We must save ourselves

I arrived so early to the newly released and highly touted documentary “Waiting for Superman” the ushers asked me to wait outside the theater so they could clean up from the previous show.  I have been waiting for someone or something to wake up the nation to the grim condition of public education in this country, so despite the fact that it was created by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame, I rushed to see the movie as soon as it hit theaters in Atlanta. While the film does reveal some desperate conditions in the system and also shines some light on some of the more misunderstood details of the problem, it does little to propose solutions and completely ignores the one thing that can ultimately save our schools, exceptional teachers.  

Guggenheim unabashedly admits from the outset that he was compelled to make the film because he drives past public schools every day on his way to drop off his own kids to an exclusive and expensive private school. As a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat who supports public education, he wanted to know why the schools in his city were so bad. Maybe President Obama wonders the same thing every morning that he sends his kids to Sidwell Friends.  

Michelle Rhee can at least face the NEA and AFT knowing her children attend public schools. By profiling five youngsters from Harlem to Los Angeles, Guggenheim makes good drama for the screen as the parents of these kids scrounge for alternatives to the desperate schools their children are forced to attend.  

Besides the adorable children, the true stars of the film are the gritty Geoffrey Canada and no-nonsense Michelle Rhee. Canada has transformed sections of Harlem with his Harlem Success Academy. Rhee’s hard-charging leadership has produced incremental gains in the dismal Washington D.C. school system. Both education reformers have had their own brand of success, and the film does a fair and accurate job of explaining the difficulties inherent in the morass of educational bureaucracy hindering reform efforts across the country.

Most importantly, the film exposes the unions and one of their unyielding leaders, Randi Weingarten, for the intractable impediment to improvement they are. A few painful scenes show Rhee in the midst of a throng of rowdy union members and parents who opposed her firing of 241 poorly performing teachers and closing of failing schools. But Guggenheim never interviews any of Rhee’s opposition. We only see their angry faces shouting while they shake signs displaying Rhee’s cell phone number.

What would these parents and teachers have to say about her efforts to get rid of the dead wood in the system? What exactly are they so angry about? If their neighborhood schools are so horrific and she is trying to provide better educational opportunities for their children, what exactly are they upset about? The film also describes The New York City Schools so-called “rubber rooms” where teachers accused of misconduct or inferior performance languished for years receiving full salaries and benefits waiting for their cases to be processed. Because unions make it so difficult to fire teachers, administrators and principals resort to another strategy to shed poorly performing teachers, the so-called “Dance of the Lemons,” where bad teachers are shuffled to another school and then another and then another.  

This is all very high-level analysis though.  he film never delves deeper than the surface of the problem. For example, while we learn that teachers unions are the largest single donors to political candidates (Democrats of course), it is not mentioned that in some districts teachers are required to be members of a union and dues are automatically deducted from payroll checks.

The filmmakers do not introduce us to principals and administrators struggling to save their schools. And while we are continually told by Canada, Rhee and every other expert asked that good teachers are the foundation of education reform, we never meet those great teachers. We catch glimpses of KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin as well as a short clip of one of their personal inspirations, Harriet Ball. We also catch a short moment with the Green Dot schools founder Steve Barr. But the interviews are limited to just four educators. I cannot even imagine how that could ever be considered a representative sample. Thousands of education reformers, experts, and advocates as well as thousands of dedicated, exceptional teachers are diligently working across this country. Unfortunately, we never meet any of them.  

The clever graphic illustrations of the bleak statistics on education in this country are the most appealing part of the production. The animated graphs and icons provide an excellent illustration of hardcore data proving irrefutably that a lack of money in education is not the problem. The United States lags behind so many industrialized countries in so many academic areas despite spending more per pupil than most countries it is shameful. Yet we continue to elect public officials that pledge more money to improve education.

Another unspoken issue glossed over in the movie is the fact that our country faces a cultural change if we intend to improve educational outcomes. Until we are willing to value teaching as a profession, allow teachers to be held to the same professional standards as other professions, and hold parents accountable for the behavior and performance of their children, nothing will change. Schools were never designed to be full-service social service providers, but that is exactly what our society currently demands from them. Ultimately nothing will change until all elites, like Guggenheim and President Obama, send their children to their community public schools and support the system. 

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