MOVIE REVIEW: August to June

What exactly is a regular public school, as opposed to a charter school? Is there such a thing? For that matter, is there a typical charter school?

“Waiting for Superman” paints a flattering but false picture of charter schools. About 5,000 charter schools are now operating, with an enrollment of about 1.5 million students, but one reliable study indicates that only 17% of charter schools outperform regular public schools, while 37% significantly under-perform their public counterparts. So there clearly is no ‘typical’ charter school that will save education.

“Waiting for Superman” also uses its broad brush to paint ‘regular’ public schools as ineffective and hamstrung by union rules. How accurate is that? Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ regular public school?

The question is rhetorical, of course. America has nearly 100,000 public schools, 95,000 of which are not chartered. And they run the gamut, from disgraceful ‘dropout factories’ to stellar magnet schools to ‘ordinary’ schools that outshine even fancy and expensive private schools. (See our portrait of Mt. Vernon Elementary, for example.)

Because over 90% of our students go to something other than a charter school, salvation (if that’s what we are pursuing) must be found elsewhere.

We are working now on a piece for the PBS NewsHour about entire districts that seem to have figured out how to educate nearly all of their children. And there are ‘models’ and ‘approaches’ that work, like E.D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” schools and “Community Schools.” Stay tuned for that.

But I want to tell you about one particular public school, the subject of a lovely film, “August to June.” It’s an “open classroom” school in northern California. The film focuses on one classroom and its teacher, Amy Valens, who when the film opens is in her last year of teaching. She involves parents, does a lot of hugging, and seems to bring out the very best in her students.

“Open classrooms” make sense, she told me in a recent conversation. “Kids have to have a voice. If we want to keep our democratic society, then kids have to get accustomed to using their voice.”

The Lagunitas school district in northern California has only 300 students and just three schools, including Amy’s. The other two are equally non-traditional; one is a Montessori, the other Waldorf. Amy told me that ‘parental choice’ is 39 years old and that it began because parents insisted on a variety of educational options for their children. There is no high school.

Because No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements are not very popular there, the district applied for and received an exemption from regular testing (with the backing of 90% of parents, Amy said). If parents want their children to take the standardized exams, it happens.

Her own educational philosophy revolves around ‘nourishment.’ Teachers, she asserted, need more nourishment. “They need to experience the joy of learning themselves. Most classroom teachers don’t really understand how the brain works, and the system doesn’t help, with its emphasis on test scores.”

She said Lagunitas students do well on the SAT, in high school and in college. Attendance is high, turnover low, and ‘feedback’ from former students invariably positive. There’s no research to back this up, she acknowledged.

Like her classroom, “August to June” is low key, lingering often on lovely moments. In one way, it’s a love letter to Amy, understandable because the filmmaker is her husband, Tom Valens.

My own favorite moment, one of many, involves Amy’s memories of her own elementary school teachers. One was hypercritical, telling her she’d never amount to much after she’d made some mistake. The next year she had a teacher who encouraged her to learn from her errors and told her that she was special. That, she said, made all the difference.

It echoed what I’ve been saying recently: We need teachers who ask “How are you intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent are you?”

“August to June” reminds us of the truth of W.B. Yeats’ observation, that “Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire.” By contrast, “Waiting for Superman” graphically portrays successful education as a student’s head being opened up so that information can be poured in. The pail, not the flame. That is so revealing, Amy Valens told me, because it demonstrates how little the filmmakers know about learning.

Is this school an anomaly? The film says it’s not, because it closes with snapshots of other schools around the country that are similar in nature. That’s a nice message.

“August to June” cost about $250,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to make. Including, Tom and Amy told me, at least $25,000 of their own money. They’ve just begun the distribution process. With luck, it won’t be long before you will be able to see it, perhaps on PBS.

What’s your fondest dream, I asked them. “We just want to get the message out,” Amy answered. “We want to balance the unhealthy message of “Waiting for Superman.”

August to June [Official website]

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24 Responses to “MOVIE REVIEW: August to June

  1. Amy Valens 19. Oct, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    Dear John:

    We very much appreciate your praise for AUGUST TO JUNE! We surely hope it will be coming to screens across the country. The timing– after WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, is in fact fortuitous as there currently is a greater focus on education.

    There are a couple of facts I’d like to clarify. Besides the three elementary school programs the district also has a middle school. Our district has not been granted an exemption vis a vis testing by the state, but our school board has expressed support for parents who choose to exempt their child. The percentage of parents who exempt their children is different in each program, and varies from year to year. More parents in the Open Classroom program choose not to have their children tested than in the other programs.

