A Review of Waiting for Superman

Before I even begin reviewing the film, there are some fundamental truths that everyone needs to understand.

The American public school system is failing – badly. We rank very low against other nations in math and science; 21st (out of 30 developed nations) in science, and 26th in Math. In some larger cities (like New York), schools have only a 60% graduation rate, if they are lucky. Even those who do graduate are not qualified for the high skilled jobs that are in demand in America. Most are not proficient in math and reading comprehension. Certain people say it is because of underfunded districts and teachers, but that is not the problem. It also rings rather hollow – would you keep investing in an institution that only gave you a 60% return rate?

Specifically, there are four areas that schools MUST improve in to succeed our children. Amazingly, most are free.

1) The environment of the school is an environment in which students’ political rights, freedoms of speech, inquisitiveness, and expression are constantly crushed. Increasingly, students are not going to school so they may learn about the world, or even how to read, but so they may learn how to be “useful” and subservient to any sort of authority figure they may encounter. Teachers tell them what they may learn, how “good” their work is, and even petty details like when they may use the restroom and when they may go to lunch. Any student who attempts to resist the values are labeled outsiders or misfits and are discriminated against socially. Why else has the clique system lasted so long? Some lash out – very violently and tragically – but most are reduced to shells that depend on years of therapy. They end up working jobs that they may not have had to, had their education been better. This is the biggest problem in the school system and the one that must be changed first.

2) Paradoxically, although students are not expected (or, in some cases, allowed) to stand out and be recognized for their achievements, their self esteem is viewed as important. Students are receiving mixed messages – on the one hand, that no assignment is really worth investing a lot of time in (why else do bells exist, or why else are tests so close together so as to encourage students not to focus on anything for too long?) but that they themselves are good just by existing. As a result, the students expect everything to be handed to them, as they are “special” just the way they are and are always worth something. This is not even close to the experience they will receive in any sort of work place.

3) This is an extension of the first point, but here it goes – students are not taught to foster their gifts, and they are not given a place with which they may truly learn about the things that hold their interest. More artistically minded students must take mathematics classes to pass, while more mathematically minded students are forced to recite Robert Frost poems. Of course, in doing so, the school fails both types of students. They trivialize both so that everyone may be “successful.”  Analysis of literature is reduced to memorizing  facts, usually from abridged works, while most high school science students cannot explain the theory of evolution and cannot explain how energy is transferred. Ironically, the only students who are encouraged throughout are the athletes who are given state of the art gymnasiums and stadiums so that they may practice their “craft -” while science lab equipment dates from the 1980s and band students and singers are expected to perform in the cafeteria. This is not because of budgets – this is to stifle any interest students may have in these programs. After all, as I said in point one, students are not expected to be movers and shakers – they are expected to be servants. We can’t have potential scientists and artists filling the roles of servants, can we?

4.) Yes, there is a problem with teacher’s unions and teacher’s demands- they look to stifle any sort of innovation and remove bad teachers. The mindset they have is a paradox. They view themselves as public servants and demand respect, but at the same time they complain about their low pay. There are some great teachers – inspirational people who care about their jobs and the students they teach – but they are becoming rarer, as most teachers are trying to protect their tenured jobs and teaching less and less as their performance does not effect their pay. If teaching is to be considered a public service, then this culture of greed and demand for more money must end. If it is not, then the best teachers must be rewarded for their service and the bad ones must be removed. Both methods of thinking cannot coexist.

I myself managed to survive public school, graduating in the top 5% of my class. I was one of the first students at my school (I believe there were thirteen) to receive an International Baccalaureate diploma. I had great teachers (and some terrible teachers. Also I hated almost all of the administrators) in my school. The high school I attended was considered a Blue Ribbon school. I do not recall the dropout rate, but I was not part of the system that produced numerous drop outs. I did not realize how lucky I truly was at the time – I was just so eager to get out, as I felt that I had progressed beyond what the schools could teach me. But I still managed to succeed. Some students, through no fault of their own, will not be as lucky as I was.

Well now, I have written some reviews shorter than the diatribe above.  I wrote that before I had seen a frame of Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman. I want education reform as much as Guggenheim seems to. But I think the ultimately flaw is that it does not really address all of the problems. But it addresses enough of them – which makes it required viewing for everyone.

Oh, he gives hints about my biggest problem. For example, a child says he does not like school because “he is the only student who likes math.” But Guggenheim instead focuses on the problems with teacher’s unions. Now, I want to make this clear – the film is not anti-teacher. Several educators are interviewed and want the kids to succeed. The criticism that the film attacks teachers is not valid. Besides, the film manages to at least open up the debate for reform. It is a dramatic wake up call for our future. We all need to see this film and learn what it has to teach us.

It will be hard to analyze the film as a film. Like An Inconvenient Truth, this is basically trying to be an editorial on celluloid. I cannot really try to examine it from the perspective of a typical documentary – better to address what it says and does not say.

Well, the film tows the line that public schools are failing. It barrages the audiences with facts and figures about just how badly our public schools are failing. That our children are failing. That there are at least two thousand “drop out factories” in the nation, schools in which That teacher’s unions prevent any real progress by not allowing failing schools to be closed or bad teachers (who only cover 50% of a curriculum in a year) to be fired, despite severe abuse in some cases. That we have doubled our spending on each student, but test scores have plateaued. That kids who come from failing schools are more likely to turn to crime, gangs, drugs, and are likely to die very early.  They are the sort of figures that most people know, but that no one really ever realizes until it is shown.

All of these facts are contrasted with scenes of parents and teachers who are trying desperately to help these kids. The parents discuss how they want their kids to have the education that they did not value. The kids that the film interviews are not lazy. Each one has ambitious dreams about their careers and their lives. It feels like even more of a crime when the films explain that, statistically speaking, they are not going to come anywhere close. This is important. Had the kids ever been depicted as not giving it their all, or had the parents been depicted as nonchalant, the film would have been a colossal failure. But now, I realize just how much society is lying to these children.

It is all powerful material, and it is enough to get the blood boiling. But it is relatively short on solutions. Ultimately, the film pins its hopes on charter schools and similar such institutions. It is good in the short term, but not the long term. The people who get in are determined by a lottery – which is unfair and still leaves many potential high performing children in schools that are wholly inadequate. Private schools do better, but almost all of the families cannot hope to afford it. Also, it does not explain how to get around the unions that are certainly not going to accept losing kids to these schools. Indeed, Michelle Rhee (as explained in the film) attempted a very progressive merit pay system in D.C. area schools. The unions voted it down; how on earth can we get around these frankly offensive groups? In addition, the film only covers younger kids in elementary school. Until the fourth grade or so, these kids can already compete with their international counterparts. By high school, this is no longer the case. Why? The film does not really say, except to point out confusion in the anomaly. May the cultural reasons I outlined in the first two points be a part of the reason?

But the film is still an incredible achievement. I cannot recall a single time that these messages have reached such a wide audience. Already teacher’s unions are complaining, which just proves the point of the film. Even if I am not entirely satisfied with their solution, it still does offer a solution, something other people have been afraid to address. And it does so in a very entertaining way. True suspense is created in the drawing scene (I dare not reveal the fates of the kids they interviewed) and the information is conveyed seamlessly.

The film is great for expressing its point. Reform is needed. It will be a hard road, but a necessary one. Unions and some politicians say it will be difficult. That may be true. But doing nothing to fix this system is far worse than trying. After all, what does the journey of ten thousand miles start with?

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