Educators in Montana say the recently released movie “Waiting for Superman” unfairly portrays teachers, blames unions and is not applicable here.
“This movie is not about Montana,” said Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent with the Office of Public Instruction.
Nearly 100 people attended a pre-screening of the recently released film Thursday afternoon at Cinemark followed by panel discussion. The movie, directed by Academy Award-winner Davis Guggenheim, has sparked a national conversation about the state of public education. Some call it a “love letter to charter schools.” Others say “it’s an attack on teacher’s unions” because they make it impossible to get rid of poor-performing educators.
The movie focuses on the experiences of five young people from different cities in America and the challenges they face with public schools. All five of them apply to charter schools, but not all are accepted through the lottery process.
Educator Geoffrey Canada started the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1990 and was featured in the movie. He says, “The problem is schools haven’t changed, but the world around them has.”
It was clear that panel members were not impressed with the film and some were even offended.
Parman was a panel member and said he finds it difficult to characterize, as some do, the film as documentary and added that it took a cavalier approach to data. He did say however, it should serve as a warning to the Treasure State.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, said no teacher falls asleep, as the movie suggests, on the day they are granted tenure.
Helena Superintendent Bruce Messinger said the local system is taking measures to decrease the achievement gap, which he believes is a problem here. He said the district is offering more personalized assistance and programming options.
Messinger said a working group is currently being formed to address the district’s dropout rate, which will likely put some focus on the preschool years before children enter the school system.
Helena teacher Jon Runnalls said the community needs to stop blaming the shortfall of student performance on teachers. If suddenly there were an increase in cavities, would the community blame dentists? he asked.
He said teachers need smaller class sizes and food for their hungry students, and that the No Child Left Behind Act merely promotes sameness and is forcing teachers to lose the ability to teach to individuals.
Rick Hays, former Qwest president, said the movie does a disservice to the role parents play.
“I believe parents drive the process,” he said during the discussion, adding that they influence teachers, administrators, trustees, legislators and classrooms.
The movie suggested that public schools put students on a tracking system for those who make it or those who don’t. Messinger said that’s not the case in Helena where there are honors classes for above-average students and applied classes for those who struggle.
Becca Harper, a Helena High School student and student representative on the school board, said there’s a potential for a tracking problem here. She said early on, her test scores were such that she was able to take advanced classes where she’s expected, and pushed, to perform well. Harper admits that in her “regular” classes she shows up thinking that she won’t have to do as much work.
Helena School Board member Don Jones described the film as thought-provoking, emotional, and a bit superficial.
“There are things we can do to make education better in Montana, but the programs they suggest aren’t cheap,” he said. “It’s not a matter of taking the monies we have and repackaging it and have better results.”
Jones said to reach every student requires an investment.
“Can we come up with a way to convince our state to pay? I’d be all for it,” he said. “Give me $30,000 a kid and we’ll graduate them and get the vast majority in college.”
Tammy Pilcher, president of Helena’s teachers union, said the movie got one thing right.
“We have great schools because we have great educators,” she said. “We have great educators because we have a contract that attracts them.”
Pilcher said once teachers come to Helena, they stay because the system is set up to nurture their professional growth.
“Thank God I live in Montana,” she said. “(The movie) is not us, and we know that.”
The event, attended by teachers, principals and school board and community members, was sponsored by the movie theater, Helena Education Foundation, Office of Public Instruction, MEA-MFT and Helena Public Schools.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or email@example.com