, the premiere of the movie was tied to the event, and many panelists and audience members attended the premiere as well.

While some participated in the red carpet finery, others congregated directly across the street for their own red carpet event where real parent advocates from New York and New Jersey walked their own red carpet, sharing stories of parent empowerment in the fight for community schools.  As the stars arrived at the premiere protestors chanted, “We’re the real parents and we won’t back down!”

Noah Gotbaum, a New York City public school advocate said, “The parents who are here today represent the mainstream of parents across America.  Parents who believe in investing in our public schools; not closing them, not privatizing them, not handing them over to a corporation.  The parents here believe in keeping public education public.”

The protest did not go unnoticed.  Inside the premiere NBC News President Steve Capus made note of the “noisy welcome” attendees received, and claimed that he wants the discussion.  Then why was NBC’s parent engagement panel bereft of actual public school parents who don’t want their children’s schools closed or turned into a charter?

To date the research has not shown that closing a public school and reopening it as a charter will provide parents with the change they seek.  One bright spot at the panel discussion was when the moderator, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, quoted from a Stanford University study that showed that only 17% of charters fair better than comparable public schools, while 37% actually fair worse and the remaining charters have similar outcomes. 

While documentaries like Waiting for Superman and movies like Won’t Back Down (both produced by billionaire Phillip Anschultz’s Walden Media) paint a bleak picture of the state of public education and boldly proclaim that charters will save students and parents, the majority of charters have not lived up to the hype.

If given a choice, I believe most parents would chose to work to improve their schools, not close them and turn them into privately managed charters.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How The Charter System In Florida Is "Working"

There is an absolutely staggering piece in the Miami Herald today about the closure of three charter schools.  

Two of the charters, Eagle and SMART, were run by the same management organization, and the third, Touchdowns4life, was founded by former Miami Dolphins running back Terry Kirby.

During an on-campus visit to Eagle Charter, school staff could not immediately provide an administrator to comment for this story. A call to the cell phone of Edward Miller — CEO of the charter management company for both Eagle and SMART — went unanswered, and his voicemail was not accepting messages. 
At Touchdowns4life, administrators were equally hard to reach. The school’s campus, located in a Tamarac strip mall, was darkened and locked, and no one returned a message left on its voicemail.
Now that's what I call accountability.  

Perhaps what was most staggering about the article were the quotes from Lynn Norman-Teck, of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.  Think of her as Florida's Carlos Perez.  Not only do they have the same job, just in different states, they use the same lingo!
Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoman for the pro-charter Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said the latest Broward closures aren’t a cause for concern. Parents at these schools “voted with their feet,” Norman-Teck said, and decided to send their kids elsewhere. The best charters can have waiting lists in the thousands, she added. (emphasis mine)
And the line that really killed me was this:
“A closure, although it’s terrible from a parent point of view ... I see it as a system that’s working,” Norman-Teck said.

Read more here:

What does this say about how charter advocates and like Norman-Teck actually feel about parents and students?  The state of Florida allowed these charters to operate without providing enough oversight to make sure they were managed properly.  These charters were not shut down by the state, they closed voluntarily, leaving parents and students with nowhere to go after the school year is already in full swing. 

And the people responsible for the chaos just turned off the phone, turned off the lights, and walked away, leaving the parents and the children that trusted the "system" to fend for themselves.

And this is an example of Florida's system "working?"

Can someone please remind me again how charters are improving educational options for our children?

Read more here:

Read more re:

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Selling Online Education to the New Jersey Legislature

I think the members of The Joint Committee on the Public Schools thought they were going to be educated about online education at yesterday's hearing.  Instead, what they got was a sales pitch.

In my previous blog post I was pretty clear that all three presenters are very cozy with K12 Inc., the for-profit online education behemoth that stands to gain the most financially if NJ starts rewriting our laws, allowing them to get a foothold.   Check out this testimonial letter Susan Patrick wrote for Ron Packard, K12 Inc.'s CEO.

I’ve known Ron for many years and his passion for education is contagious. He believes that education reform must be a priority so that American students are ready for the challenges in an increasingly competitive world. Ron is an effective spokesperson for the benefits that online learning brings to students and the limitless potential it holds to change public education for the better. 
Guess we will have to agree to disagree.  I don't see how allowing K12 Inc. to siphon huge profits out of the already stretched taxpayer dollars available for public ed will "change public education for the better."

And most of the legislators at the hearing yesterday seemed to agree.  Check out my twitter feed for some choice highlights.  This was nothing like the cakewalk I witnessed at Cerf's confirmation hearing, which I suppose was a fait accompli, so no one really bothered to put the screws to him.  

Yesterday I got an idea of what Senator Rice, co-chair of the committee, would have done had he been given the opportunity to question Cerf.  In fact he had some choice words for Cerf as he questioned the presenters about the ongoing "privatization agenda."

He pushed all three presenters to disclose who funds their efforts and does their research, until at last Michael Horn threw out Gates' name.  

Oops, twitter typo, that should read funded...
Rice pointed out that what they are proposing isn't terribly new...

