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Waiting for Superman

Posted on November 17, 2010

We had this week the opportunity to see the much discussed documentary Waiting for Superman.  It is playing at the Red River movie theaters in Concord through next Tuesday and I highly recommend it.  Be prepared to leave depressed and maybe angry.  Davis Guggenheim, the director of an Inconvenient Truth, turns his lens on the failing public K-12 system in America.  The statistics, comparisons to other countries, expert commentaries, and historical analysis educate and provoke, but the emotional touchstone of the film is found in the intertwined stories of the featured kids and their families.

Mostly Black and Latino, these are motivated kids and motivated parents (or grandparents, in one case) who have big dreams and aspirations.  The parents work hard to support their kids’ success, seek parent-teacher meetings, check the homework, and want to find the best schools for their kids.  The options are depressingly dismal: one “drop out” factory after another.  You feel their desperation and hopelessness.  They know what is at stake — it surounds them every day in hopeless neighborhoods and lack of opportunity.

The kids are the stars and they know what they have isn’t good.  The best option is usually a charter school and there are not nearly enough spots for all those who want in.  So in the culminating scene of the movie, they each sit through an enrollment lottery and watch as their lives hang in the balance.  It’s crushing. 

The question of what to do is obviously a complex one.  Charter schools are posited as one answer, but as the film admits, only 20% to 30% of charter schools outperform their public peers (and as the panel discussion afterwards revelaed, even that bit of analysis is debated).  Faculty unions take a beating, but there are wonderful examples of empowered groups of teachers turning schools around (see this recent Globestory about Brockton High School:  Some critics have said that the movie falls short of offering solutions, but I disagree.  It makes a pretty persuasive case for longer school days, a longer school year, more teacher accountability, less centralized bureaucracy, and more.

Mary Heath and her colleagues have set out to build the best School of Education in the state and are getting increasing recognition for their successes.  Just this week the Department of Education asked if SNHU would be its higher education partner on a state innovation grant — we were the ones they turned to first.  Yet I worry about the professional world into which we will send our young teachers.  Fifty percent of all teachers leave the field within five years of graduation.  If we said that about engineering, medicine, or IT we’d call it a national crisis.  It is perhaps emblammatic of the problem that it scarcely gets notice when it comes to teachers.  The system grinds them down and spits them out — often the very best ones.

Teaching is one of the most demanding of professions and incredibly impactful.  Most of us would list at least one teacher among the most influentialal people in our lives.  Educating our populace directly shapes the quality of our workforce, our democracy, and our communities.  Yet we pay teachers too little, treat them poorly, and saddle them with all the societal woes we used to leave to families or now underfunded social service agencies.  

It’s not clear to me that local control, in the form of local school boards, is a good thing.  In fact, I’m pretty convinced that school boards are  far more often an impediment to school improvement and reform than a force for good. We don’t leave medical practice and policy in the hands of citizen-amateurs and we don’t leave national defense in the hands of citizen-amateurs, yet we leave education — the future of our children and our nation — collectively in the hands of citizen-amateurs. 

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC schools emerges as one of the great heroes of the film — paying teachers a lot more, expecting much more accountability and performance from them, shifting resources into the schools, firing incompetents, and having real measurable success.  As you may know, Adrian Fenty, the mayor who appointed her, was not re-elected and that meant her departure was inevitable.  It won’t be the first time that people most in need of help vote against their self-interest (consider the recent election), but it remains infuriating and in its own way an indictment of our educational system.

Waiting or Superman is an important film.  Fundamentally, it doesn’t say anything you do not already know on some level.  However, if the plight of the children  in the film impels more people to get involved and rethink education as it happens in America, the film will have done its job.  Now, as educators and a higher ed community,  it’s time for us to do ours.

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