Our American school system is broken and has been for a long time. It’s been that way for so long that so many of us have gotten used to it and have stopped looking for solutions. Do workable solutions even exist?
Waiting For Superman is a documentary that puts five faces on the issue of public education as it follows five students in Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco who are all striving for academic achievement despite school and school system apathy. As a mother of a kindergartener and a Washington, DC area resident, this film was particularly timely for me. I was already familiar with some of the educational giants that served as the films experts. Former DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee was in the local news almost daily as she tried to overhaul the DC public schools. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has received many national awards. The KIPP Schools have been cited in numerous books and articles. But somehow seeing how bad schools affect individual children really broke my heart.
The five children profiled in Waiting For Superman each had parents and guardians that were invested in their academic futures. Their kids were not being served by their current schools and they had identified magnet or charter schools that would offer their children better educational opportunities. The film did a good job of allowing the viewer to get to know and care about the students. Each student’s story culminated with a school lottery drawing where names were pulled from a hat or plucked from a bingo basket. The lucky winners gained entry into the much sought after schools. The odds for winning a spot were in themselves depressing – 10 out of 135, 110 out of 455, and 35 out of 767. I held my breath while watching the families wait to hear if their name or number was called.
This film is part documentary and part essay. It doesn’t really follow action as it unfolds but rather presents interviews and cartoon graphics to make a specific point. There is nothing wrong with making a point and Waiting For Superman is not so heavy handed as to give the feeling of forcing an agenda.
What Waiting For Superman didn’t address was parental involvement. The movie points out many disturbing facts about the failure of our schools and school systems. For example, most teachers are tenured regardless of their ability to teach and can’t be fired. Most students are placed on an academic track that they rarely break out of. However, while good schools and teachers have a tremendous impact on how much a child learns, it is the partnership between schools and parents that give the kids the best chance possible of academic success. The children highlighted in this film were going through such heart wrenching school lottery experiences precisely because someone at home cared enough to make sure those kids got the very best their school systems have to offer. But what if no one at home cared?
I am always excited when documentary films that present a problem also give tangible steps toward change. In this case, Waiting For Superman explored why some model public schools are successfully teaching our children while others are not. The website has lots of helpful steps and links that anyone interested can easily follow as well as additional information about the film. I suggest that you visit it even if you don’t watch the film: http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/synopsis.
I am lucky that I live in a time and place where my kids will feed into a very good elementary school. Waiting for Superman has pointed out that all kids should have this opportunity and that there, but for the grace of God, go I.