The movie starts with the director, Davis Guggenheim, asking an African-American kid in braces in his room a math problem. The kid we learn is Anthony. Anthony did the math problem (a fraction problem) in his head and gets the right answer.
The film then cuts to Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization servicing kids in poverty in Harlem. He says that the saddest day of his life was in 4th grade, when his mom told him that Superman doesn’t exist. He started crying his mom believed that he cried just as kids cried when they were told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist but he cried because he now knows that there isn’t “anyone to save us” (out of poverty).
Guggenheim narrates: Every morning, there is an uneasy feeling for many families when they let their kids go to school because it is a leap of faith to put your kids in public schools. In 1999, he made a film about first year teachers teaching in a public school. Yet when he decided to put his kids in school, he chose to put his kids in a private school, betraying his ideals about public schools. In fact, the film shows him driving past three public “failing schools” (his words) on his way to dropping the kids off at the private school.
Guggenheim claims that for many families, a way to get into a great school like the private school his kids go to is to participate in a lottery to get into select public charter schools that have fewer openings than applicants. (If a public charter school has more applicants than openings, the law says the kids get in by lottery).
We are introduced to the kids: Anthony, a 5th grader in Washington, D.C. who lives with his grandparents. He has good attitude about school now, but was held back in 2nd grade for failing. His dad died from drug overdose. His grandmother says that she will do the best for Anthony, including giving him the best education. We see Anthony raising his hand eagerly in class (clip shown in the trailer).
Next, we meet Daisy, a 5th grader living in Boyles Height in East Los Angeles. She says that she wants to be a nurse, doctor, or veterinarian (clip in trailer) because she wants to help people. Daisy’s 5th grade teacher says that Daisy had already written a letter to a college asking it to hold a place for her. Only her mom works as her dad is laid off.
There is a lot of juxtaposing of narration about the kids and exposition by experts. Canada narrates that schools are failure factories, and when he graduated from Harvard School of Education, he was eager to improve students’life as a teacher, but ran into obstacles with the system. We will see later what the obstacles are.
The film shows clips of numerous presidents from Johnson to Reagan to Clinton to Bush proclaiming to improve education. As a result, spending per students grew from $4000 in 1971 to $9000 today. But the reading scores stayed the same.
We are introduced to Francisco, a 1st grade in Bronx, NY. His mom went to public school and is underwhelmed with it to say the least. As we see her dressing and preparing Francisco for school, she says that the first thing she sees in hisschool is a “desk with security guard.” Francisco goes to the 3rd largest school in the area, which is overcrowded.
Cut to Canada, who says that the bad environment of the schools contribute to the students’ failure. He says that kids are smart and can predict their future. They see “a cold place” and know that they are “given the short end of the stick.” They lower themselves to their expectations accordingly.
Lastly, we meet Bianca, a kindergartener in Harlem. Her mom works multiple jobs to put her in a parochial school. Her mom says that she will do whatever she can to make sure that “Bianca attends college, because that means that she will have a career instead of a job."
What are the obstacles and how bad are the schools? The film shows a clip of the landmark 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind bill, championed by Senator Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush. The bill measures schools by testing students and the film shows how bad the schools are. Only 18% of 8th graders in Alaska are proficient at grade level math, in New Jersey it’s 40%, New York, 30%, and so forth. (You can get picture.) The goal is to get to 100% by 2014.
A host of experts and Guggenheim explain the root of the problem. Canada: kids go from B in 8th grade to C in 10th, to D’s and F’s in 12th grade. They start thinking, “I’m not going anywhere.” “Either kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong with the educational system,” says Canada.
Guggenheim shows the feeder school system problem: Daisy is going to go to Stevenson Middle School, where only 13% of its students are proficient in math. Then she’ll go to Roosevelt High School, which is one of the worst high schools in LA, with 50% dropout rate, and only 3 out of 100 meet the academic requirements for admission to a public California college.
The film shows Dr. Robert Balfanz of John Hopkins University explaining “dropout factories”: schools where less than 60% of students don’t graduate. He explains that there are around 2000 dropout factories in the U.S..
The film also shows Steve Barr, who transformed Lock High School (in Watts, LA) into a charter school. Barr explains that the kids at Locke read at around 1st to 3rd grade level, and its 15 years of existence before the transformation approximately 40,000 out of 60,000 students didn’t graduate.
Guggenheim narrates, “We use to blame failing neighborhoods for failing schools, but now reformer thinks it’s the other way around.” There are graphics and commentary by Bill Strickland, a school reformer, who went to a dropout factory and says most of his classmates are in prison. Strickland and the film’s graphics show that it costs $33,000 per year to house and feed prisoners, while only $8300 to send a kid to private school, so we could have spent parts of $33,000 to send kids to private school instead.
Back to the kids: Anthony is going to attend Sousa Middle School, which Washington Post describes as an “academic sinkhole.” His mom says that she is scared of Anthony’s future. The film shows Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee saying that she knows that “kids are getting a crappy education.” (Clip in trailer.)
