by Meredith O’Brien
Here are some of the thoughts that were running through my head as I wiped away tears and the credits rolled at the conclusion of Waiting for Superman , a documentary about how vast numbers of public schools are failing our children:
This is an outrage . . . I can’t believe children’s educational futures are determined by an actual lottery . . . The dismal national school statistics are appalling . . . We spend so much time, energy and money trying to help our kids be better at sports and make the travel basketball team or the top soccer team, why don’t we do the same with education?
This documentary is an enraging thing to behold, especially if you’re a parent of a child attending a public school, because then, it’s personal. My three children attend public schools in my small suburban town in the Boston metro area and they should count themselves lucky because the gripes I have about their school district are nothing as compared to the dreary portrait this film painted of the overall state of public education in this country, as student achievement continues to slide well behind other developed nations, particularly for children who live in poverty. The debate on how to remedy this situation unfortunately has, prior to the release of this film, been stagnant, mired in debates with teachers’ unions over things like tenure, the inability to fire under-performing faculty and whether failing schools should or could be shuttered.
Consider Maria, the mother of a Bronx first grader, Francisco, who was featured in the movie. Francisco’s teacher wouldn’t return Maria’s calls or notes requesting a parent-teacher conference to discuss why after-school reading program instructors said Francisco could read well, yet in first grade, his teacher said he was not faring well. Maria, who believes her son’s school is falling very short of his needs, spent nearly all her moments in this movie applying her son to a charter school (one of several she’d applied to) and fretting about Francisco’s future.
Then there were the parents of Los Angeles fifth grader Daisy, who wants to become a doctor. No one from her family has ever completed high school, which makes the fact that the school she was slated to attend for sixth grade is called “one of the worst performing schools in Los Angeles” even more disheartening. According to the film, 6 out of 10 students from Daisy’s neighborhood do not secure high school diplomas, hence her parents’ desperate hope that she would get into a charter school that could help prepare her for college and move her closer to getting the opportunity to become the doctor she aspires to be.
Francisco and Daisy represented just two of five children who, along with their families, were spotlighted in the film as eager to land spots in charter schools which they saw as their only life rafts so the children could avoid the fate that befalls most students attending those schools, which is not making it to graduation and losing ground educationally.
The lone student in the documentary who didn’t come from a poor neighborhood was an eighth grader named Emily, from an affluent Silicon Valley neighborhood. The local high school has fabulous facilities and students who achieve high test scores, but because there’s an academic tracking system and Emily has struggled with math, she would be placed on a lower track in high school, quite likely requiring remedial assistance, which, the filmmakers said, would greatly sour her chance to get into college. Her parents were trying to get her into a charter school which does not have tracking because they feared their daughter was getting lost in the shuffle at her school.
Charter schools are among the answers Waiting for Superman offers. The main face of charter schools in the film was Geoffrey Canada, president/CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school which seeks to “provide a pipeline for his students to follow from birth to college,” a place which has high academic expectations and won’t allow children to fail. Also among those who were praised for improving test scores and graduation rates for underperforming children trapped in bad public school systems were two teachers who started their own charter school in Houston, called the Knowledge is Power Program, which has, since 1994, opened 82 schools nationwide.
Political lightning rod Michelle Rhee, who took over the abysmal Washington, D.C. school system in 2007, was lauded by Waiting for Superman for trying to root out bureaucratic waste, closing failing schools and offering the teachers’ union two fresh options: Keep tenure but receive modest pay raises, or, in exchange for ditching tenure, allotting merit pay to effective teachers which would be exponentially greater than the tenured pay raises. (The local teacher’s union wouldn’t even vote on Rhee’s tenure proposal .)
The film has weathered criticism  for its sharply critical look at teachers’ unions and for depicting charter schools as the chief solution. However the statistics the documentary presented on how hard it is to oust a bad teacher  were damning, like this one, as reported by the New York Times: “In Illinois, where one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials, because of union rules.”
The most poignant and heart-rending moments of this infuriating movie was watching parents and children wait to see if their lucky number was called, whether they would literally won the lottery, the ticket to a bright educational future. The odds against the children actually getting into those charter schools were long. At one Harlem charter school, 792 students applied for a mere 40 openings in the second grade, while 767 children applied for only 35 spots in the first grade. At a Los Angeles charter school, there were 135 students vying for 10 spots in the sixth grade class. The anguish on the parents’ tear-stained faces, coupled with kindergartener Bianca asking her mother why her name hadn’t been called, certainly got me riled up.
The problem is, once you leave the theater, where are moviegoers supposed to channel this anger about the fact that so many American schools aren’t succeeding in their mission to produce the next generation of educated children whose help we need to compete in a global economy? The Waiting for Superman filmmakers anticipated this and their web site has suggestions for what parents can do to improve their schools , and offers general entreaties about holding officials and educators accountable and supporting those who are doing stand-out jobs.
This made me immediately think of my twins’ sixth graders’ social studies teacher, whom they really like, and who has inspired them to pay attention to current events by creating a weekly current events team competition. Because of this man, my son and daughter actually want me to tell them about what’s going on in the world, helping to cultivate engaged future citizens amid a sea of apathetic youth texting their lives away. My children now voluntarily peruse the newspapers which I place on the kitchen counter rather than just pushing them aside. In the film, New York charter school guru Canada observed, “When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art.” And as a result of this film, I’m going to write that social studies teacher a letter of thanks for his good work. If you’ve got a kid in a public school, I’d try to find a way to see this movie. It’ll open your eyes and, hopefully, spur you to do something, even if it’s just something as small as writing a thank you note to a good teacher.
Elsewhere on Mommy Tracked: Risa Green's Reactions to Waiting for Superman