Waiting for “Superman” Oversimplifies a Complex Issue

In Waiting for "Superman", Daisy wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. That's why she enters the lottery to attend KIPP LA PREP.

Fitting complex issues like global warming or educational reform into a two-hour documentary is a monumental task, but an impressive one nonetheless. In Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim pits high-performing teachers and charter schools against the crumbling public school system, which he claims lacks accountability and consequence for union-protected teachers who don’t pull their weight.

If only explaining the crisis in public education was so simple. It’s much more advanced. Guggenheim makes plenty of strong points about potential — what any kid can do if learning from great teachers at great schools — but the movie skirts around several factors, including shrinking state budgets, a brutal job market and educational alternatives outside of charter schools.

1. Public schools are poor. Schools across the country are cutting teachers and administrators for budgetary purposes, which in turn leads to larger class sizes and less classroom space. Gym and music classes are seeing the guillotine, along with safety patrol, nurses and counselors. This isn’t to argue public schools should be given a free pass. (They’re not being given anything.) However, they’re being asked to do more with less — an impossible expectation.

2. The unemployment factor. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a study examining the graduating class of 2009, about 7.6 percent of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree would wind up unemployed. Compare that to students who would graduate with an Associate’s degree. Their unemployment rate? 6.1 percent. The face of higher education is changing. If the purpose of college is to earn the skills necessary to find a job after graduation, we need to start thinking about what’s best for youth, not our mantel. As many of my friends can relate, a four-year degree means nothing without a job.

Guggenheim’s documentary makes constant reference to the importance of earning a Bachelor’s degree. Why? Not all students can/will be doctors, lawyers or engineers. That doesn’t mean they can’t find quality employment. I believe over the next decade, factoring in the overwhelming costs of college and burdens of student debt, students should be encouraged to pursue community college or trade school if that’s where their interests lie. It plenty cases, it makes more sense.

3. Public, charter and private. That’s it, right? Wrong. Perhaps some of the most exciting changes in secondary education are being found online. Public and for-profit schools alike are allowing students to earn their diploma through online education. In his annual letter on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates wrote, “A lot of people, including me, think [online education] is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.”

Gates, who advocates for reform in “Superman”, believes online learning can provide opportunity among budgetary constraints and access issues. Online education means students wouldn’t have to be shackled to the “dropout factory” in their district. It could also mean longer study hours, individualized education and more resources for research and tutoring.

Waiting for “Superman” wasn’t necessarily intended to provide a prescription so much as offer a diagnosis. Guggenheim’s documentary, as was the case with An Inconvenient Truth, is meant to create a dialogue and throw our attention at public education, the most important service in our country. Pledging money to help fund classroom projects is a good start, but we need to think bigger and broader.

This movie is only the start of the conversation.

Waiting for Better Teacher Wages

Tonight, I’m attending a screening of Waiting for “Superman”, the new documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim which captures the shortcomings of the public school system and miseducation of American youth. It’s a highly controversial doc because Guggenheim seems to suggest the problems start with the grown-ups, not the kids.

More particularly, teachers.

I’m a product of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) public school system, which employs the lowest-paid teachers in the country. Though the cost of living is lower in South Dakota compared to most states, $35,000 is hardly a livable wage for someone with a family to support. Despite having teachers whose annual income ranked dead last in the country, I had many great mentors who guided me all the way through graduation. I can’t speak on behalf of my former classmates, but I feel like I got a quality education.

I had initiative, but I also had stability. I had supportive parents who were involved in my studies. I’m sure many teachers — among them, my long-retired grandmother who taught elementary school for nearly 40 years in Fairmont, Minn. — would argue much of the problem with underachieving students comes from poor parenting. That’s hard to dispute, but this is challenge is what singularly makes teachers so important. Today’s parents may stink at raising their kids, but don’t forget, teachers are educating tomorrow’s parents. Teachers have the opportunity to break destructive cycles and mobilize their students. The great teachers know this. The great teachers do this.

The problem is the great teachers aren’t being paid enough and the complacent ones hide behind tenure and unions. Again, I haven’t seen “Superman” yet, but if Guggenheim’s doc suggests teachers be rewarded for excellence while the dead weight gets lopped off, I’m on board.

I’m coming back to this topic tomorrow, but I’m interested in what teachers — current or future — have to say about the movie. More than that, why have you chosen such a demanding job?

Zuckerberg Resilient the Week Before Social Network Opens

If Jesse Eisenberg was paid $5 million to play Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he would need 1,379 sequels to match Zuckerberg's net worth.

Just over a week from the opening of The Social Network, it seems Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are doing anything and everything to earn some positive press. Can you blame them? The movie is getting rave reviews, and those I’ve talked to who’ve seen advanced screenings say it colors Zuckerberg a world-class douche bag, whether right or wrong.

So, what’s Team Zuckerberg been up to?

