(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
I recently attended a screening of Waiting for Superman, the new documentary about public education by Davis Guggenheim. This is a terribly important movie. Anyone with an interest in education reform should make arrangements to see it soon, bring friends, and pack tissues.
Not everyone wants you to see this movie. If you can, I encourage you to watch it, as I did, with a mixed audience of parents, teachers, community members and union leaders. We sat together. We all watched the same screen – but based on the discussion afterward it seems that we each saw a very different movie.
The film introduces five children who, on present course and speed, will soon attend an ordinary public school in their neighborhoods. None of these schools has a strong track record. Guggenheim calls some “dropout factories” because children so regularly fail to graduate from them.
As in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim forcefully presents the case that things are not OK as they are. This is a case that deserves his expository skills. America is failing to prepare children for their future, with tragic results.
Each of the five children featured in this movie is blessed with a crucial advantage: an adult who is determined to find a way for them to get to college. In each case, there is an extraordinary charter school nearby, but it does not have enough seats. Who gets in and who does not is decided – on camera – by lottery. The winners of these lotteries will attend a high-functioning, well-resourced school. They will almost certainly advance to college. The losers, by contrast, will have to take their chances with the school down the street.
The role of victim is played by the children. This movie makes denial difficult: When it comes to education, America’s students are far from the head of the class, and the stakes are enormous. Nations like China are quickly becoming America’s economic peers, and Superman does a marvelous job of establishing that our national self-image is dangerously out of date. College has become the gateway to the middle class. Most Americans are only distantly aware of the long odds that most American children face in getting there.
The role of the hero is played by a handful of America’s most impressive charter schools, and the people who run them. These charter schools are exceptional, by any measure. They are orderly, well-run, and well-resourced. They operate longer school days and school years than America’s ordinary schools. Guggenheim shows children working, learning, and smiling in these charter schools. These children understand their good luck – literally. After all, they won a lottery.
The role of the villain in the film is played by the teacher’s unions. Teachers in America are very rarely dismissed when they fail to educate the children in their care, even egregiously. Guggenheim colorfully describes “the dance of the lemons” and the “rubber room,” disparaging labels for practices that some principals and districts use when they are unable to satisfy the due process requirements associated with dismissing a teacher.
Union leaders, naturally, resent being cast as villains. These are tough schools in communities with many challenges. Does the responsibility to fix the schools really fall to the union? Isn’t it the union’s job to ensure that its members enjoy due process protection from being fired capriciously? Is it fair that the movie compares struggling ordinary schools to a handpicked sample of schools with extraordinary resources? And why did Guggenheim choose to feature only charter schools as the heroes? Is it fair to blame us, they ask? Examples of this resentment can be seen at www.notwaitingforsuperman.org. Some have gone so far as to promote the movie by advocating a boycott.
This petulance misses the larger point. For most parents and community members, Waiting for Superman will be an eye-opener. This is an opportunity to engage an audience that has not become jaded to the grim facts. It gives faces to statistics that, if known at all, are too easily ignored. It is appropriate to feel outrage about persistent achievement gaps, drop-out rates and uneven access to learning. This movie helps us remember why we should feel that outrage. Most important of all, it is an opportunity to discuss what it would take for all children to have the advantages of the lucky ones in this movie.
Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of the Education Impact Guide, a primer on education reform options available online. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Camp has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.