Saturday, February 26, 2011

The first surprise of this year's Oscars

The majority of those who make predictions see The King's Speech winning best picture at tomorrow night's big Academy Awards gala. Of course, that same majority predicted that Waiting for Superman, the much ballyhooed attack on American public schools and the Teachers Unions, would win the Oscar for best documentary feature. Instead, when nominations were announced last month, Waiting for Superman did not make the cut. Despite efforts by Oprah Winfrey (who devoted two days of her show to promoting the film), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which spent $2 million to market Waiting for Superman for Academy consideration, the Academy nominated five worthier films instead.

"It's all about the kids," Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. schools and one of the stars of Waiting for Superman, is fond of saying. But the kids did not appear on the cover of Time, as Rhee did, and they weren't on the Today Show on the morning of January 11, as Rhee and the film's director, David Guggenheim, were for no other reason than to promote Waiting for Superman for Oscar consideration. By then, the film had been gone from theaters for several months, so their efforts were not aimed at the general movie-going public. Of course, it's not about the kids at all. It's about money and self-glorification.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post believes the Academy saw through the film which has been criticizied as one-sided and for staging several scenes for dramatic purposes. The film promotes charter schools as a miracle cure for the ailing public school system, but as Diane Ravitch reports in "The Myth of Charter Schools," published in the November 11, 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books, Albert Shanker, a former president of the American Federation of Teachers who first championed charter schools, “turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

And you say you don’t believe in conspiracies?

In her article, Ravitch challenges the thesis of Waiting for Superman that America’s public schools are failing because of incompetent teachers, and that publically-funded but privately operated charter schools will save the children. Charter schools have had limited success, however, with only one in five succeeding. The film does not ignore this fact, but Guggenheim sneaks it in so it won't attract much notice.

“Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic,” Ravitch writes.

Perception is everything. The way information is presented is as important as the information itself. Emphasize the trivial, and the trivial becomes momentous. Ignore the momentous, and its importance is diminished. Had the events of September 11, 2001 been buried on page 5A of the newspaper and been reduced to two or three minutes on the nightly TV news instead of being splashed across the front page and subjected to round-the-clock coverage, it might have been regarded as a simple tragedy, a freak occurrence without lasting impact. There are, indeed, gatekeepers in the media who decide what we should know and how much we should know about it. They also decide who we should champion as heroes and who to castigate as villains. It is these gatekeepers who have anointed Michelle Rhee as the leader of education reform in America.

The media is positively in love with Rhee, but how did this attractive young Korea-born woman rise to such prominence? Is it due to her accomplishments? There are no records to back up her claim to have raised test scores when she was a teacher herself. I suspect that Rhee was groomed and propped up by powerful forces, much like the average candidate for political office. Rhee began her teaching career as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., which Ravitch reports is “one of the first for-profit” educational interests. Her domineering personality, minority status, and sexual attractiveness made Rhee an ideal spokesperson for the powerful business interests eager to take over the public school system for their own selfish gain. When Rhee made the cover of Time magazine, she was photographed dressed in black, holding a ruler as if it was a sword, and wearing a stern expression. She resembled nothing less than a dominatrix preparing to dole out discipline to a stable of slaves. No matter what she claims or what her supporters tell us, Rhee is not really a teacher or an educational reformer. She's a media star comparable to Kim Kardashian.

Rhee probably entertained fantasies of accompanying Guggenheim on stage when he collected his Oscar, and being cheered as a hero by the Hollywood elite, many of whom like to make a show of thanking teachers in their own acceptance speeches even though few of them were good students. Now, Rhee will stay home on Oscar night. One of the many things working against Waiting for Superman is the fact that Hollywood is a big union town. The Academy's sympathies probably lie with the Teachers Unions, whom Rhee is dedicated to destroying and which is the chief villain in the film.

The Academy is frequently knocked by film buffs who disagree with their choices, but with this year's nominees for Best Documentary Feature, they deserve a round of applause. They recognize Waiting for Superman for what it is: propaganda for a takeover of public schools by private business.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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