Will Documentaries Like “Waiting for Superman” Be Game-Changers For Public Education?

Today I write, not from pre-screening “speculation,” but as one of the many who have watched the Davis Guggenheim documentary, Waiting for Superman.  It just so happened that I watched the film in Atlanta on the same day that DC Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, announced her resignation.   But at the moment of watching the film, I was unaware that Ms. Rhee had tendered her resignation.  

I wanted to share with you my views about the film.   For the first half of the documentary, I was angry.   I sat there at a 1:45pm matinee and saw more than half the seats unfilled.   I was also angry because you see the data about school spending being less than spending on our prison system.  You see data about how our nation’s capital has 12% reading proficiency from their 8th graders!  And I was angry because you see these children suffering needlessly, and their hopes for a quality education dependent on the luck of the bouncing lottery ball.   How did we allow the “system” to become a systemic failure?

I was also angry in the latter half of the film.   Yes, I will raise my hand and state unequivocally that the teacher’s union has played one of the key roles in blocking innovation in education.  However, as an outsider, I also felt that they could have taken a more “balanced” approach to the teacher issue.  Yes, they made Randi Weingarten out to be Darth Vader, and they also got some appalling scenes of teachers sleeping in professional development programs and even reading the newspaper in their classes!   However, they again focused on the tenure and pay for performance without really giving you any ideas on how a teacher should be evaluated fairly.   It became an oversimplification of the challenges that public schools face with teacher acquisition, retention, training, compensation and evaluation.  I did, however, find Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem charter school, to be an amazing individual. Ms. Rhee, however, was portrayed as a “crusader” and I think it would have been helpful to take a more “balanced” approach to this theme and a few other themes in the film.

However, where I started to question the objectivity of the documentary was the real basis for why they selected these charter schools as the illustrative ones, other than they were the ones that the children were applying to?  I have certain reservations about KIPP because I do not support a 10 hour school day and school on Saturdays.  It’s not quantity, but quality that matters.  And kids still need to be kids; they don’t need to be the 21st century version of child laborers.  I also wish that Mr. Guggenheim would have focused a bit more on the actual pedagogy being used, but I suspect he didn’t get permission to go in that direction.

All in all, I am hoping that all of these documentaries, despite their obvious slants, will create an “education revolution,” much like An Inconvenient Truth did for the environment.   Mainstream America should feel ashamed and appalled at what “the system” has fostered in our society, and we need real solutions, and NOW. 

How ironic it was that I saw this film on the day that Ms. Rhee became the latest DC Schools Chancellor to fall victim to “the system.”


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