Waiting for Superman

>> Sunday, January 24, 2010


U.S. Documentary Competition. Official description:
For a nation that proudly declared it would leave no child behind, America continues to do so at alarming rates. Despite increased spending and politicians’ promises, our buckling public-education system, once the best in the world, routinely forsakes the education of millions of children.

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.

However, embracing the belief that good teachers make good schools, and ultimately questioning the role of unions in maintaining the status quo, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have—in reshaping the culture—refused to leave their students behind.
It sounded like a good documentary when I bought the tickets. It definitely turned out to be. I saw this with both my parents, who noted that had I not prompted them about seeing it when I bought tickets two weeks ago that they would have missed out on seeing this. I was curious how my mom was going to react to this film since she is a retired teacher.

The organist was playing once again before the film. I really like that. It provides such a nice atmosphere. The audience was much smaller for this than it was for Hesher. I attribute that to 1) it being a Sunday in Utah and 2) not everyone goes for documentaries. I'd say it was about 55-60% full. Definitely recognized some teachers in the audience. The audience was also much older and whiter than Hesher's.

The Sundance volunteer introducing the film stating that the director, Davis Guggenheim, may be coming to do a Q&A after the film. Right when she said that, he announced himself as he was rushing down the aisle. He gave a short introduction to the film, which I really appreciated. He worked on this film for two years. He also mentioned that he directed An Inconvenient Truth, which also played at Sundance. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to stay for the Q&A. Bummer.
I was curious how they were going to do a film on education in the U.S. It begins with an explanation by Geoffrey Canada and how, when he was a kid, he had to realize that Superman wasn't real. Specifically, his mom told him he wasn't real. Then he realize that there were all these problems lurking around, and who was powerful enough to fix them? That is the quandary posed throughout the film. (I wanted to ask at the Q&A what Guggenheim would have named the film if Geoffrey Canada hadn't told that little story. It provides a unique title that provokes some thought.)

Guggenheim admits at the beginning that he believes in public education, yet when it came time to send his own kids to school he choose to send them to a private school. He could afford that choice. What happens to the kids who can't afford a private school? He follows five kids/families on their journey through their current public education and attempts to get into local charter schools. (I would actually say he mainly follows four. The fifth is much more tangential and receives less story time than the other four.) He intersperses these family stories with interviews from a journalists who cover education, academics who study education, former superintendents and teachers, education advocates such as (college dropout) Bill Gates, and historical clips of politicians talking about how they support education. (Yes, the clip of George W. Bush stating, "childrens do learn," is in there and got a good laugh.)

The film admits quite plainly that charter schools are not a cure all. Only about one in five charter schools succeeds in...okay, I can't remember the exact statistic, but it was to the effect of being a superior option to the public schools or better test scores. It highlights the "dropout factories" where students are overwhelmingly likely to dropout regardless of their circumstances when they entered. (I noticed a lot of these were located in the south when the animated graphic was shown. My mom said that she noticed that North Dakota did not have one and there were very few in Minnesota.) And the problems of teacher tenure in public schools. That is, many school districts would like to fire problem teachers, but can't given how teacher contracts are written. Teachers' unions are given a lot of blame in this area. Although the film doesn't mention it, this is not necessarily a problem around the nation since this varies by state and local school district. For those areas where tenure is a huge problem, teachers' unions would probably do themselves a favor if they worked for another way to protect their members from irrational firings than tenure. One academic noted that problem/low-performing teachers constituted about only six percent (6%!) of all teachers. If they were removed, the U.S. could rival Finland in education, which last I recall was tops in the world.

But back to the five kids, who all want to go to a good school. Their parents are doing whatever they can to get their kids a good education. All of them participate in lotteries to see if they can get into local charter schools. A few of these schools have more than a hundred applicants per slot. Shit. The results are nothing but depressing. You can see the agony on these kids, most younger than 10 and one teenager, waiting to see if their name or number is called, and then the sadness on not winning a spot from the lottery. Pure chance separates them from getting into a better school. Such a shame that kids' futures are reduced to numbers coming out of a ball mixer.

Roger Ebert:
"Waiting for Superman" makes a compelling case for the apparent fact that American students from all ethnic and income groups are not receiving competitive educations. Yes, I know there are good schools and heroic teachers. But look at the statistics. I know little about math, but I learned enough to win a state scholarship. About reading and writing I know more, and it's my observation that today's high school graduates are underserved. The studies isolate a primary reason for that: Bad teaching, in systems that protect bad teachers and therefore discourage good ones.

Some time ago I caught a lot of flak for suggesting that if you think "Transformers 2" is one of the best films of all time, you are "not sufficiently involved." I have no quarrel with anyone who likes the film. But if you think it's a great film, you have not been prepared to evaluate and compare works of art, and to examine your own opinions.

I know some of my old classmates hang round here from time to time, and I dare to make this statement: An eighth grade graduate of the St. Mary's Grade School of my youth knew more than a typical high school student does today. A typical graduate of the Urbana High School of my youth knew more than many college graduates do today. Anyone who grades essays at the college level today observes that many of their students are semi-literate.

The fact is, American education is failing. Even in a bad economy there are good jobs in Silicon Valley. Bill Gates says it's not so must that he wants to recruit Indians as that he has to. The fault can be laid at the feet of bad teachers and their unions. That's a conclusion I suspect good teachers would be the first to agree with.
My mom, the retired teacher would agree that there are bad teachers. She said so when we were walking back to the car, but she did note that some superintendents work to get rid of bad teachers rather than passing them around from school to school, aka "dance of the lemons."

Most of the ballots I saw had the film marked "best." It'll be interesting to see if this wins an Audience Award. The end credits asked you to text "POSSIBLE" to 44144. It didn't say for what. I notice on the Take Part website that it says for "campaign updates." I still have no idea what for.

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