'Waiting for 'Superman' -- Statistics Have Names

09/22/2010 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Davis Guggenheim's film "Waiting for 'Superman' " is an indictment of the public education system in America. It cuts to the bone, exposing bureaucrats and special interest groups, in the form of teachers' unions, as major impediments to our kids' success in school. The point is brought home by following five children and their families as they try, against the odds, to gain access to a quality education. Charter schools, run by visionaries and free of arcane regulations that hobble traditional public schools, emerge as a ray of hope, but admission is by public lottery. The stories of just five of the over 40 million children sitting in public school classrooms today compel us to ask, can something as important as a child's future be left to chance?

From an education advocacy standpoint, this film is a gamechanger. As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stated at the screening, "If your blood is not boiling by the end of this film, then there is no blood pumping through your heart." My blood was certainly boiling. Further, having fallen in love with these five children, it was hard to distinguish between the tears of rage, sorrow, and triumph by the end. This film will inspire change.

From an education reform standpoint, "Waiting for 'Superman' " also delivers huge. The film illuminates obstacles to widespread accomplishment of two of the three critical components to educational success. Variously framed by experts, these components boil down to: 1. Hiring and keeping good teachers, 2. Maintaining an efficient infrastructure that allows administrators to do their jobs, and 3. Acknowledging that every child counts when measuring success. I think of these as the "what" and "how" of good public education (the "why" is obvious). Guggenheim draws attention to an indiscriminate system of teacher retention and tenure, fiercely guarded by teachers' unions, that ties the hands of school administrators wanting to purge their schools of sub-par teachers. The film offers up publicly funded, but independently operated, charter schools as an alternative for kids lucky enough to be admitted. And while I was at the edge of my seat rooting for the five kids to get into their schools of choice, and utterly awestruck by the heroes like Harlem Children's Zone CEO, Geoffrey Canada, who have stepped up to pull our children out of an education system on fire, I found myself wanting to know more about how to replicate these acts of sheer heroism so that no child is left behind. Yes, it occurs to me that this is not an original impulse but instead that as Guggenheim points out, while every American President since Lyndon Johnson has pushed forward education reform policy, student achievement has flatlined since the 1970s.

In the film, Geoffrey Canada expresses his own moment of defeat when he realized that Superman does not exist -- that there is no man or woman strong enough or fast enough to rescue every child in a failing public school. Of course there are public schools and charter schools producing amazing results under impossible circumstances, and we should learn from these examples. Simultaneously, we cannot ignore the complexity of these issues, or the data telling us, on average, charter schools aren't performing any better than public schools. In some cases, they aren't even performing as well. Charter schools are no more the silver bullet of public education reform than were the magnet schools of the 60s and 70s, and eradicating teacher tenure will not ensure that children are engaged in learning.

So, I return to the third component of educational success, acknowledging that every child counts when measuring success. I take this to mean that every child learns differently, has a unique set of strengths, and is capable of contributing to a productive, innovative society. "Waiting for 'Superman' " touches on how to engage children in learning, featuring Canada's "birth to college pipeline" ideal, demanding schools be accountable for every child's success through college graduation. We also meet one gifted teacher who turns around plummeting test scores by teaching math through music. We briefly meet Bill Strickland, the famous educational reformer and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. He tells us about his own troubled childhood, and the sad fact that many of his former classmates are incarcerated, but not about how he turned it around, along with the lives of thousands of children, and is now heading up a multi-million dollar company that promotes social change through the arts, education, and career training. A company that began, incidentally, in Strickland's own backyard, which he opened up to neighborhood kids for making art after school. These are glimpses into the "how" of quality education.

We absolutely cannot underestimate the power of charismatic and visionary leaders, and I am grateful for the people who had the courage to make a film that celebrates education heroes, but there are not enough of those heroes to go around. We need to find as many ways as possible to find and feed children's passions, so that they can stop waiting for the Man of Steel who will never come, and start on the hard work of saving themselves. "Waiting for 'Superman' " reminded me that statistics have names, and that paying close attention to the hopes, dreams, and needs of every child is an important step in public education reform.

P.S. ARTS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children's lives by bringing arts education to underserved public schools and their communities. P.S. ARTS believes that every child deserves high-quality arts instruction that contributes to personal and intellectual growth, and promotes the development of creative, academic, and social skills.