The film explains her background, that she was given carte blanche by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to clean out the system. (It also shows her pretty much in all her scenes running around cradling a laptop.) The system is corrupt, explains the director, because money flows from the Federal government to the state government to the local districts, but each has conflicting agenda. The local system is described as “The Blob,” and the film shows Fenty and Rhee visiting Central Office of the D.C. District, and seeing all sorts of undistributed books and supplies in the Central Office’s warehouse. Rhee says that the system has “complete lack of accountability” and has the adults', not the children’s, interest in mind.
Guggenheim now shows the teachers as part of the problem. Francisco the 1st grader is having trouble reading. His mom tries to get in touch with Francisco’s teacher but she says that she feels the “the feeling of the place (the school) is ‘why bother.’” A Stanford Economics professor, Eric Hauck, says that students progress three times as much with great teachers, great teachers teach 150% of the educational standards, but bad teachers teach only 50% of the standards.
The movie shows an undercover film by a high school student showing craps being played in a classroom, teachers reading newspaper basically no students learning or teachers teaching. When the film got out in public, the superintendent of the school district, Howard Fuller, tried to fire the bad teachers but couldn’t because of the teachers union.
Guggenheim shows that teachers in teacher’s union get tenure with a Simpsons’ clip: Lisa Simpson’s teacher counts down to when she gets tenure, and after she received tenure, says that she won’t teach and asks Ralph Wiggums to teach the class instead. Tenure is “job for life,” says Guggenheim, and Canada adds that all teachers have to do is “breathe for two years” to receive tenure.
Randy Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, explains that union started because at first female teachers were being abused (like being fired for being pregnant, paid very low, etc). We see her at a teacher’s union rally saying how important teachers’ jobs are.
But clearly, Guggenheim shows that teacher unions have run amok. He interviews Jason Kamras, who was a Teacher of the Year and now works with Michelle Rhee to reform teacher evaluations. Kamras explains how hard it is to fire teachers who have bad evaluations. Principals must do numerous observations and follow certain steps for improving teachers but if they miss one step, they can’t fire the teacher. Guggenheim shows the Rubber Room, aka Teacher Reassignment Center, where teachers in NYC go and do nothing while awaiting their disciplinary hearing. While there, they are paid in full. Guggenheim also shows an animation clip of “dance of the lemons,” in which principals trade bad teachers to other schools. Stanford Economics Prof. Eric Hauck says that if schools eliminate the bottom 6% of teachers, U.S. will be top in international rankings. (The top school is Finland.) Part of the problem, Rhee says, is that the union doesn’t recognize good teachers. Every teacher is paid the same based on years of service. Canada says that there can be no reform without going through the teachers union. Lastly, Guggenheim says that while 1 in 57 doctors and 1 in 97 lawyers lose their license, only 1 in 2500 teachers lose their credentials.
Guggenheim now shows what reforms do. He shows Canada, who claims he was a terrible teacher his first two years of teaching and became excellent in his fifth year, starting charter schools in Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block zone that has numerous charters schools and wrap-around social services such as free clinics and pre-schools. The zone has the highest percentage of foster care kids, and skeptics warn that HCZ won’t work, but Canada sought to provide for the students in his school system “birth to college graduate” service, making sure every participant will graduate from college. Guggenheim also shows Rhee firing 30 principals (we see an actual firing with Rhee saying “I’m terminating your principalship” to a principal), 100 personnels in Central Office, and closing 23 badly performing schools. In a newsclip, the parents in an auditorium are protesting school closures but Rhee is calm.
Meanwhile, back to the kids. Francisco’s mom hasn’t heard from his teacher about his reading problems. You get the idea the teacher is overwhelmed. She says that she had a public teacher who said, “I’ll still get paid if I don’t teach.” Francisco’s mom also says how she is first to go to college in her family and at her graduation, her dad was so proud that even though he was not walking because of diabetes, he got up to dance with her.
Then Guggenheim makes the claim: If parents want better education for their kids, it means having more options. Most districts have one good school in the rich area but you have to live there to go. Districts also have magnet schools but there aren’t a lot of them, and with charter schools, only 1 in 5 of them are amazing. But for the kids, charter schools are what they apply for.
Francisco’s mom takes a 45 minutes subway ride to visit Harlem Success Academy and is gratified to learn that every student behind in reading is assigned a tutor. When Guggenheim asks if Francisco will get another chance if he doesn’t get in, she replies, no, he’ll be too old for the school. She will do whatever to get the best education for Francisco.
Up until 1970, U.S. public schools were the best. But Nixon visited China and that opened up globalization, and now we have to worry about global competition. Then as Guggenheim shows a clip that’s in the trailers, U.S. ranks 25th out of 30 among industrialized nations in math, 21st in science, but 1st in self-esteem. Even schools in the suburbs aren’t much better than inner-city schools in terms of preparing students for college. For example, 50-60% of incoming university students need remedial classes. The suburban schools get good test scores because the top percent of students mask the low the scores of the bottom 50%.
