Sunday, March 27, 2011

Waiting for Superman: A Review


"The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. The principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples is ignorance." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109)

It seems that at least once a year the media has a story about yet another study that makes me want to hide by passport in embarrassment. The latest is from NEWSWEEK. Read it and weep:

"They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar." (Read the whole thing here if you dare)

NEWSWEEK asks the provocative question, "how dumb are we?". This question could serve as the unofficial subtitle of the documentary "Waiting for Superman". In this case, the question would apply not only to the poorly educated children being produced by too many of our public schools, but also to the adults who allow this to continue day after day.

"Waiting for Superman" is a highly informative, thought-provoking, and heart-string-pulling documentary. One of its strengths is putting a human face on the education debate through profiling several children and their families as they strive for something that should not be so hard to find; a decent education. From the Bronx to LA, you get a glimpse into their dreams and their nightmares. I found myself hoping along with their loved ones depicted on film for these kids to succeed. I haven't cried watching a film in a long time and this one broke my heart in half.

"Waiting for Superman" does an excellent job of balancing the personal stories with lots of information about the broader social and political context. It does a particularly effective job of using animation to illuminate the various facts and statistics detailed in the film. As someone who is not in the education field or immersed in education policy debates I was able to learn a great deal.

In addition to stories about children, you also hear about various innovators and reformers as well as some of their opponents. Geoffrey Canada, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides a great deal of commentary throughout the film. This man is a national treasure and I hope that someone tells him that everyday. I was also fascinated by the story of Michelle Rhee, then Chancellor of the D.C. public schools. Her frustrations in trying to reform the D.C. schools represented another empathic moment for me as someone working in human services, an industry that on a good day can still make you want to pull your hair out.

Though teacher's unions are not quite "villains" in the film, what you see and hear of them does not come across in a positive way. The film raises what seem to be legitimate questions about things such as tenure but does not provide much of an opportunity to hear the teacher's unions really make their case. In fact, for a movie about education you don't hear as much from teachers as you might expect. I found this to be a weakness of the film that leaves it vulnerable to being dismissed as anti-teacher or anti-teacher's union propaganda. This would be unfortunate because this is a movie that needs to be seen and whose message needs to be heard. The message is that failing to educate all our children is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Isn't that something we should all agree with?

By far, the most poignant portion of the film is watching the children and families as they sit through the lotteries that will determine whether the kids get into their preferred schools. You heard that right, lotteries. The anxiety on the faces of the kids and adults is palpable through the screen. The results are not a Hollywood ending. I found myself completely flabbergasted by the power of a randomly chosen numbered ball or piece of paper with a name on it in these people's lives. What kind of nation would leave the future of its children, leave its own future to chance?!

"How long shall we drift on the wings of passion and vain desire; how long shall we spend our days like barbarians in the depths of ignorance and abomination? God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living. He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it. Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2)