  • Donating $100 million to Newark (NJ) public schools. According to the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg will announce “a donation of up to $100 million to the Newark schools this week, in a bold bid to improve one of the country’s worst performing public school systems.” And with grand Zuckerberg flair, the announcement will be made on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
  • Working on a Facebook phone. Maybe. After previously dismissing a report from TechCrunch regarding a possible Facebook phone, Bloomberg reported Facebook is working with INQ Mobile Ltd. on a pair of smartphones which could be carried by AT&T in the U.S. in the second half of 2011.
  • Climbing the list of Forbes’ 400 richest Americans. How do you get past being depicted by B-list actor Jesse Eisenberg? Try increasing your value $4.9 billion in just a year. Zuckerberg’s $6.9 billion puts him at No. 35 on the list of America’s 400 richest people. For perspective, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is worth just $6.1 billion. Chump change. Why does this matter? A) Should Facebook go public, investors can equate Zuckerberg’s financial success with still more growth potential and B) Zuckerberg’s now surpassing some of the greatest luminaries in our country in terms of value and influence.

Expect more educational philanthropy from Facebook, as Zuckerberg has long been a proponent for increasing salaries for public school teachers. His timing — with the donation and the announcement on Oprah — is perfect, considering Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary Waiting for “Superman” opens Oct. 1, the same day as The Social Network. (Guggenheim appeared on Oprah Monday to promote the doc alongside Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system.)

About a year ago, I read Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, the book upon which The Social Network is based. While reading it, I was aware the movie was being developed, but I imagine you’ll get the same impression from the movie as I got from the book — a sense of incompletion. Simply, the Facebook story is still in its early chapters, and to pen a book and movie before we truly understand what Facebook means seems … I don’t know … rushed? Opportunistic? Impatient?

You don’t net $6.9 billion without pissing someone off along the way. And more importantly, I don’t think Facebook users care about Zuckerberg’s dealings. Facebook has woven itself into our lives in such a way that we’re no longer concerned with how it came to be, but more importantly, that it exists.

Who can name the inventor of the Internet? (Not Al Gore.) E-mail? Wireless Internet? Online bill pay? Facebook has become a tool, a utility, something we’ve come to need. Ever talk to a friend who’s decided to quit Facebook? They don’t miss the poking and the walls and the photo albums. They miss the communication. They miss the feeling of being connected. It’s the same feeling you’d have if you up and removed your mailbox, gave up on the postal service.

I digress.

Anyone plan on seeing The Social Network? Do you believe a movie that negatively depicts Mark Zuckerberg will affect the way you interact with Facebook?

Someone Please Feed 50 Cent!

I’ll admit, I’ve been downing Slim Fast for lunch for the past few days. I’d like to get back down to 205 pounds or so. Maybe I should try the 50 Cent diet:

According to ThisIs50.com, Curtis Jackson a.k.a. 50 Cent went from 214 pounds to 160 for his upcoming role in Things Fall Apart, where he plays a football player with cancer. For nien weeks, 50 went on a liquid diet while walking three hours per day on a treadmill.

This has got to be the most shocking weight loss for a movie role we’ve seen since Christian Bale in The Machinist:

For his part, Bale went from 182 pounds to 120 by consuming nothing but a can of tuna and an apple each day for several months. When shooting wrapped, Bale put on 85 pounds for his role in Batman Begins. On his major weight loss, Bale said:

“I wouldn’t want to take it to that extreme again, because firstly, it was necessary to lose weight for that role – not as much as I did – but it was a challenge mentally to see if I was capable of doing such a thing.”

You know what I find mentally challenging? Not eating a square of Portland Coffee Cake from Starbucks every morning. Looks like I’m about to lose that one, again. I  leave you with this one question: If for some reason your job required sudden major weight loss, would you be willing to go through with it or would you move on to the next opportunity?

Battling Beetles

Maybe not the most accurate representation of the beetles we're seeing, but you always imagine them worse they really are, right?

Every morning, when I wake up to make coffee and oatmeal, I close my eyes a few seconds after turning on the lights. These black beetles have started showing up in our apartment, so I like to give them a head start as they scurry for cover. It’s an unpleasant cohabitation, but peaceful all around.

Still, I’d like them gone. It’s not like they help with rent.

We have what you might call a “bug problem,” although I would argue it’s always problematic when you’ve got beetles crawling around your place. It’s really kind of an insult, because there’s a stigma involved with having an infestation in your apartment — it must be dirty, it must be cheap or it must be old. Yeah, our apartment is old, but there’s no reason beetles would look at our apartment and think, Bingo! My girlfriend and I are victims here.

I suspect they’re coming in through the windows. With the weather being so mild here in the winter (and it’s been especially warm this year), there hasn’t been a streak of freezing days long enough to kill the beetles off. Then again, I’m an English graduate, so there’s absolutely not scientific merit to what I just wrote. That’s just my theory. It’s El Nino’s fault.

Maybe this is karma. This is what I get for challenging all the food ethics and sensibilities of the more environmentally conscious locals. One of the benefits of eating organic — or so I’m told — is the produce is grown without use of insecticide or herbicide. Just seeds, sunbeams, soil and the golden hands of God, and BOOM! Organic green bell peppers, $3 apiece.

