Education Goes to the Movies

By Del Stover

Filmmaker Michael Moore explored America’s response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Film director Davis Guggenheim trumpeted the dangers of global warming in his Academy Award-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Now, filmmakers have turned their cameras toward the nation’s schools, with at least eight documentaries that examine the challenges of educating America’s children released in the past year or so. Combine that with NBC’s recent “Education Nation” summit, a two-day affair that featured business, political, and media leaders talking about ways to improve the nation’s schools.

None of the documentaries offers a particularly positive message about the success of public education, which is not surprising considering that there’s little compelling drama in stories of success, and outrage -- not contentment -- is a more common inspiration for a documentary. And, in that respect, the filmmakers don’t disappoint.

They have a hard-hitting message to share: There are bad public schools out there. Schools are guilty of bureaucracy and wasteful spending. Teachers unions and tenure rules are obstacles to good schools. And charter schools are the future of school reform.

It sounds like the beginning of several months of negative publicity is ahead for public education -- another round of school bashing. But things might not be as bad as they first look. Some of these films have something useful to say. Some even admit that good public schools exist. 

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