    We stress in the film that there is no one right way to teach. The message we want to get across is that no matter the approach, meaningful learning involves teaching the whole child. My comment about what teachers understand about how the brain works was referring to recent brain research that most teachers have not been given time to absorb. So much of professional development time now is spent on ways to comply with top-down requirements and how to raise test scores.

    As with many independent films, our project is self-financed. Most of our costs are our own donated labor and equipment. Fund raising continues to raise the last of the $25,000 in out-of-pocket costs.

    We have been inspired by your work and the work of the many educators you highlight. We hope the story we tell can add to the general understanding of the complexity involved in creating successful learning situations.

    • Dr. Rick Posner 14. Nov, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

      Throw out all the teacher training manuals and ditch your Methods class! Just watch August To June and learn what it means to reach kids on a profound level. We need to promote teachers and schools that nurture the hearts and souls of our children. Bravo to Tom and Amy for leading the way out of this gloomy one-size-fits-all fog that we are trapping ourselves in. See their film and read my book about the alumni of a school that shares their values about a well-rounded education: Lives of Passion, School of Hope by Sentient Publications.

  2. Robin Axworthy 20. Oct, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Thank you for promoting good teaching, and public schools – finally. This teacher, though clearly outstanding, is much more like the teachers I’ve known professionally and as my daughter went through school. There are bad teachers, I’m sure – I just haven’t seen many. I have seen teachers beaten down and discouraged by bad policies, and teachers characterized as “bad” because they bucked administrative agendas.

  3. Carol Rebscher 20. Oct, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    This is a must see film. August to June will help you feel postitive and hopeful about education. It needs to be out there among the “big” movies to counteract the education/teacher bashing. Thanks, John Merrow, for highlighting it.

  4. Howard Katzoff 20. Oct, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    “August to June” and the Laguntas school district in northern California are harbingers of a hopeful future for our schools.

    The vision of education so many of us had when we entered teaching in the 1960′s has been all but trashed by the growth of our materialistic culture since, now infecting our school system with material incentives and data-driven material outcomes. Yet here is a teaching staff and a community which has maintained, if you will, a spiritual vision for our children, a sense of worth not derived by what money and numbers can buy.

    Without the film, this district might be some magical kingdom like Shanga-La or Brigadoon, idyllic and frozen in time. But when you watch Amy teach and the children learn, you see that there is nothing ephemeral about the process. Her dedication, love and hard work are infinitely
    reproducible, for those who have the courage to teach and to empower teachers.

    It would be a great study to contrast the Laguntas schools, which survived in vision, with a school like the Shoreham Wading River Middle School on Long Island, once a model middle school, which did not. They both began around the same time with the same instructional impulses. The latter, however, has become just another test prep dog run where, at a recent faculty meeting, the current principal said, “We do not need passion. When you teach here, leave your passion at the door.” Test results, obviously, speak louder now for educational leadership there than encouraging a teacher’s passion.

    In “August to June,” we have clear documentation for how a teacher can bring her passion fully into the classroom. We can observe exactly what it takes to instill that passion into the hearts, minds and will of our children.

    I had the good fortune to be among the passionate teachers who taught at Shoreham Wading River circa 1975. The sad contrast between then and now is reflected in an essay at http://mrkatzoff.org/2009/09/once-upon-a-time-in-shoreham/

    Fortunately, because of Amy and Tom, we now have a model for how “once upon a time” can become “here and now.”

  5. Monty Neill 20. Oct, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    I was priviledged to see a near-final cut and to meet Amy Valens. It is a wonderful movie and heartily endose it. It is both a great counter to test-driven schooling and educational deforming, and it is beautifully made. It does not manipulate the viewer as “Waiting for Superman” does, but it unfolds what high-quality teaching can look like. And if some readers think this is only relevant to small, rural schools, I’d say not. As Amy points out, powerful teaching and great schools vary. But within that variance, there are principles that can be seen at work in this movie, principles that can help guide genuine school improvement. Finally, another predictable reply will be that someone Amy is great, but most teachers are not, etc. I’ll agree about Amy, but the way teachers get better is by learning and practicing, not by following scripts, teaching to standardized tests, etc.

  6. Ted Kolderie 20. Oct, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Comparing ‘charter public schools’ with district public schools is like comparing eating-out with eating-at-home. Which is better? It depends on the ‘menu’, doesn’t it. Students learn from what they read, see, hear and do. So the discussion about ‘performance’ has to look at what a school, in whichever sector, has its students reading, seeing, hearing and doing. Structures don’t ‘learn’ students.

