Patti Wenzel
MFF’10 review

Good teachers are the ‘Supermen’

By - Sep 27th, 2010 04:00 am
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Thought provoking. Sad. Urgent. Painful. Outraged. Hopeful.

These were among the feelings shared by moviegoers following the Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Waiting for Superman.

Powerful is another word to describe the film. After more than a decade of covering educational issues, I had become jaded by the finger pointing and excuse-making of administrators, school board members, taxpayers, teachers and parents. But Waiting for Superman and the discussion that followed the screening has led me to believe that something can be done to save our public schools.

Davis Guggenheim, director of The First Year and An Inconvenient Truth, alternates between interview footage, animated segments visualizing educational statistics, news footage and old George Reeves “Superman” segments to make his point: all of our students need access to good teachers.

Over footage of himself driving his children to private school, Guggenheim expresses his outrage over the idea that some students have to enter a lottery to go to a school that won’t track them based on test scores or simply abandon them due to their economic or geographic situation. These are people, not statistics, and Guggenheim puts a human face on an epic American problem.

The students in Superman tug at your heart. Anthony, a 6th-grader from Washington D.C., says it would be “bittersweet” to win the lottery to go to SEED School, a charter boarding-style middle and high school. He knows he has to go to a better school than the neighborhood campus, “because I want my kids to have a better life than me,” though he admits he’d miss the grandmother he has lived with since his father died.

Emily, a suburbanite, knows where she attends high school will determine her collegiate future. She wants to attend a charter because she knows she performs poorly on tests and would be tracked into less challenging classes if she went to her assigned district school.

Bianca and Francisco want to attend Harlem Success Charter School. Bianca’s mother has struggled to pay private school tuition for her daughter but can no longer afford it. She wants to ensure her child receives the best education possible. Francisco’s mother is frustrated that her son’s public school has tracked him as a struggling reader, even though he is shown reading effortlessly at home, and that his teacher refuses to meet with her to discuss Francisco’s progress.

Film goers wait for ‘Superman’ at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Patti Wenzel

And then there is Daisy. She is a precocious child who wants to be a doctor, nurse or veterinarian and has already written to the college she wants to attend. She is slated to go to the neighborhood middle and high school, which, according to a John Hopkins University report, is a “drop-out factory.” Instead, she wants to attend KIPP LA, a free, public college-prep school.

The problem all five children face is the lack of space for all the students desiring to enter their respective schools of choice. Instead, they enter a lottery – either by bingo ball or random computer selection.

The film arms viewers with statistics and casts blame on teacher unions who stand in the way of reforms. Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee is shown firing administration employees and closing failing schools, earning the nickname “The Hatchet Lady.”

Despite this, the early press that Waiting for ‘Superman’ is blatantly anti-teacher or anti-union is wrong. I never heard any of the teachers or school reformers in the film say the problem is teachers, they said the problem is bad teachers and union officials who refuse to move off the status quo. Good teachers are the backbone of all the reform ideas presented.

This is serious stuff, but sprinkled with needed moments of levity, as well as a cameo by Milwaukee’s own Dr. Howard Fuller on education reform. And if the ending doesn’t bring you to tears, you either don’t care about children or don’t have a heart. As we watched the various lotteries unfold, every member of the audience  was on the edge of his or her seat, as if it was each person’s own child’s future being determined by the luck of the draw.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is both sad and uplifting. And while it offers but one solution to the humongous problems facing public education in America, it does provide a starting point for serious discussion. So let’s get busy. Every year more bright kids lose their future to a bad turn with a bingo ball. And that’s simply un-American.

Categories: Movies, Urban Ideas

0 thoughts on “MFF’10 review: Good teachers are the ‘Supermen’”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I too watched with anticipation as each of the children awaited their fate in the various lotteries depicted in this film. I wiped the tears from my eyes, left the theater and walked down to the forum at the Kenilworth building, with many of the attendees of the film and listened to the reactions from the folks on the dias.
    While I sensed an a disproportionate amount of educators and will be educators in the room that put everybody in their walking on eggs public face, two commentators were willing to be frank with the audience, Dr Howard Fuller and Teach for America, Executive Director Garrett Bucks.
    They maintain that the problem isn’t choice schools, charter schools, regular MPS or suburban and rural Schools. The problem is underperforming schools in every category and the public’s willingness to accept that situation or our unwillingness to act on it.
    This film points out, as Greg brought up, that there are solutions. Every kid can be educated regardless of race, social circumstance or family income. We saw in the film some of the programs that work and have worked for a considerable period of time. They don’t cost any more than regular schools and there is no magic in the implementation of them other than holding everyone in the system responsable for doing their job.
    We as citizens have to insist on performance from the people that tell us they want to educate our children. We as citizens must insist that every kid get a decent education, regardless of where they live in the State of Wisconsin.
    Being in the theater and in that forum was like being in a locker room before the big game. Everybody knows what needs to be done. Everybody knows what they can do. Everybody ready and excited to get going.
    But than I remember, This director made another film a few years ago, An Inconvenient Truth, with Al Gore, about the ongoing climate crisis. Most people realized that the basic tenants of their argument made sense and there was considerable outcry, the obligatory tour of the talk shows, the celebrity choosing up of sides and eventually a well deserved recognition for great documentary production. And what has happened?
    The same people are sitting at the same table trying to work out an acceptable solution. And like the crisis in our schools, the solution to abating the havoc we are doing to our world climate, has been worked out in other parts of the world. They are looking for a solution that is already there.
    Milwaukee, we need new people sitting at the table. I don’t mean new School Board members and reps from the teachers union. We need a strong top down leader to take this broken system apart and rebuild it.
    Some people, including Doctor Fuller, fault Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Washington DC Schools, for her burn the bridges and my-way-or-the highway style, but they all agree, she got the system changed where her seven-in-ten year, predecessors failed.
    Why did it work? She had the support of the Mayor. How did Mayor Cory Booker get the Facebook Billionaire, Mark Zukerberg, to give Newark one hundred million dollars. He is responsable for the schools in his city and he has the support of the Governor. How did Geoffrey Canada get his Harlem school program going? The support of the Mayor. When our Mayor Barrett asked to solve this problem, he was rebuffed by the system that perpetuates the status quo.
    If Michelle Rhee sat around and talked nice to her employees when she took office she would have failed. The fact that she didn’t allowed the progress that is occurring in Washington DC schools. Even though she will probably be moving on, she has changed the system and it’s not going back to the way it was.
    The bad news in Milwaukee is that a system that was worse than ours is moving up and we are going no place.

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