July 28 — 5:31 pm, 2010

‘Waiting for Superman’: Help or menace

"Waiting for ‘Superman’," this year’s highly touted education documentary, had a preview screening in Philadelphia Tuesday night, and its producer, Lesley Chilcott, clearly hopes it can have as big an impact on US schools as her previous collaboration with director Davis Guggenheim on "An Inconvenient Truth" had on awareness of the climate crisis.

Chilcott told the audience that recent public attention to school reform issues may have brought us to a "tipping point."

"I think we have a real opportunity unlike any other time to make some major, major changes," she said.

The filmmakers have created an engaging and emotionally wrenching depiction of the crisis in public schools that is woven around the stories of five beautiful and spirited children. The changes they call for are indeed in fashion these days and the villain of the piece is a predictable one.

But the longer I spent checking out the film’s website, through which viewers are called to action, the more amorphous seemed its strategy for change. The film itself at least has a clearer point of view.

In it, we are introduced to Anthony of Washington, DC, Bianca and Francisco of New York City, Daisy in LA, and Emily in Redwood City, CA – and to the schools they attend. None are even in high school yet, but like their parents, we have reason worry about their futures.

The first four, simply because of the school options in their inner city neighborhoods, seem destined to attend schools that are "dropout factories." Even out in Silicon Valley, Emily, the lone White student of the five, fears getting lost in her local high school because she is not a high achiever.

What she and the other four have in common is caring parents or caregivers who want to see their children succeed in school. And each family seeks out an alternate option in the form of a high-performing charter schools.

The rub is that these schools are in great demand, and so the odds of an applicant getting in are one in ten or worse. And so we anticipate that the consequences for these children’s hopes and dreams will be tragic. It all comes down to the luck of the draw.

How did we get to such an unfair state of educational affairs? The filmmakers cover an array of causes: tangled bureaucracies, lack of accountability, academic tracking, low expectations for youth of color, and a short-sighted unwillingness to pay for schools upfront rather than for prisons later.

While George W. Bush is the butt of one joke, the only villain directly fingered in this film is teacher unions. "A menace – an impediment to reform," says one of the film’s talking heads.

According to the film, unions may have been necessary back in the day when women teachers were undervalued, but they now make school change impossible. They prevent the firing of incompetent teachers, the rewarding of good teachers with more pay, flexibility in the work day, and political reform of the system.

The filmakers don’t ever point the finger at those who have promoted funding inequities and helped create the haves-vs.-have-nots public system we have now. No mention that anti-tax hysteria, segregation, suburbanization, and White flight have all contributed to the mess schools are in.

School funding is only discussed long enough to tell us that we’ve doubled spending on schools and results haven’t improved a bit. The sparse teacher voices in the film complain about restrictive union work rules but don’t mention the restrictive consequences of a high-stakes testing regimen.

Besides rolling back the influence of unions and teacher contracts, the film is short on solutions for creating more good schools. And as one audience member pointed out, the countries the U.S. is falling behind mostly have unionized teachers.

The agenda aligns neatly with that of Bill Gates, who has a role in the film both on-screen and off. Charter schools are featured, and there is talk of a longer school day. We are repeatedly reminded of the importance of quality teachers, but we learn little about how to achieve that, beyond firing the bad ones and paying the good ones extra.

DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee is lionized for her willingness to stir the pot and come up with a "magic formula" of teacher rewards and punishments. The film’s point that few school districts are tackling poor teacher performance is indisputable, but not everyone thinks Rhee has it figured out.

Many of our readers may not agree with the answers offered by this film – but ignore it at their own peril. The filmmakers have vividly depicted our educational crisis and are determined to spur a broad public dialog about school reform. The film’s message is aligned with the direction of the Obama administration. While it skirts issues of race, it’s in sync with continuing calls in African American communities for more charter schools and even school vouchers. It is going to get some traction.

So if you think fixing our schools is going to take more than charters, school choice, and merit pay, get yourself to "Waiting for ‘Superman’" at a theater near you in early October and join the debate.

the notebook

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