    Clearly there are people who think nothing matters about school except ‘scores’. That’s not you, is it?

  7. Joe Nathan 20. Oct, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

    John, this is a disappointing column. Seems like you are doing what you criticize “Waiting for Superman” to do – make big generalizations. For example,
    “Because over 90% of our students go to something other than a charter school, salvation (if that’s what we are pursuing) must be found elsewhere.”

    At one point less than 1% of the country used cell phones. They were introduced and have helped produce huge changes.

    Creating new options creates a new dynamic. Some of the new options will be less effective, some of them will be more effective. Some districts will respond creatively. Some will respond less creatively – and thousands of families will leave (25-30% of the students in several districts are now attending charters.

    But of course we need to recognize that there are outstanding district, as well as charter schools (frankly, many of the people in outstanding districts are pretty frustrated too, because the system often treats them badly).

    Then you praise the new school for reporting on two teachers, one ineffective, one effective. Didn’t waiting for Superman continuously tout the importance of teachers? Yes.

    • John Merrow 22. Oct, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

      Read it again. I reported on the lead teacher’s MEMORY of two of her teachers many, many years earlier…

  8. Tauna 21. Oct, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    John, this is a refreshing column. Thank you, thank you.

    We desperately need to hear more good things about our public schools. Thank you to Amy Valens and all involved in the making of AUGUST TO JUNE! I hope that I get to see it.

    In regard to “Waiting for Superman”, here is a disturbing (and lengthy) piece by Barbara Miner that I just finished reading. Not refreshing at all when you dig into the depths of ed reform as appropriated by power and wealth:

    http://www.notwaitingforsuperman.org/Articles/20101020-MinerUltimateSuperpower

  9. Ed Miller 21. Oct, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

    Thanks for this important column, John. As you note, classrooms like the one in this film appear to produce highly successful graduates, but “there’s no research to back this up.” We do a terrible job in this country of tracking long-term effects of different approaches to schooling, and so policymaking is based mainly on ideology and superstition.

    That’s what’s happened to kindergarten. Play-rich classrooms are mostly gone, replaced by didactic drilling of literacy and math “skills,” worksheets, and, increasingly, standardized testing. Few Americans are aware that the Germans had this same idea in the 1970s, when they switched from playful kindergartens to “centers for cognitive achievement.” But they set up a long-term study comparing the results of 50 play-based classrooms with 50 academic ones. By age 10 the children who had played in kindergarten excelled over the others in reading, math, social and emotional adjustment, creativity, intelligence, oral expression, and “industry.” As a result, Germany went back to a play-based approach to early education.

    For more on this subject, see the Alliance for Childhood’s “Crisis in the Kindergarten”:
    http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/kindergarten_report.pdf

  10. Joe Nathan 21. Oct, 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    Brief background before a comment: Our 3 children graduated from St. Paul, Mn Public Schools, two youngsters who currently work for the St Paul Public Schools, a wife who just retired after 33 years in St. Paul Public Schools, and I worked as a teacher and then building administrator in St. Paul.

    The Miner column/mindset, recommended by Tauna, is exactly what is helping destroy inner city public education. Miner denies problems of some ineffective teachers, and makes sweeping generalizations like “minimal accountability and public transparency of charters.” She asserts that “charter and voucher advocates have received their most consistent support from pro-Republican traditional conservatives…

    Having helped write Minnesota’s charter law, worked with the late Senator Paul Wellstone to promote the charter idea, and having testified in 22 states on this issue, I’ve found widespread bi-partisan support for charters in many states.

    Some district schools are great, some awful. Same is true for charters. But the charter movement is helping many youngsters – and providing new opportunities for district public school educators all over the nation.

    Very sorry that John Merrow – is was present in the room when the charter public school movement was being developed, feeds the anti charter, anti “Waiting for Superman” mania with comments like “salvation must be found elsewhere.” Why is it either working with district or helping create strong chartered public schools? Why not both?

    • John Merrow 22. Oct, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

      Joe
      Your comments baffle me. I am not anti-charter in any way, shape or form. But with 95% of schools NOT being chartered today, we can’t wait for that revolution. We must improve what goes on in regular public schools. It would be great if we could go back to that original notion–that chartered schools would be laboratories which systems could and would learn from. Absent that, we need to energetically push the other successful approaches, such as community schools, Don Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Schools, Comer’s School Development Program schools, Larry Rosenstock’s High Tech High approach, Expeditionary Learning, and so forth. There is no revealed truth, and no silver bullet.

