So I watched the movie, Waiting for Superman, on opening night here at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. And, yes, I’ve linked the film to the website that allows people to take action rather than the one that allows people to find showtimes because action is necessary and showtimes are easy to find, but in case you can’t, here’s the link to the movie itself: Waiting for Superman/movie. The documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, breaks down the state of education in the United States and leaves us with the heartbreaking facts:
1. We spend more to put a kid in jail for four years than it would cost to send that same kid to private school and still have money left to spare for college.
2. Staggering numbers of kids from public schools require remedial instruction before they can attend a four year college.
3. There is a difference between urban and suburban public schools, but even suburban public schools – with new arts centers and other facilities – are still often out performed by charter schools that operate with 80% of public funding but outside the reach of the teacher’s unions
You get the picture. Americans who once imagined they’d be “selling toothbrushes to China” now have China shipping toothbrushes here while Chinese students out-perform their American counterparts. As do students from India, Finland, Sri Lanka, and hundreds of other countries whose history and role in our collective human story barely make it into the American curriculum; American students are rarely offered a glimpse at the competition that awaits them when they get out of high school.
The movie deifies educators like President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada and Chancellor of the DC Public Schools, Michelle Rhee whose reforms were brilliant but unappreciated and eventually cost her boss his job as well as Levin and Michael Feinberg, who lead the KIPP centers. They deserve the accolades they have received – from this documentary as well as the students who benefited from their commitment to a sensible and results-oriented system of education. Canada, in particular, makes the oft-neglected argument that it is important not to simply take failing kids and attempt to “fix” them but, rather, ensure that they never fail in the first place. I can second that from personal experience. After four years of working to assist students between the ages of 16 and 24 who came out of the Job Corps Program in the United States, numbering into the thousands, I look back on just two students who made a significant change in their lives based on assistance provided to them. It is hard to say it, but for many kids from impoverished backgrounds, sixteen is already a lived-a-whole-life situation. “Sixteen” may be helped, but it is much harder than helping “six,” and “six” is harder to help than “three.”
The movie is replete with short-cuts that provide snappy visuals that describe the entire morass. There are catchy phrases like “drop-out factories,” (where students who appeared to have been doing relatively well get into middle school and then disappear), and “the lemon dance” or the “turkey trot,” (whereby principals keep trying to get rid of their worst-performing teachers by “throwing” them into other schools). Such gimmicks are necessary in order to simplify a debate for a culture that is used to sound-bites. Add the nuance and you lose the audience. But the nuance must remain a part of the larger debate.
Take the movie at face-value and our students will be better off with no unions. The ability to reward good teachers and oust the bad, the ability to link pay to work, the ability, in short, to tie everything that a teacher does on the job to the reason for their existence inside a school room: the student. It is a seductive proposition and one which I, looking ahead to college, can and do level at the legions of professors who appear to believe that the university exists to provide them with employment rather than to teach the students who are paying between $40,000 and $60,000 to sit in their classrooms. At what point did we all lose sight of this fact? Doctors exist because patients do. Car mechanics exist because we own cars that need fixing. Teachers (and professors), are no different. They exist because there are students who need them. They do not exist to have a guaranteed salary for life regardless of the quality and relevance of their teaching. Physicians lose their license when they fail, car mechanics close shop. Teachers, however, appear to go on forever and, often, at the cost of the lives and potential livelihoods of armies of students and, inevitably, the fate of a nation.
And yet. Are better teachers the antidote to all that ails the system of American education? Take Daisy (5th grader from LA), Anthony (5th grader from Washington, DC), Francisco (1st grader from the Bronx), Emily (8th grader from Silicon Valley) Bianca (a Kindergartener from Harlem), and consider what unites them all? One of the educators who don’t make the profile list on the website of the documentary is the head of the SEED school to which Anthony applies. When he welcomes the children who come for a visit, he says (I am paraphrasing): “you are all here because someone in your life, a parents, a sibling, a neighbor, a grandmother, somebody cares about your education.” And isn’t that the truth of it? We sit in the theater and weep because out of 700 odd “care givers” spread across New York City, only 35 are going to get lucky. We weep for Francisco and Emily and Bianca and we feel all the pain of wanting the best for our children but not being able to obtain it. But do we weep for the 700,000 students who have no care-giver at all? What happens to them?
Frankly, it seems that nobody cares. Guggenheim has done what is necessary. He has given us a quick-look, a sneak-peak. The entire documentary is really a two hour long trailer for the actual movie which is what we “drive by” and “avoid looking at” every single day. And if he has only managed to rabble rouse and get us all talking, then he’s certainly done more than most. To blame him for not adding that nuance is to ask the question of ourselves: how much nuance can we really handle before we tune out?
Charter schools make the same distinctions private schools do when it comes to student selectivity, citing a “mis-match” of student-school in order to rid itself of under-performing students. They are not the solution. And nobody it seems has the solution. In a Salon.com review, Andrew O’Hehir puts this problem in a nutshell:
“…building a broad social consensus around addressing climate change looks like child’s play compared to the poisonous realm of educational debate, where every question of fact is in dispute and where adults engage in ideological proxy wars, almost totally divorced from the question of how to educate children.” (emphasis mine)
And if you want a sample of that proxy war in a well-argued, heavily researched and cross-referenced attack against the movie itself, read Diane Ravitch who maligns Guggenheim (and all his supporters including Bill Gates and President Obama), for neglecting to mention the thousand little pieces that go into creating a good student (socio-economics, health, poor neighborhoods, etc.), and when you have done that, take a look at her bio. As an education “insider” her attack is no more objective than that of Guggenheim and, in her case, her celebration of public schools carries no solutions to how we might actually manage to help those students whom the system is gloriously failing.
So what exactly are we waiting for? Is there a superman or a superwoman or a supergroup? Or is there simply the glaring lack of one person to care per child? One person who cares enough to advocate for them, to vote, to petition, to get that public library card, to schlep the kid to school, to protect them when they return? And how do we expect that caring to exist in a culture where the national pass-time is watching get-rich-quick segments on TV? Where education itself is considered a dead-end street?
I live in a suburb where parents are probably the biggest problem that the teachers face. Their constant nit-picking and niggling and suggestions and advocacy for their little darlings are, probably, like a giant drilling machine in full swing next door while one is trying to write. And yet, it is those parents who balance the scale of education and hold it steady for students. For those children who don’t have such people in their lives, life is a dance between the side that expects them to meet arbitrary markers of academic achievement and the side that says forget it, it just does not matter.