Schroth on 'Waiting for Superman'

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. 


Read the rest here.

James Martin, SJ

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David Cruz-Uribe
8 years ago
A good counter-point to the movie is the new book by Diane Ravitch, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education."  The book is a carefully reasoned argument, based on evidence, on why the current "reform" proposals-choice, standardized testing, free market reforms-aren't working and miss the fundamental problems. 
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
Ravitch's book is a sobering report on what has gone wrong.  As for WAITING, a review in THE NATION a few weeks ago pointed out several major problems with the film-e.g., it misrepresented the position of teacher unions, did not do justice to the successful public schools, and was far too celebratory of charter schools, especially given their mixed record. The only way to improve schools is to bring in all of the stakeholders and not present a one-dimensional view that is short on facts and long of endorsing glitzy schemes developed by Teach for America Ivy Leaguers who rarely remain in the classroom beyond a couple of years.


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