Tuesday, February 8, 2011

WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (2010): The Education of Our Children

Whatever the merit is of his films, Director Davis Guggenheim has a knack for getting his documentaries discussed in the mainstream media.  The last documentary that was discussed as much as Waiting for Superman was An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006 and also directed by Guggenheim.  With An Inconvenient Truth Guggenheim was doing the bidding for those in the environmental movement that supported legislative reform such as “Cap and Trade,” and with Waiting for Superman he is doing the bidding of those that support educational reform such as those that advocate further implementation of the use of charter schools.  I guess Guggenheim deserves credit for on one hand going after the corporate polluters (endearing him to liberals such as Al Gore) and on the other hand going after teacher unions (endearing him to cultural conservatives that feel our public education system is failing our children).  Then again, Guggenheim is probably guilty of opportunism by pushing whatever cause may be popular at the time.

Waiting for Superman does raise some extremely valid points.  Whether our educational system is or is not failing our children, there is not a thoughtful person in our nation that doesn’t hope that our school system can do better.  George W. Bush brought in “No Child Left Behind,” and the Obama administration is now calling to overhaul that legislation with their own initiative named “Race to the Top,” calling it our “Sputnik moment” to improve our educational system (see President Obama’s State-of-the-Union address).  The educational reform movement would not have become so politicized unless the whole issue was vital to the American public. 

In Waiting for Superman, we follow the families of five students desperate enough to apply for admission to charter schools so these students can escape a public school system plagued by crime, violence, drug abuse and incompetent teachers and administrators.  Anthony, who is being raised by his grandmother, is applying for a school with 69 applicants vying for 24 admissions.  Francisco lives in Harlem and is among 792 students applying for 40 possible openings.  Bianca, who also lives in Harlem, is among 767 students applying for 35 openings.  Emily, who lives in Silicon Valley, is nevertheless applying for a charter school because in even such a wealthy community the schools are failing their students.  And sadly, the prodigal Daisy, who desires to become a doctor and shows a great aptitude for learning, is one of 135 students applying for a charter school in Los Angeles with only 10 openings.  The students applying to charter schools such as these are chosen through a lottery system, and their presence is required when the numbers are drawn to see if they are or are not selected for admission.

We’re fed a lot of statistics in Waiting for Superman - with little context provided throughout the showing.  In this the film lacks any in-depth analysis, which was also missing in An Inconvenient Truth.  Yes, the statistics report that America’s school system is falling behind those of other industrial nations (our students are 21st in science and 25th in math in the rankings), but accepting this at face value is dependent on whether those statistics presented from other nations and our own are actually reported accurately.  We also have sound bites from individuals such as Geoffrey Canada, a former educator and current educational activist with a non-profit organization called “The After School Corporation.”  Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, utters some incendiary remarks about the quality of our teachers and schools (“I know they’re getting a crappy education …”).  Bill Strickland, who served on the board for the National Endowment of the Arts, is shown in a charter school demonstrating his novel application of the arts to reach youths from troubled neighborhoods.   Strickland is quoted as saying that “everybody is going to drown” if we don’t do something about our schools.  Bill Gates talks about his own foundation's effort to finance alternate forms of education.  Finally, Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, makes an appearance not so much to present the other side of the story, but to be quoted to supposedly demonstrate that the teachers’ union is unsympathetic and basically opposed to any kind of education reform.

Waiting for Superman contains a good storyline in that it demonstrates how potentially good students are being neglected a decent education - especially in the poorer neighborhoods of our country.  For example, we discover a school that graduated only 20,000 of the 60,000 students that had attended it.  And though they are not becoming executives among our corporations, minorities are populating our prisons.  We spend approximately $667 billion in federal money annually on our schools (though according to one set of Congressional budget statistics, only 23 cents of every dollar allotted to education is actually spent on education) and propose $100 billion dollars of educational spending increases in Congress every year.  As Guggenheim is quick to point out, lack of funding might not be the problem.

But Guggenheim presents to us a problem without much of a solution.  Charter Schools, he seems to be saying, are the Holy Grail.  That he only presents to us a handful of charter schools, and that we have no way of knowing if the schools he shows are either as good as he suggests or representative of charter schools as a whole, does not seem to concern Guggenheim.  We’re not given a complete answer as to why some schools succeed and others fail.  Blame in this film is directed at the public schools, the teachers’ union, and the failure of either to base teacher salaries upon merit.  Guggenheim barely addresses crime, drug abuse and violence.  A criticism of Waiting for Superman is that it only presents students raised by family members motivated in seeing their children succeed.  These students may not be typical of those in our public schools.  If students in charter schools are more successful (and that contention is debatable), it may be because they have someone at home that cares enough to see them succeed.  Also, what denotes a failing school is tossed around in the movie without precision.  “No Child Left Behind” has been criticized because it encourages schools to focus on making children better at taking tests while not making them better students.  Certain charter schools prepare students to take standard tests without preparing them to function better in the outside world.  Nor do we ever learn in the film how feasible it would be to create a system of charter schools that could be used by more than a small percentage of the population.

Still, what critics of Waiting for Superman have missed is that the importance of the film is not in a specific solution, but in its plea that something needs to be done.  Whether we do or do not think the public school system is in as difficult of a predicament as Guggenheim seems to suggest, educational reform is not an issue that is going to go away.  (I even saw a remark in a Mother Jones article, a magazine known for forwarding progressive causes, criticizing many liberals for not getting behind the reform of our educational system.)  Whether we are or are not satisfied with the quality of education in this country, again, no one is saying that we do not want for our schools to be better.  Critics of Waiting for Superman poke fun at Guggenheim’s suggestion that charter schools are the answer, but these critics do not provide any solution of their own – outside of suggesting we spend more money.  Waiting for Superman is a 102 minute conversation starter.

When watching the children waiting to see if their number is picked in the heartless lottery system that the charter schools employed (and for some reason the five students featured in this film had to witness), one still felt empathy for the children and hoped that each of them somehow could receive an education that would better their situations.  If the quality of our education is truly the most important consideration to the future of our country, then we also need to address the competency of our teachers and the resistance of the teachers’ union to change.

February 8, 2011
©  Robert Miller 2011

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