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October 25, 2010

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. 

Why do students perform poorly in public schools? Because: so many of the them come from homes where the parents are not educated or speak a language other than English; where there are no books and the television is always blaring; where the children are allowed to wander in the neighborhood at night rather than study; where there is no father, or the father is living with another woman and has children from three or four relationships; and where the students are in the thrall of the culture of distraction, “friending” far-away strangers on Facebook, answering cell phones and texting in the middle of conversations, walking glassy-eyed through life, oblivious of their surroundings, with iPods in their ears. Another major problem is college education departments that fail to prepare young teachers for the rigors of the classroom.

“Superman” deals with none of these issues. Its villain is the teachers’ unions. The unions oppose experimentation, change and merit pay and use the tenure system to protect the worst teachers. One enduring image is New York’s “rubber room,” the holding pen filled with bad teachers who have been removed from the classroom, now lolling around, hanging over their desks, fully paid, waiting for years before their firing can be adjudicated. If this were a film about a prison or mental hospital this would be called “the hole.”

Meanwhile we weep with the black single mother whose daughter has not been allowed to attend graduation at her Catholic school across the street because the mother was behind on her tuition payments. We would like to know more. Did the filmmakers ask the school’s principal about this?

Gail Collins has noted that only 17 percent of charter schools do a better job that the local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” And states with strong teachers’ unions do best on the standardized tests. Other critics inform us that many charter schools are, in fact, unionized and that reform movements within the teachers unions, nudged by the film, are seeking creative ways to confront the education crisis.

Those who have taught in either high school or college approach a film like this with high expectations. We have seen minds wasted and futures lost for two basic reasons: first, society’s failure to provide a climate that nurtures the intellectual life, including the intellectual lives of 12 year olds; and second, the school’s failure to challenge the young minds. If “Frontline” were tackling this issue there would be graphic footage from the classroom and the neighborhood showing us why a school is failing, the talking heads would be top scholars, and the recommendations for change would be more developed than the catchwords (smaller classrooms, creativity) Guggenheim floats before the film’s final credits.

It also frustrating that “Superman” does not touch on the then/than, were/where—or illiteracy—problem. My students did not know how to use these words because they were not properly taught in grammar school or high school. I have met college sophomores who claim to have never read a book in their lives, as well as students who can neither spell nor compose a sentence but who received As and Bs in English in high school. How can this be? Guggenheim does not provide an answer. “Superman” interviews children, but no teachers get to speak.

The only classroom example of a “good” teacher is one who uses rap music to teach math. In fact math is the only subject that gets much attention. Literature? History? The great CBS news commentator Eric Sevareid in his last years lamented that fact that young people know no history. “How can we know where we are if we do not know where we’ve been?” he asks.

The film ends with an old film clip from a Superman serial where a school bus is careening down a steep mountain road out of control and about to plunge over a cliff. Superman swoops out of the sky and grabs the back fender and pulls it to a halt. An authority comes up and thanks Superman for saving all these children’s lives. But the audience members who paid attention had to notice that all the time the bus was empty. In some ways, so is the film.  

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Keyran Moran
13 years 6 months ago

This is a superb piece of clear writing on a very important subject. For most of us Americans of Schroth's generation, he reads like a foreign correspondent reporting from some country in the ex-Soviet bloc-which has some strange-sounding religion in an economy that is paralyzed or mal-distributed.

Schroth-despite his good intentions-seems to leave to us with the feeling that this world of heedless and delinquent teachers is matched by the abandoned and therefore heedless kids.

Such sorrow and desperation in all directions!

While we are spending $700,000,000,000 for defense against Shadows and Spooks!
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 6 months ago
Between the years 1970 and 2007 the inflation adjusted dollars spent on US public education per student increased 190%. Between 1997 and 2007, the average number of students per class was decreased from 27 to 17. The result? A decline in student scores while the competitor nations improved substantially on average. Now we rank right atop the bottom quartile of major industrial nations.

