Friday, September 24, 2010

Waiting for "Superman": A Must See

I'm not really a cinephile, no matter how much I convince myself that the classic movies I put in my Netflix queue are expanding my cinematic horizons. I prefer documentary movies and if I'm particularly touched by one, I'll tweet about it or put something on Facebook. This being said, what I saw last night was truly something that everyone in this country must see.

Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for "Superman" is his look at the public education system in America. The title comes from Geoffrey Canada's assertion that as a child he was infatuated with the superhero, hoping that one day he would come to his neighborhood and set everything right. When he found out Superman did not exist he cried; not like a child cries when he finds out there is no Santa, but because no one with enough power was going to save him.

The movie follows four children in the public school system as their parents, who are often struggling financially and did not get a great education themselves, try to provide them with the best possible public education. Intertwined with this story are statistics and facts that show just how dire a situation the public education system finds itself in. Despite spending nearly 120% more money per pupil since the 1970s (adjusted for inflation) test scores have not budged. The achievement gap between white and minority students (as well as rich and poor students) remains stagnant. Guggenheim tries to find out why.

There is a confluence of issues that have combined to place our public education system in the ICU. The ones that stuck out to me:

1) Failed neighborhoods and the correlation to failed schools.
The movie takes a look at the neighborhoods in which "failure factories" (schools with massive dropout rates - a term coined by economist Marc Schneider) reside. Expectantly, these neighborhoods are as failed as the school. What the movie does is ask the viewer: is the failed school the result of the failed neighborhood, or is the failed neighborhood the result of the failed school? Arguments can be made either way, but Guggenheim hints that if you fix the school, many aspects of the neighborhood should follow.

2) Great teachers can turn around our education system. Getting around the unions is the difficult part.
Many people have stated that this movie is anti-teacher's union. That's not necessarily a bad thing. What the majority of unions do is allow teachers who have absolutely no business being the classroom to keep their jobs under an antiquated tenure system. On top of this, if you want to celebrate a good teacher by giving them an individual raise you can't: it's usually not in the union contract. In a show of maintaining the status quo at any cost, the DC teacher's union refused to vote on a measure put forth by education reformer Michelle Rhee that would have done away with tenure and given merit-based pay raises to deserving teachers. They preferred to coddle a system that rewards bad teachers and hinders good. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is pretty pissed about the movie. In fact, teachers' unions plan to protest the opening of it at movie theaters. My response? Just look at New York City's rubber room (and the outrage from teachers' unions at its closing) to see what the union has accomplished for its members at the cost of the taxpayer and the student.

3) The lottery system.
The climax of the movie comes as we see the lottery results for the four children we have been following. Because there is a limited number of good schools in a school district, many districts hold a lottery for the spaces. There are up to twenty times the number of children as there are spots. Needless to say, this makes for a lot of upset youngsters after the lottery. What I found even sadder is that there needs to be a lottery to get a good education in this country at all. If someone played the lottery as a means of income, and pinned their whole life on winning it big, we would (justifiably) label them insane or out of touch with reality. Yet this is how thousands upon thousands of people vie to get a proper education in America.

As the credits rolled I heard a lot of sniffling folks in the theater. During a discussion panel following the screening former FCC Chairman Michael Powell poignantly said that the tears we were shedding at the end of the movie were not only tears of sadness for those children who did not get into the good public schools, but tears of shame for the state of our public education system. A lot of people have said that this movie is pro-charter. I would disagree. It fairly states that charter schools are not the sole solution (only 1 out of 5 charters, according to the film, are head and shoulders above the rest of the public school system). The solution is changing the focus from how to benefit the adults in the system (administrators, teachers, politicians, school boards) to how to benefit the students.

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