Good teachers are the ‘Supermen’
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.
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.
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.