I hate insects too much, so I’m not cool with eating organic. In fact, I’m happy to spray a little insecticide on my salad just to be sure I’m not mowing down on some microscopic larvae. I’ve seen Fly too many times. That’s not the lifestyle I’m going for.

What’s the connection here? My girlfriend and I, the ones unwilling to buy organic, are probably the only ones in our apartment complex who are dealing with these beetles. That’s how I see it, anyway, but that paranoia is tied with the emotion you feel when bugs start showing up at your place. You feel violated. You feel targeted. You feel like the beetles are communicating in the night, holding position in the most strategic areas of your apartment, slowly plotting a hostile takeover. Or a dance number:

So, faithful TMT readers and soon-to-be-fellow millionaires, what’s No. 1 on my list when we win the Powerball tonight? A new apartment with a 24-hour butler/Orkin Man. That’s a guy worth keeping in the payroll.

Rental Advisory: A Redbox Etiquette Primer

Where indecision and impatience intersect.

It happened again.

It always happens this way: I’ve got somewhere to go, but I need to drop off a movie at the Redbox across the street. It’ll only take a minute, I tell myself, but of course, it never goes that way. It’s always a good 10-minute wait, because I get stuck behind the dopey couple that can’t decide what to rent. They’ll peek over their shoulders every few moments, and I’ll try to keep my patience, but it seems like a long wait just to drop off a movie.

If you’ve rented a flick from a Redbox, you’ve been through this experience, too.

You’ve also probably used the noun Redbox as a verb, as in, “Yeah, we’re going to stay in and Rebox it tonight.” Movie rental stores are shutting down across the country as vending machines and subscription services like Redbox and Netflix, respectively, become more popular. It’s important we understand what this change means to our culture and how it affects us. It’s also high time we develop some language to better define just what the hell is taking place now days when you go to rent a movie.

I’m all about instant gratification, so I don’t subscribe to Netflix. That’s some other blogger’s cross to bear. I want to focus on the Redbox experience and what I’d like to call “Redbox rage.” (Copyright that — it’s going to catch on.)

Redbox rage occurs any time there is more than one person at Redbox machine whereby an individual will feel extreme impatience and the discomfort of being rushed in consecutive order. It starts when you saunter over to the Redbox, but someone’s already at the machine, scrolling through every movie available, reading synopses, comparing movie lengths, deeply questioning their desire to see another movie featuring Jennifer Aniston or Seth Rogen. They might be with a significant other, which springs the possibility they’ll discuss what each has seen, what they would like to see, why one is stupid for wanting see something, why the other is more stupid for not remembering having seen it in the theaters on a date, and the ordeal is finally settled 23 minutes later when they select the one movie you were hoping to see, which just so happens to be the only copy that was available in the machine.

Then, it’s your turn.

Your judgment and grasp of alphabetical order are clouded by your outrage at how anyone could take so long to be pick out a movie, as if it were a health insurance plan. Second later, you feel someone behind you as your paging through the options. They’re sighing. They’re shifting their weight from foot to foot, arms crossed as they bite their lips. Suddenly, you don’t recall ever seeing a movie your entire life and you have no idea what you would like to see. The person behind you, they’ve got their Blackberry out now, and they’re texting frantically, possibly ordering an abduction or assassination to shorten their wait. You remember the one movie you wanted to see, and it’s checked out. Nothing else looks good. You dash away from the machine apologetically, sweating, completely flabbergasted.

And that’s Redbox rage. You’re the protagonist and then the antagonist. You’re the thrown punch, but then the resulting broken wrist. It’s a miserable experience that, at best, results in a movie you wanted to see. But more times than not, it’s a choice that felt rushed and was ultimately regretted.

This never happened at traditional movie stores. There, the only worry you had was returning movies on time to avoid foreclosure-threatening lates fees and having to banter with the cashiers who, more times than not, were elitist movie snobs with their endless Indie cred. Otherwise, you could spend all your sweet time browsing up and down the aisles, stumbling upon the movies you’d forgotten you wanted to see or movies you never knew existed. It was a more peaceful process that bucked the idea consumerism need be so streamlined. We’ll fondly remember the era of movie rental stores as simpler times.

We know Redbox isn’t going anywhere. I propose the following rules to lighten the experience and erode feelings of homicidal rage. Here is what I suggest be accepted as Redbox etiquette:

  1. If you’re selecting a movie and someone is behind you, check to see if they only intend on returning a movie. If yes, allow them to do so. If no, thank them for their patience but be mindful they’re waiting.
  2. If you’re in line to select a movie, use the time to consider what you would like to rent and what you might rent if your first option is unavailable. Allow the party ahead of you time and space to make a decision without feeling rushed. Remember, you’ll be in their shoes soon.
  3. If it’s a make-or-break trip to the Redbox, and you need assurance the movie you want is a) there and b) waiting for you, visit the Redbox Web site prior to your visit and reserve it.
  4. If any of these rules seem impossible or even difficult to follow, subscribe to Netflix.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Anyone have any nightmarish Redbox experiences? Amendments to my Redbox etiquette proposal?