I don’t think I’m breaking any news here by saying that American children are getting dumber every year. State test scores confirm this — and according to Davis Guggenheim‘s latest documentary Waiting for “Superman” — among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. This is only one of the many staggering statistics cited in Guggenheim’s frightening and thought-provoking film. Where did our once mighty country go wrong in a domain as essential as education? The film doesn’t explore this issue in as much depth as perhaps it should, but it does serve as a brilliant indictment of the public education system in America and an important wake-up call to those who have the power to begin to do something about it.
The film examines five promising young children (of the 40+ million sitting in public school classes today) and their families who are looking to get a better education and, in doing so, improve their lives. Most of the documentary centers on schools in poverty-stricken communities, but the filmmaker makes sure to cite that pointing the proverbial finger at such schools because they don’t have the economical means is not the primary reason for such failures. It surely makes for an easy “out,” but Guggenheim shows that it doesn’t matter what the socio-economic stats of a given community are — schools across the board are failing our students and what the film illustrates is that bureaucracy and the hypocritical teachers’ unions are the major obstacles from turning this nationwide epidemic around.
Two administrators prominently highlighted in the film are looking to better serve the educational needs of our children. Harlem Children’s Zone CEO, Geoffrey Canada is a true visionary in the educational field and has been fighting for reform for years and backing up his many theories with action…and promising results. Born in the South Bronx, Mr. Canada’s school takes full responsibility of a student’s academic progress, getting children through high school and college, in areas where far too many drop out in high school. Canada comes off as inspiring, prophetic, and relentless. Michelle A. Rhee (the seventh superintendent of the Washington, D.C. school system in the last ten years) is the other champion of the film, and has challenged the languid status quo with fierce determination since taking on the Sisyphus-like position. Ms. Rhee has tried to eliminate teachers who have proven to be ineffective by fighting the mighty unions who make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher who has been granted tenure. Along the way, Ms. Rhee has made many an enemy though her sole objective is a simple one — to provide the students of Washington, D.C. with a proper education. Everyone agrees that something is seriously wrong with the system, but no one has the gumption to do anything about it — this is what the film illustrates in magnificent fashion. Ms. Rhee knows that drastic measures are needed — but when the Washington Teachers’ Union refuse to vote on an act that would eliminate tenure, but grant teachers a much higher salary — you can see why the schools are failing and understand why the superintendents before her have failed.
The resistance to reform and the removal of poor teachers is exemplified in Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. The awarding of tenure in this country is remarkably easy (as shown in a recent CNN special on the subject) and once granted, it is next to impossible to fire an unproductive teacher. The film provides some eye-popping statistics on this issue and what is done with teachers who have proven to be failures to their students. The infamous New York Rubber Room (costing citizens over $100 million a year) where tenured teachers sit around all day and collect full salary and benefits, and the “Dancing of the Lemons” (where a district simply has schools swap one defective teacher for another) are sad realities and a waste of tax-payer money. Unlike most professions where one would be terminated for poor performance, a tenured teacher remains and receives an increase in pay each year. Weingarten fights for this as our students’ test scores drop lower and lower.
The most moving moments in the film come from the five children. Realizing that their children’s’ lives are in the hands of inadequate public schools, the parents of these children try to gain admittance into charter schools who are showing more promising results. But admission is done by lottery, as there are only so many slots available and the demand is high. The sequence of these separate lotteries is fascinating to watch and the look of devastation and hopelessness in a mother’s eyes when her child’s number is not called is hard to shake. Though she doesn’t say anything at all, you can just see her thinking to herself, “What do I do now?”
In the film, Mr. Canada states that watching an effective teacher is like watching “a work of art.” As a former high school teacher, I certainly agree with this comparison. It is a remarkably challenging job. I worked for two public schools and the difference between them was night-and-day. The first school was devoted to providing its students with an exceptional education. The English department that I was a part of was filled with dedicated and creative teachers who all excelled at their craft. We met on a regular basis to discuss departmental philosophies and our performance was monitored in proper fashion. In short, we were held accountable. Fast forward to the second school, which, like so many other negligent schools in our country, specialized in passing undeserving students through the system. I can vividly recall my first week of teaching there — I had a senior English class and had assigned them to read two short chapters of Of Mice and Men for homework over the weekend. My mentor — the man responsible for showing me the way at this particular school — looked at me, laughed, and said, “We don’t do that here.” I would say of the 20+ teachers who made up this particular English department, perhaps 3-5 of them are qualified to teach the subject. Most were concerned with hoarding departmental books in their closets, leaving school grounds faster than their pupils when the last bell rang, and telling their students not to submit essays longer than 1-page (because they didn’t want to do that much reading). It was a sad sight, and probably why Guggenheim’s film hit home to me. I saw first-hand how a successful school was run…and one that serves as one of our country’s failure factories. I can only imagine what is going on at other schools who refuse to take responsibility. To those who have children and for anyone interested in the state of our country’s educational system, this is a must-see film.
Director: Davis Guggenheim