Sunday, March 28, 2010

TER goes to the movies: “The Lottery”

Today I watched a screener of “The Lottery,” the Eva Moskowitz informercial—er, sorry, charter school documentary—that is making the film festival rounds and coming out in May. Sure, I got a little teary-eyed at the end; every detail of this film is set up for the viewer to believe that if these children do not get into one of Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academies, they are doomed for life. The sad thing is, I had the feeling the five-year-olds at the lottery got that dispiriting message as well. Why do they let children go to these, anyway?

My critique has nothing to do with those charters or the traditional public schools they serve as an alternative to, none of which I have visited. Even if the former are superior to the latter, I found the film exceedingly manipulative. There was the predictable myth I will never tire of attempting to debunk yet politicans will never cease repeating, that prisons are built based on elementary school reading scores.  You hear, as you often do, that the average black twelfth grader reads on the same level of the average white eighth grader. When I tried to track that bit down years ago to use in a book, NCES psychometricians told me it is a misuse of NAEP results, the scale scores for different grades not being directly comparable. There are plenty of legitimate data out there people can use to show how bad the achievement gap is; it irks me that public officials go to the same fictoids again and again.

Okay, those are little pet peeves; let me get past them. Now let’s discuss the way the filmmakers play ominous music literally every time the phrase “teachers union” is used. Or the way they rip apart the traditional schools without ever showing them, or their students, or their teachers, to us. Given the promotional materials for “Waiting for Superman,” I have a feeling we are in for the same unsubtle message when that film comes out too, though I think it at least will take us into the schools being trashed, so viewers might understand why.

I have so many thoughts on how disturbingly polarized the education “conversation” has become—reformers vs. unions, Rhee and Klein as saviors or Satans, as if there is no sane middle ground—that I am having trouble figuring out how to even start explaining them. I was waiting for a big, cohesive way to start laying out my take on all this, but instead it looks like it will just start leaking out of me.


  1. I don't doubt that the emotions are genuine. But a movie that is supposed to be all about those emotions needs to show us WHY people have them, and this film doesn't get us there.

  2. Thanks for going into the details of this film. With the access we all have to digital video, editing, online distribution and the like, we can soon move from dueling blogs and dueling think tank reports and go more fully into the dueling documentaries - though if it's as weak as you suggest, this film doesn't exactly deserve the label "documentary".

  3. But you in the press need to slap around your own colleagues a lot for this crap too. As a daily newspaper veteran (copy editor) myself, I really had no idea until I retired and started following the news as an education advocate, but surely education reporters are more aware than I was. I gather that the attitude is kind of a polite "oh, we won't discuss our colleagues' lapses."

    Here's what I see: in general, education reporters who are knowledgeable and understand the complexities. But the story portrayed in "The Lottery" is repeated in the press all the time by:

    -- editorial writers.
    -- in-house columnists.
    -- non-education reporters helicoptering in to do an education story that they don't understand. (Need I even mention that Time and Newsweek have to be called out for blowing this over and over and over again.)
    -- freelancers.
    (We won't even go into the op-eds from outside contributors).

    As one example, somehow a higher-up San Francisco Chronicle entertainment editor became enamored of education "miracles," and readers were treated to some gushing education pieces written by entertainment and feature writers.

    Do education writers ever bring this up with their colleagues? The readers don't see the difference between a puff piece written by a general-assignment intern who's clueless about education and a nuanced report by a well-informed veteran education writer. Unfortunately, your editors don't seem to see it either.

  4. Check out YES Prep Schools, IDEA schools and KIPP schools, and see their results. They are incredible, and an example to poorly performing public schools. There shouldn't be debate on that, just a chance for positive growth.