One such student in the suburbs is Emily, an 8th grader who will go to Woodside High School, a school with high test scores and an expensive media center. But Emily doesn’t test well and will be tracked into a lower track.
Guggenheim explains the tracking exists before globalization (in a graphic shown in the trailer where a lever moves people on a conveyer belt to a high or low track). The high track trains people to go into college to be CEOs and scientists, the middle track trains people to become managers and other average white-collar jobs, and the bottom track trains people to be in blue-collar jobs.
Tracking worked when jobs were plentiful and without competition in the global economy. Emily wants to go to Summit Preparatory Charter because she claims that the lower track gets worse teachers who won’t prepare her for college and that Summit prepares 100% of students for college.
Bill Gates expounds on education and the global economy. He says inthe high-tech field there isn’t enough an educated work force. Guggenheim says that’s why companies have to hire from half-way around the world. In 2020, there will only be 50 million workers qualified for 120 million high tech jobs.
Daisy is shown doing homework (no play before homework done parents say), and her parents want her to enter KIPP LA Prep, where after 8th grade, its students advance twice as much in reading and writing skills. To get in she’ll have to participate in a lottery. Guggenheim asks Daisy if she knows what a lottery is, and Daisy says that it’s something that if you win, you’ll get a lot of money. Of course the irony is that if Daisy wins, she’ll get something even better: a path to a better life. Bianca, the kindergartener, is shown looking out the window forlornly after not being able to participate in her kindergarten class graduation because her mom was laid off and owes tuition to the private parochial school. Her mom wants to enroll Bianca in Harlem Success Academy.
Guggenheim now shows what great schools can accomplish. He first show clips of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and explains at first, scientists believe that the sound barrier couldn’t be broken. Then he equates the sound barrier to the achievement gap by showing in a graphics a line going down for low achievement in poor neighborhoods, and a line going up for highachievement in rich neighborhoods. He shows a teacher, Harriet Ball, having a class sing in reciting the multiplication table. She has figured out how to teach multiplication to inner city kids after she noticed that kids have trouble memorizing facts but not lyrics. Her techniques were picked up by hercolleagues, who went on to found 82 KIPP charter schools. The schools incorporate teaching techniques like Ball’s and have longer school days and Saturday schools. It sent 90% of its students to college. Canada’s Harlem Children Zone achieved 90% proficiency in math. So like the sound barrier, people now knows that the achievement gap can be conquered as a graphic shows the low achievement line rising to overtake the high achievement line.
Anthony’s class takes a trip to visit SEED charter school, the only public boarding school in the nation. (The idea being that kids stay at the school all day and night to catch up and be sheltered from their dangerous home environment.) Someone at the school greeting them says, you're interested because someone cares about you and have taken an interest in your education. Anthony’s parents want him to go there but he says he’s bittersweet because if he gets in he’ll get a better life, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be with his friends.
A lot of what works for charter can’t be implemented in the public schoolsbecause of the teacher’s union. Rhee says that the D.C. Public Schools can’timplement longer school days, merit pay, and change in tenure because of teacher union oppositions. Union head Weingarten says that the union will reject proposals to divide the teachers. Rhee says that teachers have to earn the right to teach. One scene shows teachers in an auditorium hearing Rhee’s new union contract proposal in which teachers would give up tenure but can be paid twice as much (in form of merit pay). But the union found the proposal so threatening that it did not allow a vote. Rhee is shown leaving in her chauffeured car, almost in tears, in contrast to her earlier calm presence.
Guggenheim asks, “Now that we know everyone can learn, what is our obligation?” Guggenheim shows each of the respective charter schools the kids want to go setting up for the lottery.
Here are the facts for the kids in the film:
Anthony SEEDS Charter 61 applicants for 24 openings, less than 50% chance of getting in
Daisy KIPP LA Prep 135 applicants for 10 openings, 14%
Bianca Harlem Success Academy 767 applicants for 35 openings, 5%
Francisco Harlem Success Academy, 792 applicants for 40 openings, 5%
As the lottery unfolds, we see the kids and parents screaming in joy if they got in, otherwise cringing, or in tears (as shown in the trailer). Tension builds as Guggenheim shows the different school's official picking up the lottery ball,calling out the numbers, codes, or names of the lottery pick. A counter of spots being filled runs across the bottom of the screen. The result: only Emily got into Summit Prep. Anthony got on waiting list for SEED. Everyone else didn’t get into his or her school of choice.
Bill Gates: It'll takes a lot of outrage for change.
Rhee: Do we have the fortitude for change?
Canada: Say to kids, don’t give up, so they believe education is the way out (of poverty).
Three months later, we are shown Anthony getting a call, and that he got off the waiting list and into SEED. He packs, his grandparents drive him to school, andwe see him going into his dorm room and picking out his bed.
The film ends and as credit roll, we see suggestions as in An Inconvenient Truth. But unlike An Inconvenient Truth, there are no substantial advice except to get involved, visit the film’s website, and text a message to a number.
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