This past week I had the opportunity to see the documentary Waiting for Superman, a thought-provoking film about the current state of American public education. The work, directed by David Guggenheim (of An Inconvenient Truth fame) has received a considerable amount of press. The title is a metaphor for where we seemingly are: waiting for a powerful solution, a "Superman," to rescue us by improving outcomes in our schools, as by all national and international measures, student achievement has been flat for the past 35 years.
The film portrays the stories of elementary and middle school-aged children from New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC who are in so-so to poor schools. Their prospects are poor at best, as they will be soon transitioning to middle or high schools that Guggenheim terms as "failure factories," schools that are rife with chaos and disengagement. Thus, each of the children's parents enroll their student in a lottery for various charter schools, ones portrayed as remarkable schools where they can beat the odds of failure. Unfortunately there are very few openings versus applications, and as the film climaxes, the viewer knows that very few of these children will actually get into these charter schools.
At least half of the film is dedicated to charter schools that have posted impressive gains in student achievement, most notably the Harlem Promise Academy and the KIPP Academy in New York City. These amazing schools have visionary founders like Geoffrey Canada, a committed educator and reformer who passionately believes that it's great teachers that make all the difference. In fact, the film repeatedly stresses this fact... and eventually segues into an indictment of the systems and structures that impede the removal of ineffective teachers. Here is where the educational bureaucracy and teachers unions take their shots, as Guggenheim shares the most over-the-top stories of adult entitlement and protection of the incompetent.
Being a former charter school director, by no means do I believe that they are a panacea. Trust me, there are plenty of bad charter schools out there. (Guggenheim glosses over very quickly that only 1 in 5 have results superior to traditional public schools.) However, the beauty of their existence is that they offer a new way of doing business- and specifically innovation- for our neediest kids. I have been at charter school lotteries for schools such as Providence's Times2 Academy, where just like the ones in the film, being selected as a student is often a 1 in 50 proposition. When it happens, the students and parents cry tears of joy, as if they have won millions of dollars in an actual state lottery. This is truly bittersweet to observe.
It should be pointed out that successful schools like the Harlem Promise Academy and KIPP are true labors of love, where the staff are deeply committed, going well beyond the parameters of what we typically expect in a school. Students in these schools attend for 8-10 hours per day, and many of their social services needs are tended to. I have personally known teachers at similar schools, and their accessibility to students and their families is great, as contact at home during the evenings and weekends is the norm. In some cases, staff act as parent figures, as they are the most meaningful adults in their students' lives. It is apropos that one of the children featured in Waiting for Superman is attempting to get into Washington DC's The SEED School. The SEED School is a public charter boarding school, as a 24-hour education in academic, life skills, and enrichment is delivered to inner city youth. Like the other schools portrayed in the film, staff at the SEED School are committed to doing what ever it takes so all of their kids may learn at the highest levels.
Am I suggesting that all schools must take such measures? Hardly. However, we must change how we do business- and the film does a great job in driving that point home. So many of our structures in public education are relics of the past, as they were created in the late 1800's or early 1900's, designed to educate children of the industrial age. These children were well-prepared to find jobs in the manufacturing and service industries, with a select few going on to college. This system will no longer work today, where students need to go to college to be competitive in our economy.
Like the featured charter schools, we must always do "whatever it takes." We must be innovative- and use research-based practices that improve student results. We can longer expect that a 180 day, 6 hr. school model will let us be competitive with our global counterparts. We can no longer have a "one size fits all" approach to teaching and learning.
During the film's closing minutes, several tag lines are interspersed with the credits. One reads, "Our education system is broken." Another reads "We know what works in schools."
After a fade to black, it is followed by "We must do it."
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