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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
The documentary film "Waiting for Superman," a controversial and pointed critique of U.S. K-12 public education, has set the stage for discussions, one of which took place in Santa Clara on Dec. 14 and included two local educators who were relevant to the film: Diane Tavenner, the founder in 2003 of Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City; and James Lianides, the new superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District.
The film tells the stories of five students, four of them impoverished, who are seeking alternatives to traditional education in preparing for college. The students apply to five charter schools, including Summit Prep, that in the film are presented as bastions of excellence.
These students and their families are hoping to sidestep an educational establishment which, in the film, is shown as failing too often to prepare kids for college. At one point, that establishment is represented by Woodside High.
The filmmakers brush over the school with a few outside shots and reportedly did not follow up on offers to interview officials from Woodside High and/or the Sequoia district.
"A better movie would have been a very balanced picture" of Summit Prep and Woodside, Mr. Lianides said at the panel discussion.
The Sequoia district is sensitive to comparisons with Summit, which is relatively small, notable in qualifying its graduates for four-year colleges, and innovative -- thanks in part to charter schools' freedom from state education code regulations. Summit has significant enrollment from The Almanac's circulation area.
"Superman" should be viewed as a mirror, Ms. Tavenner said in assessing the film's value. "It's hard not to want to defend what we do. There's some stuff in there that's really truthful and it's not pretty."
Directing the discussion was moderator Muhammed Chaudhry, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The foundation's mission, according to its website, is to improve math and science education in Santa Clara County via a "clear focus on achieving results, partnering, and emphasizing creativity and innovation."
The other members of the panel were Dean Vogel, vice president of the California Teachers Association; Ash Pirayou, an attorney specializing in law related to politics and governmental relations; Charles Weis, the superintendent of schools in Santa Clara County; and John Danner, founder of Rocketship Education, a nationwide network of K-5 charter schools.
Mr. Chaudhry kicked off the discussion by proposing that "Superman" characterizes the U.S. public education system as "terribly broken" and proposes fixing it by increasing the number of charter schools, increasing instructional time, and reducing the influence of teachers' unions.
The film's conclusion shows a Summit Prep applicant winning her lottery, and the other four students in tears over not winning theirs. "That's exactly why we created Rocketship," Mr. Danner said when his turn came around. "We have to get very, very serious about having enough great schools so that that never happens again."
"Superman," Mr. Weis said, is entertainment that simplifies the issues, focuses on impoverished children, and reaches debatable conclusions based on "somewhat spurious" data. "The vast majority of students are succeeding well," he said.
Mr. Weis noted that developing good teachers is critical, that he is open to adopting charter-school best practices, and that Californians need to spend more on education, as they did 50 years ago. "We need to say that our children are our best investment," he said.
Mr. Vogel of the teachers' union returned to the notion of the film as entertainment. The fact that it is moving audiences to tears is evidence that the filmmakers, being filmmakers, "did something right," he said.
Asked whether "Superman" is unfair to unionized teachers, Mr. Vogel replied: "We're asked to do more and more and more with less and less and less."
The film compares U.S. teachers unfavorably with Finnish teachers. Such comparisons are unfair, Mr. Vogel said, because Finnish teachers are so much better trained. "I think the system we use for evaluating teachers is broken," he added.
In concluding the discussion, Mr. Chaudhry asked the panelists for the one thing that the state could do to raise revenue for public education.
Stop adding education regulations while cutting education funding, Mr. Lianides said.
Have an honest discussion about taxes and the unfair distribution of resources to schools, Mr. Pirayou, the attorney, said.
Start educating all students to exceed the entrance requirements for the University of California, Ms. Tavenner said. As it is, she said, 76 percent of Californians receiving public education will never earn enough to replenish the state coffers for what it cost to educate them.
Go to this link to see a video of the panel discussion.