You don't need a cape, a pair of tights, a mask or even a fancy nickname to be a superhero. That's the thought I was left with after seeing Davis Guggenheim's new documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.' " The superheroes of education -- whether they be tireless parents struggling to give their kids access to a good education, inspired teachers, bold policy makers or visionary charter school founders -- all demonstrate an enormous capacity for hard work, determination and resilience -- and this is not always enough.
This moving and instructive documentary follows the lives of five children in their demanding search for a better education. Though each story is unique, every kid shares an anxious desire to be accepted by a high-performing charter school, in order to avoid the trap of low-performing schools known as "drop out factories." The odds they face are daunting. The number of applications to charter schools often far outweigh available openings, so in an ironic attempt to be fair, these schools resort to a lottery system to decide who gets in and who doesn't, leaving those that lose out to an education more likely to fail them than not.
The bitter reality of the lottery scene makes it one of the most powerful in the movie. While the numbers are drawn, the kids and their parents look on, their faces a complex blend of hope, fear and trepidation. However young the children, it is clear that they are fully aware that their future could hinge on whether or not they win the lottery.
The idea that the quality of a child's education should depend on geography or luck is difficult to swallow. Clearly, something's rotten in the state of public education. While the film does not pretend to have all the answers, it does suggest some of the factors that are responsible for stifling much needed innovation and reform, as well as offering some possible solutions.
The film explains how dedicated teachers, zealously committed to the success of their students, are critical to an improved educational system. While the film fully recognizes that there are many wonderful public school teachers out there, it deplores the presence of those who are failing in their mission, but nevertheless are allowed to remain in the educational system. According to the film, these teachers are simply moved from one school to another, a process it calls "the dance of the lemons," (which one can compare to the Catholic Churches' practice of moving around wayward priests).
So, what are the factors preventing educational reform and innovation? For one thing, why do we persist in keeping underperforming teachers around?
The filmmakers allow us to follow the reform efforts of Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the D.C. Public School system, who is continually locking horns with powerful teacher's unions. The film depicts teachers' unions as obstacles to meaningful reform, vigorously championing the status quo. By no means does the film attempt to demonize the unions, but it does show the role they play in inserting loopholes into contracts designed to make it almost impossible to get rid of ineffective teachers.
The film makes us realize that laying the blame on one group would be to oversimplify a complex problem. How the problem is defined will ultimately determine how the problem is solved. Poverty, lack of parental involvement and the shortsightedness of school boards and politicians all share responsibility for the problem.
Ultimately, the message of the film revolves around the need for innovation and especially how we can learn from the schools that are delivering on their educational promise, schools such as the KIPP charter schools, where more than 90% of its middle-school students go on to college-preparatory high schools and more than 80% of its alumni make it to college. That being said, the filmmakers acknowledge that one in five charter schools fail, meaning that these schools are probably not the silver bullet that will single-handedly fix the problem. Nevertheless, the ones that are successful are a source of inspiration and a great example of the best practices that can be emulated by both charter and public schools.
At the end of the day, access to better teachers is evidently the most critical piece of the educational puzzle, but many do not agree on how to reach this goal. At one moment in the movie, we see Rhee's proposal to double teachers' pay in relation to their performance instead of their tenure met with rejection. Though I applaud her dedication, I remain unconvinced that market-based monetary incentives are enough to create good teachers.
Most of the teachers I personally know chose their profession because they were passionate for teaching. And although I don't think any of them would object to a pay raise, I also believe that if their goal was to earn oodles of money, they would have gotten into hedge funds, not the world of the schoolroom and the playground. Their ability to help realize a child's potential is more likely to be determined by the skills they have acquired, the methods they have learned from other successful teachers, the expectations they instill, the culture they create and their dedication to teaching. The educational system needs a hand, but probably not an invisible one.
"Waiting for 'Superman' " opens today. I strongly encourage everyone to see it, whether or not you have kids in school. One thing I guarantee: it will be hard to remain indifferent after meeting Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco and Bianca.
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