Reporter’s Notebook: Education documentaries and plays

The new film “Waiting for Superman” opens Sept. 24, following two other recent documentaries with similar themes: that the education system is badly broken, teacher unions are substantially evil, and we all need to care about the fate of poor and minority children. But one current release strikes out in a different direction. Another edu-tainment option is a real teacher’s one-man play on the tragedies and triumphs of his rookie year in a classroom.

“The Cartel,” April 2010

Written and directed by Bob Bowdon

Journalist Bowdon crafts a coherent, frequently clever and engaging, entirely one-sided film that portrays public education, especially in New Jersey, as unredeemably corrupt, inept and wasteful. He argues for two alternatives to traditional schools. One is publicly funded charter schools, which are privately run, free public schools. The other is vouchers plans, which would provide public funds to pay all or part of the tuition at private schools. Bowdon cherry-picks much of his evidence, although a senior official with the New Jersey state teachers union hoists her own petard in the film. For information:

“The Lottery,” June 2010

Directed by Madeleine Sackler

Could be confused for an infomercial touting the considerable merits of the Harlem Success Academy charter schools and, by extension, charter schools in general. A well-crafted narrative follows four families of likable, hardworking parents and their endearing children as they seek admission to the free Harlem charter. Because these schools are vastly oversubscribed, they stage an annual public lottery, which becomes the film’s climax. Only a few will get in. The film argues that such schools should and could be available to all. Along the way, the teachers union takes a beating, being likened to murderous Mafia dons at one point. For information:

“Race to Nowhere,” September 2010

Directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon

More talky, less cinematic than the others and a notably different direction too. Here, the No. 1 problem facing education is misplaced values: over-programmed after-school schedules; too much homework that steals family time; and an overly competitive, narrow approach to learning that emphasizes memorization and test scores over real understanding and critical thinking. The result is unhealthy stress for high achievers, burnout and apathy for many others, widespread cheating and, in this film’s dramatic climax, a teen suicide. It feels a little like a self-help jeremiad for the worried middle class. For information:

“They Call Me Mister Fry”

Written by and starring Jack Fry

For a live-theater alternative, Fry re-creates his first year teaching at an urban elementary school. It’s hardly a defense of the system: At one point, Fry nearly gets fired for wielding a “weapon” — a balloon sword — that he sometimes uses to enliven classes. With his cast of characters, Fry portrays his own struggles and those of his students and their families. And he reminds his audience that thousands of teachers are giving their all and making a difference — even in the much-maligned traditional schools — and that the effort is worth it. In Los Angeles in October. For information: