Early in the documentary film Waiting for Superman, knowing that it is going to be yet another ringing indictment of public school education in this country, we see David Guggenheim, the director and co-writer, driving past three run-down public schools in Los Angeles on his way to drop off his three children at an expensive private school.
We think, why isn’t he sending his kids to public schools and where he can get personally involved in improving them? Is he simply going to tell the all too familiar tale of the failures of public education in this country, as if there’s nothing any of us, nothing he can do about their deplorable state?
In his defense, he is making this film, one in a series he has made about education in America, in the hope that it will galvanize other individuals to band together to move the public school system out of its deep rut. He does this by illustrating successes that are possible within that system at publically funded charter schools in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and Redwood City, California.
To set the stage, Guggenheim lays out the well-known statistics of the performance of children who are educated in the public schools of urban centers of this country. Charts are shown of decades of extremely low reading and math scores. More charts are shown of how American children compare with those in other countries. On some measures, they rank lowest, on others, near the bottom. The only one where the students in this country rank highest in on their personal confidence that they rank number one!
We are also shown the powerful role the teacher’s union plays in working to maintain their current contracts with school systems in this country. Teacher tenure is virtually guaranteed after two years of teaching. In contrast to other professions, it is virtually impossible to dismiss a teacher. We are shown a roomful of New York City teachers who have been charged with incompetence or misconduct but are still on the payroll. Some are sleeping, others working crossword puzzles, some reading, all the while they are being paid their regular salary.
Interweaved with all this is the story of five children and their parents who are struggling to educate their children and enroll them in a charter school. Because these schools can only accept a limited number of students, they must enter a lottery to see if they are selected. The film concludes with suspenseful, nerve-wracking lottery drawings to see who among these dedicated kids will be chosen.
More importantly though we are shown the very considerable successes achieved by some charter schools, in particular The Harlem Success Academy and the KIPP programs, now in several cities throughout the country,
The schools are characterized by highly qualified, highly motivated teachers who assume that every one of their students is capable of performing well. The data support this assumption. The teachers are generally well paid, concentrate from day one on preparing students for college, and give considerable personal tutoring when a student would benefit from it. The students in several of the schools located in poor urban neighborhoods often do better academically than those in the well-off suburban school districts.
While not all charter schools can report such positive outcomes, we are led to think education in this country would be significantly improved by increasing support for them.
When you enter the theater showing Waiting for Superman, you can take a short handout from a box affixed to a poster about the film. The handout tells you what you can do to “make a difference in education today.” What a good idea!
• See the film and get everyone you know to see it. OK, go see it.
• You can pledge to see it at www.WaitingForSuperman.com and receive a $5 credit from www.DonorsChoose.org towards a classroom project.
• By visiting www.DonorsChoose.org, you can donate to a public school class of your choice—pencils for poetry writing, microscope slides, etc.
• Volunteer to mentor a student --- www.mentoring.org
• Go to www.WaitingForSuperman.com to find other activities and resources that will help improve education in this country.