New York Magazine has a fun feature on its last page called the "Approval Matrix," which critiques cultural trends. Along the vertical axis is the spectrum "Highbrow to Lowbrow." Along the horizontal axis is "Brilliant to Despicable." Here is this week's, in case my lame description is too vague. Anyway, somewhere near Highbrow this week is a note saying "Stop telling us to see 'The Social Network.' We'll get to it. We'll get to it." The only film that's getting anywhere near the attention of "TSN" is "Waiting for Superman," a documentary on the failing American public school system. Raymond Schroth, S.J., a longtime educator, takes a look at this important new film in this week's Online Culture section. See both "TSN" and "WFS."
Evidence of the failure of the American public school system has been piling up for years. We read of soaring dropout rates, gang wars, bullying and sex between faculty and students, while countries from China to Finland soar ahead of us in their math and science scores. Meanwhile, a string of candidates for mayor, governor and president swear to confront the crisis in American education.
My own problem may seem minor in comparison. After three years teaching high school and over 40 at five Jesuit colleges and universities, including the last ten at an inner-city college with a special mission toward underachieving students, I worry that many students don’t know the difference between “then” and “than” and between “were” and “where.” So I approached Waiting for Superman, the documentary on secondary education directed by Davis Guggenheim, the same man who brought us Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth,” with the hope that, even if the film did not solve my problem, I would know that I was not alone.
The story is framed around four, mostly minority, lower-income families with elementary school children inspired by the American Dream. You can become anything you wish if you are willing to do your homework, says the Dream. The big step in fulfilling the Dream is gaining admission to the local charter school, which while publicly financed is not inhibited by the same bureaucratic governance as the big public school down the street. The charter school may lack a gym and pool, but it has smaller classes, more personal attention from teachers, greater classroom discipline and more creative leadership. But since new admissions may be as few as 20, the child is accepted through a public lottery, which resembles a Bingo game, with all its screams of joy and tears of loss, in the old parish hall.
Where “An Inconvenient Truth” taught with Power Point, “Superman” illustrates with cartoon animation. The post-1970 flat-line exam scores, the shifting of bad teachers from one school to another, the abominable tracking system that lumps bright, middle and slow students together—each trend is brought to life in vivid color. In an upper-income neighborhood in California we see a well-equipped public high school as sleek and sparkling as a movie set only to learn that its dropout rate is scandalous, while the nearby Spartan charter school sends all its graduates to college.
James Martin, SJ