Sunday, November 07, 2010

Movie Review -- Waiting for "Superman"

I saw a thoughtful documentary tonight on the subject of education in America called Waiting for "Superman" by documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud).

The movie follows several low income students in different parts of the country and what they have to go through to get a decent education. The families are faced with the choice of putting their kids in substandard public schools or applying to excellent charter schools that often can only take less than 10% of the kids that apply.

Waiting for "Superman" is kind of an odd film in that Guggenheim is generally viewed as liberal for obvious reasons but is receiving kudos from conservatives for this film because it takes on teachers' unions pretty hard. We shouldn't be so entrenched in our views that we become above criticism. I wholeheartedly believe in unions but if the ultimate goal of the teachers' unions is not the quality education of our children then they need to examine what they are doing.

The movie lists some of the biggest impediments to improving our public education system:

- intractable teacher unions that won't allow excellent teachers to be rewarded and deficient teachers to be fired
- a bureaucracy that makes system-wide change almost impossible
- parents either being uninvolved or taking their kids out of public schools and putting them into private ones

Instead of bad schools being a byproduct of bad neighborhoods, they are often one of the contributing causes of bad neighborhoods. When you are graduating 50% or less of the kids that come into your system, you are creating a pipeline to unemployment, poverty and crime.

Several innovative charter schools located in some of the roughest areas of the country have had fantastic results with these same kids and should be a model for how the system can be improved. They worked because they didn't assume anything. They weren't afraid to be innovative. They expected a lot out of their teacher and their students.

Now, my son goes to a charter school and I honestly can say that I don't know how I feel about charter schools as a whole. There are good ones, there are bad ones ... just like with public schools. But it seems to me that we have to make it easier for school systems to innovate and charter schools may be a way.

Our "track" method of education is straight out of the 50's and a time where maybe 20% of high school went on to college and the rest were either factory workers, farmers, or skilled office workers (accountants, etc.). The track system worked then but it doesn't work now where it's almost a requirement for students to have a college degree to even have a decent job, let alone a professional one. We have to rethink a system that makes assumptions about kids early and locks them into a path that they will never advance from.

We are not helping our kids by not caring and by putting them in schools that are no good. But we are also not helping our society as a whole by opting out and putting them in private schools or teaching them at home. We spend way more on housing criminals in prisons where over 2/3 of them are high school dropouts. I'm not talking about throwing more money at bad schools. But we can't keep cutting education funding and expect it to get better. Get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy and competing school boards at every level. Reward schools and teachers that are doing a good job. Quit cutting programs like music and art that help our students in other subjects.

I don't think charter schools are the complete answer but I do think that they might provide us a clue into how we might improve our public schools. There has been some justifiable criticism of the movie in that it highlights some charter schools that get a lot of private funding. But that doesn't necessarily detract from the fact that those schools are succeeding in areas that most would never have imagined possible. There has to be some way of scaling those methods up to a larger system.

Some will criticize the film for having an agenda. But, personally, I'd be more afraid of a film that wasn't try to say anything. Of course it has an agenda. You may not agree with the conclusions or solutions but you would have to be blind to say that there isn't anything wrong with our current system.

Obviously I want my son to have a great education but it helps our whole community if his friend down the street also gets a good education. Check this movie out. It makes you think. Grade: A-


wunelle said...


I have no kids, so I think I've spent less time thinking about the specifics of education than I should. I read--and regret--the statistics about our failures to teach math and science, but I'm ignorant as to why this is so. I imagine the inability of parents to understand and promote these subjects (the parents having come from the same broken system) plays a role, but what is the chicken and what the egg?

I have to think that any school that fails to graduate 50% of its students is trying to push a lot of rocks uphill that shouldn't be a school's concern; I suspect these schools are struggling with things that families used to take care of. I wasn't a great student, but I knew if I did badly my parents would have my hide. If your parents don't give a shit (or worse, if they aren't around), the school will be hard-pressed to fix that.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I'll try to see the film if it comes to town. It looks good.

dbackdad said...

The "chicken and egg" analogy is apt. If you have bad neighborhoods, you are less likely to have involved parents and thus bad schools. If you have bad schools, you will have bad neighborhoods. And so on and so on.

What several of these programs are trying to do is stop that cycle by following the kids from birth to graduation from college and keeping on them the entire way.

I know that charter schools are not the complete answer. One of my biggest reservations about them is that conservatives like them. I always have to question my thinking if that happens. :-)

Conservatives are looking for any way to take money out of public schools and to abolish the Department of Education altogether. That is not Guggenheim's (or my) assertion. I think he is just suggesting some ways to improve the public school system we have.

Scott said...

If it's a terrible system, why keep it? Why is it so hard for people to let go of bad ideas? 30 years of the Dept of Education. How's that worked out for us?

Every teacher I've talked to thinks No Child Left Behind is unmitigated disaster. More than one of them are quitting teaching all together because of it. National education is both unnecessary, and detrimental to progress. I really don't get why progressives are so against the Abolition of the Department of Education. Not everything should be run at the national level. You guys are all for shop local, right? Why not educate local? Why monopolize education if monopolies are bad?

dbackdad said...

Scott, I don't pretend to know what the right answer is but I fear that the majority of those that would abolish the Department of Education (present company excluded) are not doing it out of concern for the education of our children. But rather a desire to dismantle every possible state-run organization. If those that would get rid of it would also withdraw all troops from foreign lands and discontinue our wars of aggression, I would be first in line to vote for it. With the money we are wasting on the military, we could make meaningful change domestically in many areas.

I do think there are too many levels of education boards, but I'm reluctant to leave it in the hands of exclusively local boards. If we did that, we'd be dooming children in Kansas and Texas for life.

I have to completely agree with you on No Child Left Behind. Every teacher I know out here, regardless of political persuasion, thinks it is completely BS. The school years are spent drilling kids into those subjects that will be tested to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Free Movies said...

It is ok kind of movie. Waiting for Superman neglected two important factors that dramatically affect the success of schools and its students: parental involvement and student discipline within the school system.