There was little in this documentary that was new to me; Guggenheim covers much the same information I included in my post here. However, if the audience response in Bethesda, MD, is any indication, Waiting for “Superman” packages its message in such a way that even affluent, white Democrat voters are likely to take notice, and that is the film’s greatest virtue.
The smartest thing Guggenheim does is this: he goes out into the suburbs. He finds two white parents living in an upper class neighborhood in Silicon Valley and follows their quest to get their daughter into a charter school. Why would these parents reject their posh local school and its glittering, up-to-date facilities? Guggenheim states that even the very best public schools have trouble turning out students who are ready for college because they are operating on a post-WWII model that has since become obsolete. Though we are now a firmly post-industrial nation, our public schools are still funneling the vast majority of students into an educational track that prepares them for factory labor. Successful charter schools, on the other hand, hold all students to the same high standards.
Guggenheim’s point prompted me to reflect upon my own family’s experience. Both SABR Matt and I went to public school for the full thirteen years, and we attended school in districts that were considered to be very good thanks to our parents’ deliberate choices. I clearly recall, for example, that when we first moved to Northern Virginia, my parents were pretty set on buying a house in Fairfax because they’d heard that the schools in Fairfax were excellent. We ended up settling in Prince William instead (Dad joked then that it was all because of a jacuzzi bathtub that Mom just had to have), but that was okay, because Prince William, despite all my complaining, is not a “bad” district either. We were a well-to-do family, so we were generally free to move to “zones” with better reputations. Already, this sets our public school experience apart from the experiences of other families.
And here’s another reason why our experience is atypical: SABR Matt and I were identified as gifted in elementary school. From that point on, we were placed on the “A” track (in Connecticut, they explicitly gave the upper track that designation). In middle school, we were groomed for the high school honors program. In high school, we entered special programs for high achieving students. SABR Matt went to a nationally renowned public magnet school, and I entered the Advanced Placement program at the local high school. Throughout our secondary years, in short, SABR Matt and I were members of a small class of public school students who were and are given all the best – the best curricula, the best teachers, and, ultimately, the best education.
But what happens to the average student in a supposedly “high performing” traditional public school? When I was seventeen, I glimpsed the answer. During my senior year in high school, I was enrolled in AP Government, AP Statistics, AP Calculus BC, AP Spanish, and AP Biology, but though I had taken AP English Language and Composition the previous year, I decided not to go on to AP English Literature, as I wanted to focus my attention on math and science. The difference between AP English and regular English was like the difference between night and day. I believe the English teacher I had that year was basically a good one, but the students in that class had not been taught to write or to analyze literature on a deep level, and they had far less motivation to succeed. Looking back on it now, I realize that what I was seeing then was the result of tracking at my school.
I see nothing wrong with setting aside programs for the very highest performing students, but unfortunately, those programs often come at the cost of neglecting the students in the middle. That’s why I often encounter kids at work today who have signed up for AP courses for which they aren’t academically qualified; their parents and guidance counselors have picked up on the fact that most colleges consider the basic public high school curriculum to be terribly insufficient. In order to solve this problem, we need to lift the middle bar.
But I digress. Guggenheim also covers the more well-known dysfunctions of urban school districts, devoting a considerable amount of time to the travails of Michelle Rhee, whom I mentioned in the post I linked above. The audience reaction to these segments in particular was especially encouraging. When the upscale Montgomery county crowd in my theater heard that the teacher’s union in DC rejected a massive pay raise in order to preserve teacher tenure (the number one thing that makes it so difficult to fire a bad teacher), they audibly gasped. Let’s hope these limousine liberals have been jarred out of their sense of complacency.
As a Catholic, I also felt personally convicted by the featured struggles of one New York mother who sacrifices all to get her daughter into parochial school. Later in the movie, we learn that this mother has fallen behind on her tuition, and as a result, her daughter has been barred from participating in her school’s graduation ceremony. This is terrible. We Catholics should make it our mission to ensure that children aren’t turned away from our (very effective) schools due to inability to pay.
I don’t believe Guggenheim spends enough time detailing the efforts of education reformers like Geoffrey Canada; the successes of the best charter schools are glossed over somewhat, which makes Guggenheim’s categorical assertions that the public schools can be fixed appear a bit glib. Still, as I said, it is my hope that this film generates enough bipartisan public outrage that genuine reform efforts can finally get off the ground.