      My new way of thinking about that last image, silver bullet, is changing, because clearly we cannot dissuade folks from searching for that elusive silver bullet. I now say that we have plenty of silver BB’s available. Help yourself….

    • Villa 25. Nov, 2012 at 1:12 am #

      The not teachers, just the union thing it’s sort of like this: you have a dad who’s whaetcd out for you through your childhood and into your teens and now he’s feeling a little overprotective, and the advice you’re getting is You gotta dump your dad, he’s holding you back. Well, no. I’m not dumping my dad. What I am willing to do is work on an adult relationship.

  11. Howard Katzoff 22. Oct, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    The model for learning in “August to June” is one of the intrinsic motivation of children i.e. learning from the inside out. The model for learning in “Waiting for Superman” is the cartoon of a teacher pouring knowledge into the heads of students. The movie would have you believe that externals thwart teachers from carrying that out, not that such a model is wrong. Framing the discussion as “Charter schools GOOD, public schools BAD— teachers GOOD, teacher unions BAD” is a distraction from the real discussion: HOW DO CHILDREN NATURALLY LEARN? Being competitive in the global economy is all important to Bill Gates, but meaningless to kindergarten children. Amy Valens frames instruction from what children need, not from some urgency of international competition. “Waiting for Superman” perpetuates the wrong discussion.

  12. Tauna 22. Oct, 2010 at 6:54 am #

    Hi Joe,

    Just want you to know I could easily accept and support the original charter school idea. But I believe things are way out of control and that the movement has been hijacked by a wealthy elite with an arrogance so supreme that the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of ordinary public school teachers isn’t even an afterthought.

    You say the Miner mindset is exactly what is helping destroy inner city public education. I disagree.

    Where does Miner deny problems of some ineffective teachers? Maybe I better go back and reread. Good grief, I don’t know a teacher or parent anywhere who would deny there are some ineffective teachers. Most teachers would support better evaluation systems.

    But the hysteria being stirred up about a few bad teachers serves to divert national attention away from the poverty and societal ills that have far more to do with low student achievement than teachers do. Yes, there are exceptions but they are just that – exceptions.

    The Guggenformers just drive by, perpetuate a false narrative, and tell themselves that they are making a difference for poor children by savaging their teachers and their schools. What a noble way to assuage their guilt.

    I believe the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that we should be putting our efforts into strengthening and improving our existing public schools rather than lifting charter caps. And we should darn well keep them public. Even with their many advantages, charter schools do not outperform public schools. And what innovation can be tried in charter schools that cannot be tried in public schools?

    .

  13. Christopher Nye 26. Oct, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    I’d like to reinforce the excellent review by John Merrow and the thoughtful comments by Howard Katzoff (10/20 and 10/22) above.

    To find a way forward against the strong headwinds of a misguided “education reform” movement, we need to propose something better than just defeating what one commentator is calling “obsessive measurement disorder.” AUGUST TO JUNE makes a real contribution to this, and it fits into a broader vision of whole child education.

    A new website that will help parents and educators grasp what whole child education is and the rich menu of alternatives that can be employed to realize it can be viewed at:

    http://www.educatethewholechild.org.

    After looking at this site, see if you don’t think we need to change the paradigm. Don’t we need to stop talking about accountability and turn the conversation to drawing out what is highest and best in each child.

  14. Dennis Fehr 28. Oct, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Wow, John, what a superb rebuttal to “…Superman”!
    Do we at last see a ray of light shining through the wall of testing that keeps children from their real educations?
    Dennis Fehr, Executive Director
    National Education Taskforce

  15. Rick Ackerly 11. Nov, 2010 at 4:44 am #

    Outstanding article, John. It nourished me, to be back in the presence of great teaching. (I miss my schools and the great teachers in them.) You did a great job explicating the difference between eduction and mere schooling. Thank you.

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  19. Sherly Eshlerman 21. Nov, 2014 at 8:08 pm #

    I’ve been reading Neil’s stories for some time now. He has a marvellous knack for conjuring up the time and place in which they’re set (like many of his readers, I was, myself, there, and then.) I didn’t get to see the Buddhas but came into Af. in 1968 via Peshawar in a hairy ride in an old Volga taxi; there had been rain and landslides the day before. But my trip wasn’t nearly as death-defying as Mr Rock’s. And I’m sure I couldn’t tell it nearly as well..

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