Let's make a movie

The Cartel, which opens in New Jersey on Oct. 9, looks at the education crisis and the “powerful, entrenched, and self-serving cartel” that opposes change.

Teachers punished for speaking out. Principals fired for trying to do the right thing. Union leaders defending the indefensible. Bureaucrats blocking new charter schools. These are just some of the people we meet in The Cartel. The film also introduces us to teens who can’t read, parents desperate for change, and teachers struggling to launch stable alternative schools for inner city kids who want to learn. We witness the tears of a little girl denied a coveted charter school spot, and we share the triumph of a Camden homeschool’s first graduating class.

Coming from a different point of view, The Teacher Salary Project is looking for “personal testimonies by and about America’s best teachers” for a feature-length documentary on  “the day-to-day lives and sacrifices of public school teachers.”

In keeping with the storytelling styles of both Dave Eggers (writer) and Vanessa Roth (director), The Teacher Salary Project will be a character-driven film, telling moving and compelling stories that explore this urgent issue through humor, irony, and the energy of the teachers who fill the screen.

They’d better change the title.

The Providence Effect, a movie about a Chicago school that educates low-income, black students, is astonishing, writes Donald Douglas. When the Catholic Archdiocese in Chicago decided to close Providence-St. Mel, Principal Paul Adams III raised money to take over Providence-St. Mel.

Providence St. Mel is proud of its tradition of 100% college acceptance, which began in 1978 and continues today. In 2002, 42% of the graduates of 2002 were accepted to top tier/ivy league schools; today more than 50% are accepted to schools of this caliber.

In a Witness LA interview, Adams is asked whether Chicago’s public school leaders come to him for advice on how to run a successful inner-city school. “Actually, no one has come,” he replies.

WLA: What do you mean no one? Like not one person from the Chicago School District has come to visit St. Mel’s?

PA: Never. Not one.

Well, they can watch the movie.

Community colleges step into spotlight

President Obama wants to spend $12 billion on community colleges to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020. That would fund construction, online courses and $9 billion for “challenge grants” to encourage innovation.

Smart move, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. America can’t regain its “human capital advantage” without low-cost, accessible, second-chance institutions. But two-year colleges have been ignored because “most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them.”

Obama’s initiative will help community colleges get more students to a vocational certificate or two-year degree, Brooks believes.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

No, the $12 billion will subsidize the status quo, writes Rick Hess on The American. Community colleges “may not provide the optimal platform for 21st-century job training.”

After all, community colleges maintain networks of campuses opened when the Internet was a science fiction conceit, when distance learning entailed mail correspondence, and when private providers like the University of Phoenix were a curiosity. These are teaching institutions that prefer to pay a premium to hire Ph.D.’s — even though the Ph.D. is a research degree that doesn’t have much to do with community college instruction.

Community colleges offer hope to a wildly diverse group of students, writes Donald Douglas, who teaches political science at Long Beach Community College.

Sadly, many students come to my classes unable to read. My second year teaching I had a young woman . . . who could not write a single paragraph on a page. . . . I sat her down in all seriousness and indicated that she was nowhere near college reading and writing ability. I made sure she was in touch with the appropriate staff on campus, so she’d have the remedial resources to help her succeed.

“It’s really an honor to work with such a population,” Douglas writes.

Community colleges, for all their faults, are much more flexible than four-year colleges. They’re more attuned to the local job market and more responsive to the needs of older students. We’ll get more gain for the buck at community colleges than at four-year institutions.

More ‘gappers’ postpone college

Postponing college for a “gap year” of service and travel is a growing trend, reports the Wall Street Journal. The story profiles Lillian Kivel, who deferred Harvard to intern at a global health nonprofit and serve as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts Statehouse.

To fill her spring months, Ms. Kivel turned to gap-year consultant Holly Bull, president of Interim Programs, to help her sift through more than 100 different programs in China. Ms. Kivel will live with a host family in Shanghai, study Chinese language, history and culture in a classroom setting, and teach English to children. “I have gained so much by … becoming more responsible and independent [and] exploring my interests,” Ms. Kivel says.

Princeton plans to offer a gap year option to admitted students, who will be placed in an overseas service job.  Students will be eligible for financial aid to cover their costs.

Motivated students probably benefit from a year to work and explore; average students, who aren’t likely to be studying in Shanghai, may get off the academic track and never get back on.

Americorps offers a chance to work at low wages and earn college aid. However, as Donald Douglas writes, a year of foreign travel and resume-polishing service is a luxury that most young people can’t afford.  If they take a year between high school and college, they won’t hire a $2,000 “gap” consultant; they’ll get a “job.”