Waiting for Superman

2010 October 22
by david

I saw “Waiting for Superman” this week and highly recommend it. Its subject is one of my hot buttons—the decline of public education in this country. The film reveals many statistics that illustrate the sad state of American schools relative to other developed nations. Just one example: out of 28 developed countries, the US is ranked 20th in graduation rates, 25th in math, 21st in science.

Every movie, even a documentary, has a hero and villain and you’re probably already familiar with who gets assigned these roles as a result of the extensive media coverage this film has received. The teacher’s union—embodied by its leader, Randi Weingarten—is the villain and the heroes are Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. The movie oversimplifies things somewhat but Davis Guggenheim uses poetic license to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. I think this is justified because facts alone don’t inspire people to act. Michael Moore uses rhetoric very effectively to inspire an emotional reaction. I’m a big fan of his but prefer arguments expressed in a fair and balanced way—even from people I violently agree with. “Waiting for Superman” has generated an enormous amount of discussion. Questions have been raised about the real effectiveness of the charter schools praised in the film. And word got out that Guggenheim cut a scene from the movie that showed Weingarten signing a contract for teachers at one of the charter schools featured in the movie. But, by and large, the movie strikes the right tone.

waiting-for-superman_400Obviously educational reform is an enormously complex issue. Our school system is a reflection of our society. Teachers and administrators often say that inattentive or lazy parents are part of the problem. So is poverty, TV, poor nutrition, video games, the loss of neighborhood communities, etc etc. There are too many chiefs: federal, state, county and local governments. Guggenheim touches on these issues but his biggest complaint is that public school teachers are granted tenure virtually automatically after two years. Obviously, this is an enormous barrier to reform. What other profession offers that kind of job security? Only 1 in 2,500 teachers is let go for underperformance whereas 1/57 doctors lose their license. Taking away accountability for job performance makes no sense. It breeds complacency and incompetence. I’d like to know how this issue is treated in other countries that have more successful systems.

The emotional climax of the movie is when we watch children whose struggles and ambitions have been documented in the film waiting for their numbers to be called in the infamous lottery proceedings that charter schools are forced to use to choose their students. Where did this system come from? Grades, entrance exams, recommendations anyone? I know grading is never objective but shouldn’t admission to these schools be based on merit? But what makes the scene so poignant is that there is so much at stake for these kids. Getting into a charter school vs. staying in a public school is a watershed moment with lifelong consequences. Bad public middle schools feed into bad public high schools known as “dropout factories” where the dropout rate is as high as 80%. Even their top students have almost no hope of getting into affordable state colleges because of how their schools rank vs. other schools in the state. It makes you weep knowing that you’re watching smart, motivated kids trying to come to grips with having their dreams destroyed. It’s outrageous that the alternatives to getting admitted to these schools are so drastic.

I was lucky enough to meet Davis Guggenheim before the movie. He was standing outside the theater and greeted me because he thought I was with one of two groups who had been invited to the (public) showing. He had invited teachers and officials from Venice schools and Education students from UCLA. (He was still friendly when he found out he was mistaken.) He and his wife, Elizabeth Shue, told me that they live in Venice and send their kids to private school. He makes reference to this in the movie when he describes driving by 3 public schools on his way to take his kids to their school. I told him my wife and I are currently applying to private schools for our two sons and we talked about the cognitive dissonance that arises when your actions don’t match your beliefs. It makes the whole issue much more painful. The problem I see after touring several private schools in our area that the difference between private and public schools is too big to ignore. There are many great teachers in the public schools but the class sizes are much larger, the facilities are unimpressive, the extra-curricular programs are not as good. Students in private schools end up with an enormous advantage over time. We’re not prepared to gamble with our childrens’ future. I wish it were otherwise.

Today my wife, Tracy is a Team Captain volunteer at USC where Obama is speaking in a couple of hours. I’m proud of her. She worked hard on the ’08 campaign and has continued to act on her beliefs. Please vote on November 2 and urge your friends to support the Democrats. We can’t allow the party of “No” to worsen the gridlock in Washington for the next two years.

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