And then he wrapped it all up with a bow.

And in case you're thinking it was only Rice that had some choice words for these folks, you're wrong.

Chair of the Committee, Assemblywoman Wagner, cited the National Education Policy Center Study which found that students in K12 Inc. schools are falling further behind in math and reading than students in brick and mortar schools.  

Lots of stammering ensued from the presenters.  

She asked the presenters why NJ shouldn't adopt a no-growth policy until K12 Inc. and others can demonstrate success in other states.  

More stammering. 

Assemblyman Ramos raised a host of salient issues, including that NCLB was based on what Diane Ravitch calls the Texas Miracle but now Texas is asking for a waiver from NCLB.  He said that Texas was the guineas pig for NCLB; let other states be the guineas pigs for online learning.  


And Assemblyman Caputo simply stated that the NJ Legislature was not going to mandate online learning without the support of the education community, parents, and students.  

Why do yesterday's presenters want to see NJ adopt laws that will allow online and blended learning?  Perhaps a map from Susan Patrick's presentation is the most telling.
Check out NJ, one of a handful of states that have not submitted to any kind of state wide online school, despite Cerf's attempt to ram not one, but two down our throats.  

And when problems are already cropping up with K12 Inc. in state after state, I don't see why in the world we would.  And quite frankly, the salespeople presenters didn't make a terribly strong case as to why we should.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Online Education: A "Classic" Disruptive Innovation

Tomorrow the Joint Committee on the Public Schools will hold a hearing on online education.  John Mooney wrote a piece about the hearing, but barely mentioned the presenters.

The Joint Committee on the Public Schools will host the hearing on Wednesday morning, at 11 a.m., with presentations by three national proponents of online education. 
The three are Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning; Michael Horn of the Education of Innosight Institute; and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education reform.

At least he acknowledges, however subtly, that the presenters all come into this with a pro-online education slant.  I will say it more bluntly.  These presenters are not only biased, they're in bed with K12 Inc., which stands to make a ton of cash if the New Jersey legislature rolls over for online education.

So let's check out who these folks are, and see what we think of the presenters that have been assembled to educate our legislators on this issue.  

First up, Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL.  Her bio states that "iNACOL is the international K-12 nonprofit association representing the interests of practitioners, providers and students involved in online learning worldwide."  Which "practitioners and providers" (notice that students are last on their list) does iNACOL represent?  According to their website, K12. Inc is one of only three platinum members, the highest form of membership.  If legislation is passed to allow virtuals and hybrids in New Jersey, K12 Inc., one of iNACOL's top three clients, will be seriously cashing in.  Yeah, no conflict there.

Strike one.

Next at bat, Jeanne Allen Founder and President of The Center for Education Reform (CER), "the leading voice and advocate for substantive and structural education reform in the US."  Their website lists six issues they work on, and "Online Learning" is second only to "Choice & Charter Schools"  When you click on the link for Online Learning, scroll to the bottom, and who is listed under "Resources"?  You guessed it, K12 Inc..

Strike two.

Finally, we have Michael Horn, the "co-founder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute."  He is a member of the Digital Learning Council, an offshoot of Jeb Bush's Foundation of Excellence in Education.  He is one of the authors of the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.  This is a very long document, but scroll to the end, and take note of the three big funders.  Gates, Broad and Walton.  The Reformy Holy Trinity.  I was a bit surprised that K12 Inc. wasn't on the list, and then I looked at Foundation of Excellence in Education's donors, and lo and behold, there was K12 Inc..  The best part?  Susan Patrick and Jeanne Allen are also on the Digital Learning Council with Michael Horn, and so is Ron Packard, CEO of K12 Inc, who raked in over 5 million last year.

Strike three.  

What I found even more alarming than the appearance that these presenters are being given a forum before the New Jersey legislature to basically sell K12 Inc., is what I learned when I surfed Innosight Institute's website.   Here's their mission statement:
Innosight Institute is a not-for-profit, non-partisan think tank whose mission is to apply Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation to develop and promote solutions to the most vexing problems in the social sector.
So what does "disruptive innovation" mean?

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that transforms an existing market or sector–or creates a new one–by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, reliability, and affordability, where before the product or service was complicated, expensive, and inaccessible. It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market or niche that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents. 
Examples of disruptive innovations are the personal computer, which disrupted the mainframe and minicomputers, as well as Toyota automobiles, which disrupted those of Ford and General Motors. 
In education, for example, online learning appears to be a classic disruptive innovation. In the world of higher education, for example, online universities are rapidly disrupting the traditional universities. (emphasis mine)
And in a piece Michael Horn wrote for Forbes he had this to say:
As a disruptive innovation, online learning will continue to grow. I do expect our prediction that we made in Disrupting Class—that by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online whether in schools or at a distance—will be reasonably accurate. (emphasis mine)
There it is.  That's the goal.  Half of New Jersey's high school students' education online in 7 years time.  You ready for that New Jersey, because this is what these folks are coming here tomorrow to sell to our legislators.  I'll be there to hear what they have to say.