Fr Schroth quotes Gail Collins, who claims that a third of the charter schools do worse than the average public school. That is a good point and is addressed by the simple fact that if these schools do not improve in short order they will lose funding and be closed, administrators and teachers looking for employment. That is exactly what should be happening in all the public schools, with the parochial schools and vouchers in play as well. Real competition based upon results. Then the sad, desperate faces reflecting the truth of this documentary, which remains, sadly, valid and poignant, may resolve to a happier conclusion.
James Collins
13 years 6 months ago
If we have learned anything in this country it is that competition results in improved quality and lower costs. Similarly monoplies results are disastorous in their consequences. Workers of all kinds respond positively when rewarded for hard work and success. Yet we entrust one of our most iportant institutions, public schools to a quasi monoply dominated by powerful unions which spend unseemly amounts of money on politicians. The internal politics of unions make them absolutely incapable of dealing with merit pay and acievement incentives. Never mind that practically all other white collar workers work and do just find under a merit compensation system. We will not fix public schools until something is done to break up the unholy alliance between powerful unions and the Democratic politicans they keep in office.
Boreta Singleton
13 years 6 months ago
As an African American educator who taught for almost 25 years in inner city Catholic schools, I think this documentary is an attempt to begin to address the concerns which Fr. Schroth expresses. So many inner-city students are so far below standards that this documentary should be a wake-up call for public school systems in our cities. I know many dedicated teachers and hard-working students in the NY Public School System. It is unfortunate that so many students do not recieve the motivation to attain an education. There are thousands of students like the ones interviewed in this documentary. Before school systems tackle the grammar concerns, they need to tackle the students' emotional and social needs. Getting students to stay in school to hear the grammar lesson is the first step to learning.
Craig McKee
13 years 6 months ago

"...while countries from China to Finland soar ahead of us in their math and science scores."

I cannot speak for Finland, but after six years of working in secondary and tertiary education in China, I have to admit that I have done no TEACHING in the American sense of the word. All I do is TRAINING to pass exams (where only the best students are even allowed to take them, which may explain a few things vis a vis "beating" America) - and the system is pervaded by fear of failure at ALL levels. Accountability is done by the numbers, and if you do not have adequate numbers, you are OUT pure and simple. The money and benefits package are excellent, and I don't see myself returning to an American classroom any time soon, but over here, education is a strictly MERCENARY activity. I don't mind swimming with the sharks and barracudas (and a few snakes!), however, because I am American JESUIT and French DOMINICAN trained...and can rumble with the best of them!

Mike Evans
13 years 5 months ago
The issue is simply a dedication to excellence and making improvements on every local level. Almost all second graders love school. By the time they are in sixth grade, most hate school. Why is that? The public (and private) school systems are designed for the self-motivated, easily taught and well-behaved children from exceptional families. They have no respect or empathy for children who do not fit that profile. Want to really evaluate your local school? Just inspect the student rest-rooms. If they are broken, filthy and intimidating you know the board, principal and staff could care less about the welfare and needs of their students.
Chris Cunningham
13 years 5 months ago
I would like to echo the importance of a supportive family life in helping the child reach their educational goals.
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 5 months ago
Mike, you make a valid point when you point out that many schools (particularly innercity ones) have unmotivated principals and teachers in place. I think you would also agree based on results, such as that of Cristo Rey High run by the Jesuits in NY, that other schools do. The best way forward seems to me that we should encourage those schools which show respect and empathy that results in better educational results for the students, while discouraging those which do not, either by improving them or shutting them down. That's what charters do, and adding vouchers would do even better. I've seen both types,parochial and public, in the lowincome areas I worked in the food business. and the difference was astounding.
Who would disagree with Chris's assessment of the importance of a supportive family for the child? Problem is, unlike Norway, which promotes religious education and moral formation from grades 6-13 along with exposure to all major religious systems, we have outlawed such exposure. So if it is missing at home, the family/child have nowhere to turn in our public school system.
Craig, I am happy for you that you can compete because you got the parochial school education. Guess what? So did President Obama, Clarence Thomas, Sonya Sotamayor, and Regina Benjamin, all minorites of different political persuasions at the pinnacle of their professions. (We might add Albert Einstein to this distinguished group.)
Wouldn't vouchers making such access more available to current minority students of modest backgrounds to increase their chances for similar success be a great thing?
Catherine Jayjack
13 years 5 months ago
I would like to echo Chris Cunningham's stress on the family life as being perhaps the single most important predictor of success in school. Having said that, we can't control home life, but we can make choices on how important education really is to us as a society by putting our money where our (collective) mouth is. Public schools deal with a host of situations that charter and private schools seldom do, including unmotivated parents, special needs children, ESL students and others. People who smugly point out that Sister so-and-so handled 47 children and taught them admirably are ignoring the poor-school reality that these are children in need of individual attention more than anything. If Jesus, living in one of the most homogeneous societies in history, limited himself to 12 Apostles, why should we expect to do better with one frazzled teacher and perhaps one part-time assistant to actually teach anything to a class of 25? Most states spend far more on their prisoners than on their students. The physical state of our schools shows whether we really care.

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