Movie Rec: Waiting for "Superman" (2010)

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.

Movie Rec: The Lottery (2010)

Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman has been getting a lot of positive press lately (I’ll let you know my own thoughts when I see the film in Bethesda on Friday), so this seems like a good time to draw some attention to a similar movie that hit the film festival circuit earlier this year and is currently available on DVD: The Lottery.

Like Guggenheim, director Madeleine Sackler is also interested in public education reform, though she focuses specifically on the Harlem Success Academies, two charter schools in New York City that get results. The stars of the film are the parents of four children who have been entered in the HSA’s lottery, though we also hear from Joel Klein (NYC Chancellor of Education), Eva Moskowitz (founder of the HSA), and other involved parties. Many of those interviewed are Democrats and Obama supporters, which demonstrates that for quite a few, this issue has transcended party politics. (I consider this an encouraging sign given the Democrat Party’s history on education.)

If you are interested in education reform, you need to watch The Lottery. Granted, many segments will make your blood boil. Parts of the movie, for example, cover the political struggle over the proposed relocation of the second HSA to a larger building that is currently occupied by a failing zoned school, and as you might expect, the infamous ACORN and the United Federation of Teachers both jump in on the side of the status quo. “The United Federation of Teachers is trying to halt the progress and put the interests of adults above the interests of children,” Moskowitz states, and she is precisely right.

There is also a great deal that is poignant in this film. It’s deeply touching, for instance, when the imprisoned father of one of the featured HSA hopefuls expresses his amazement that Moskowitz’s teachers tell HSA students that they will get college degrees. That kind of encouragement, the father relates with tears in his eyes, is something he never received as a boy. This scene and others foster an overall impression that these inner city parents care just as much about their children’s futures as anyone else. The message, then, is unmistakable: denying these parents the right to choose is absolutely criminal.