This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
I am out here in San Francisco where the Education Writers Association, of which I am the current board president, is holding our annual meeting. EWA is a national organization committed to improving the quality of education journalism, and this is our 63rd annual meeting.
Last night, we heard from Davis Guggenheim, director of "An Inconvenient Truth," and saw clips from his movie "Waiting for Superman." In "Waiting" he gives public education the same treatment he gave global warming, in hopes of raising public awareness about the issue.
Instead of Al Gore, he focuses on five students and their families — two from New York City, two from California, and one from Washington, D.C — as they evaluate their options and search for a quality school. Each enters a lottery for a charter school, which represents in their minds their only shot at something better than what their local public school offers. The film culminates with the results of the lottery.
Guggenheim points out that not all charter schools are successful — in fact, he cites a number that says only one in five are — and says his movie is not meant to be pro-charter. However, he said that using the lottery as the narrative hook, it automatically made charters — and to some extent, magnet schools — the focal point. Although he didn’t show these clips, teachers unions and in particular Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, are not presented in the most flattering way.
The movie opens in October, and he wants people to sign a pledge to see it and hopes to spark public discussion and debate about why America’s schools are defined by such stark inequities.
The theme of our meeting is "examining the evidence" and we are having sessions on most of the hot-button issues — performance pay for teachers, whether school turnarounds actually work, the meaning of "innovation," evaluating charter schools, high-quality early education, the underfunding of teacher pensions — as well as more hands-on sessions such as how to use social media in reporting.
Before Guggenheim, we had a provocative session on "the future of assessment," in which James Gee of Arizona State University argued that complex, strategy-driven video games actually offer more robust assessment of students’ problem-solving skills than the very 19th-century fill-in-the-bubble.