Stand and Deliver (1988)

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Continuing with education movies theme, I chose to watch this classic.  I vaguely recalled seeing parts of it before, but was unsure.  I proved myself correct.  All I could remember clearly was the the scene where Escalante comes face-to-face with the ETS investigators and argued why his students should not need to retake the exam when there is no definitive evidence of cheating.

As with the other “based on a true story” teaching movies, it is very motivational and inspirational, but from the perspective of a viewer who wants to be entertained, it could have been significantly better.  The movie was good solely because the actual story was so inspirational.  However, this was another case where so many scenes and segments seemed disjointed.  Without a clear direction of how to tell the success story, many sub-plots and undertones were severely under-developed.  The movie may have tried too hard to focus on every student’s story; the result is that it became hard to empathize with any single student’s trials and tribulations.  I thought the director would’ve made it easier on himself by focusing on the story from the teacher’s perspective, but he did not, or at least did not do a good job of that either.

One pleasant change from the majority of teaching films was that this movie focused on a mathematics teacher rather than an English or music teacher.  Furthermore, unlike other stories where students were only shown to pass according to the teacher’s standards, this movie was able to give perspective on their actual level of achievement because the students had to take the AP examination which is well-known and recognized.  Comparatively, in films like Freedom Writers, I can accept that the students are learning and appreciating class, but I have no tangible sense of their English ability in comparison to a typical high school freshman or sophomore.

Indeed an inspirational story, but shame on the film-makers for not making it into a truly unforgettable movie.  In another ten years, I will probably have forgotten everything except the scene of Mr. Escalante arguing with the ETS investigators again.  A story like this had so much more potential, and it was, by no means, fully achieved.

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Freedom Writers (2007)

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I have been on this recent trend of craving education related movies since watching for Waiting for ‘Superman’ and have even recently forced my close friends to watch Dead Poet’s Society, which is one of my absolute favorites.  I wanted to see if this is one of those inspirational movies as well, and it indeed is.  But I must say that turning around “unteachable” kids would never be my ideal role as a teacher.  I still prefer the role of John Keating, who has a much less hostile setting and must only show his boys that they can think for their own and can reach great heights.

More than anything else, this movie reminded me of Dangerous Minds, except based on a true story.  Movies based on true stories are always that much more inspirational because there is a sense of realism that just can’t fully be reproduced by fictional tales.  It was especially touching to see them come together with each other, then work together to bring over Miep Gies who housed Anne Frank during the Holocaust.  Her talk was inspiring for me as it was for the students in the movie.  Miep Gies was so firm in her belief that she was not a hero, but merely a person doing the right thing.  I think this resonated so deeply with me because it coincides with my extended infatuation with the idea of justice.

It was also interesting to see Imelda Staunton again; her role seemed almost exactly like the one she later portrayed in the Harry Potter movies.  I was afraid that she would turn this movie into another case where the system kept a good teacher from doing her job, but I was pleased to discover that one impediment along the chain of command does not mean that everyone else along the chain is also so obtuse.   But, it is sad and unfortunate that the teacher had to sacrifice so much of her own personal life to achieve success in the classroom.  Hopefully, it was worth it for her when all was said and done.

In the end, I do wonder if what she created can be reproduced again, in some form, in other classrooms.  And as much as I understand the bond between classmates, it may still be important for them to gain perspectives from other peers and other teachers.  From that point of view, I don’t know if I condone actions such as following the same class from their freshman year until high school graduation.  Of course, if the alternative is for them to return to the streets, then staying in the same class for four years isn’t so bad.  There are so many challenges to being a teacher, I can’t imagine how the good ones do so much.  I suppose some people just have a gift.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

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I had heard that this was a breathtaking documentary, and in the end I would agree.  It gives a fairly dismal outlook for the American education system and gives the teacher’s union a pretty bad wrap.  I always do my best to avoid jumping to conclusions about groups like the teacher’s union after this type of documentary.  But what does seem clear is that there is a significant problem with US education, but the kicker isn’t that we don’t know how to do it right, it’s that there are so many forces working against it being done right.  It really makes me quite worried about the future when I have kids.

I guess this issue is not a new one.  Having had some public school experience both in China and the United States, I had a very clear perspective of the differences in performance.  A relatively recent New York Times article also reminded me of this last December.  Still, I didn’t know just how poor the conditions are before seeing the statistics in the movie on reading comprehension and math proficiency.  It really does make me wonder where all the money poured into the education system ends up.

I think a key factor that was mentioned briefly is that the system was good for the time when it was developed, but it has failed to evolve since about 1900.  The powers that be need to rethink how the entire system works, and turn it upside down.   Michelle Rhee’s work is commendable although it was swift, and in instances, it may have been unjust.  But just looking at this system makes me think that it’s one of those situations where we need to destroy everything, and just start over from scratch unless some significant changes happen soon.

How is it that teachers are not held accountable for students’ education?  A teacher who reads his newspaper during class earns the same as a teacher who is working hard and putting in extra time to tutor his students?  Sounds wrong to me.  Maybe its too business-minded of me, but I feel teacher salary should at least partially be based on their performance.  I wonder if I will be forced to enroll my future offspring in this type of system where their education will depend largely on luck of the draw.  If so, I may be headed to China or Hong Kong, either that or I’ll have to saddle up for a good private school.

I recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about the state of education in the US today.  It may be a slightly skewed point of view, but I support it and think its necessary to get some of the points across, i.e. something needs to change.  Even Bill Gates comes out to say, “We cannot sustain an economy based on innovation unless we have citizens well-educated in math, science, and engineering.”  I’m sure other innovators/billionaires would agree as well.