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Did 'Superman' defeat the BTU contract?

I joined a group of Baltimore City teachers and educators from around the region Monday at the Landmark Theatre to view the controversial new documentary, "Waiting for Superman," a film whose exposure of longstanding failures in public education has recently spurred a negative discourse in the district.

Last week, Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, cited the documentary, in part, for the defeat of a radical, reform-centric contract that teachers voted to reject. She said the contract was proposed at a time when "fear, frustration and distrust are at an all-time high," adding that "the situation has not been helped by the movie 'Waiting for Superman' and the teacher bashing that has occurred since its release."

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In his first public statements about the movie since its release, city schools CEO Andres Alonso said the movie's "fundamental truth is effectively right" in that poor, black and Hispanic children should not be prisoners of their ZIP codes when it comes to access to education. He said that fundamental truth "transcends any other aspect of the movie I might have revisited."

Of the movie's effect on the contract vote, Alonso said: "We should try very hard not to scapegoat anyone. Given how the voter turnout was, we should respect that it was an extraordinary difficult decision to make."

The viewing Monday was hosted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, which also engaged viewers in a discussion after the movie. Teachers I spoke with did not overwhelmingly think that the movie affected the contract, but many said that while the film raised great points about the state of the teaching profession, they hoped director Davis Guggenheim is planning a sequel.

About a week before Baltimore's union contract vote, Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth," released the movie nationwide, taking viewers on an evocative journey of five students whose access to quality education was determined by a charter school lottery.

The struggles for those students and their families were undeniably unjust, but how they got to the point of placing their lives in the luck of the draw is not so clear cut.

The film featured education experts, including Johns Hopkins reseach scientist Robert Balfanz, who sounded off about everything from whether public education has failed because of unfulfilled promises from politicians or unrelenting teacher unions, or whether failing neighborhoods are responsible for failing schools or vice-versa.

Emphasis was placed on teachers--particularly in the notion that "if you continue to breathe for two years, you get tenure," and the bad teachers who are so hard to fire, they are simply traded off by principals in a "lemon dance."

Former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who recently resigned after an embattled tenure, was arguably the "superwoman" of the movie. You couldn't help but think that those who opposed her tactics--teachers unions and D.C. teachers primarily--were the villains.

Rhee's most humanistic moment in the movie was when the usually unwavering personality sinks in the corner of her car after attending a D.C. teacher union meeting, when officials didn't even allow the membership to vote on a new contract that attempted to do away with tenure. A defeated Rhee mumbles: "Now, I see in a more coherent way, why things are the way they are."

But city teachers who attended the viewing said the movie didn't coherently explain the complexities of public education, namely, the variables of socio-economic conditions and instablility that infiltrate the classroom.

"I really expected a more balanced presentation in terms of options for public schools," said Candice Abd'al-Rahim, a city school teacher. "According to this movie, the most viable options are charter schools."

Chris Kosmides, a city charter school teacher, told the crowd that the movie highlighted "how frustrated we feel about the [public school] kids we left behind because we know what we left them with." Still, he compared the movie's premise to standardized tests in that there is always a search for the right answer.

An Anne Arundel County librarian encouraged city teachers to stand up for themselves in the wake of the contract vote: "I have worked with supermen and women everyday, and this striked at the core of everything I've done my entire life. It's imperative for public school teachers to speak up."

Helen Atkinson, a director of a city charter school, compared the documentary to a 1950s propaganda movie. She said the movie "posed the problem as if it were very simple, and the solutions as if it were equally as simply."

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As the movie garners the attention of the public in the coming weeks, many will be watching Baltimore as it moves forward in attempting to revolutionize the teaching profession. The timing may be unfortunate, but the dialogue more poignant.

Has anybody seen the movie? Do you think it affected the BTU vote? How do you think the movie will affect the perception of city teachers if the new contract ultimately fails?

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