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Season of the education film: Do they help or hurt?

From The Answer Sheet, Washington Post

By Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, part of the Whole Child Initiative at ASCD, an educational leadership organization

We are in the season of the educational documentary. Much has been written about the four films coming out for theatrical run and community screenings this fall about the state of the U.S. public education system: Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, The Cartel, and Race To Nowhere. But far less has been mentioned about what happens after the final credits roll.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, summed it up nicely when talking in this Education Week article about the film that has garnered the most publicity so far, Waiting For Superman.

“I think it’s naive to imagine a single movie or book is going to change permanently what the public is concerned about or how it thinks about an issue,” Hess said. “People are busy. They have jobs and kids. They are supposed to be worried about national security and highway safety and Internet stalkers and any number of things. Even if they walk out of the movie fired up, there’s lots of other causes and demands.”

Any lasting effects of Waiting For Superman or the other films will be determined by the success of the engagement activities connected to each of them. “What happens next is what matters,” he said. “Is there a strategy to linking those people into the issue in an ongoing way?”

So what do the films have planned for the day after?

The Lottery, The Cartel and Waiting for Superman — all of which highlight charter schools in a positive light — provide general links on their sites for people to find out more about their school’s test scores or their district’s financial situation, depending upon the film. They tell viewers to contact advocacy groups, donate to similar organizations, and to become a mentor or a teacher, or a watchdog for public finances. The suggestions themselves suggest that the filmmakers believe they have definitively made their points, and all that is left is action. Discussion over.

The film Race To Nowhere takes a different stance. This film, which looks at the pressures faced by schoolchildren and teachers in a test-obsessed era and paints a different picture from the other three movies, tells viewers to continue the debate in their communities, schools and homes and search for answers that work at the local level. This approach presumes that the film is the start of the conversation and not the end. It is also, somewhat ironically, the only film which has designed direct actions and discussions that actually involve students.

The film fits with ASCD’s commitment to the Whole Child and Healthy School Communities in particular but it was the commitment to an ongoing dialogue that prompted ASCD’s executive director, Gene Carter, to write the Forward to the Facilitation Guide that accompanies the film.

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