This weekend “Waiting for Superman” opened in the Boston area in two theaters. The movie is a documentary that follows several children as they try to navigate the public education system in search of a school that will provide them with the best opportunity for their future. Although the movie seemed a bit too one-sided in its critique of traditional public schools, the stories portrayed are representative of many lives negatively impacted by a failing public education system. But what seems to be the most compelling message is the fact that the United States is rapidly slipping further away from its role as a global leader.
The crisis in America’s public-school system, which among developed countries ranks 21st in science and 25th in math, is methodically laid out in Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman.” The complexity of the failing system is also exposed and the key message is that the students in many schools are irrelevant to the bureaucracies that exist to maintain the system’s economic status quo. Unfortunately that status quo does not require students to learn. They only have to be warm bodies occasionally occupying a school chair for the money to flow.
In the US 10% of our high schools can be classified as “drop out factories,” a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These factories are a breeding ground for poverty, crime and the disenfranchised. What the nation as a whole seems to forget is that what we ignore today we will have to face in crisis tomorrow. The disenfranchised are the ones that terrorists recruit, gangs enroll and prison systems house. But they return to the streets angry, educated in the sub-culture of crime, marked with a record that precludes meaningful employment, with little prospect for their future and unfortunately finding their prey in the neighborhoods that choose to ignore the problem rather than face it head on.
Education reform, a phrase that hides the magnitude of the challenge, was a central theme in the recent Washington D.C. mayoral election. The nation’s capital has one of the worst school systems in the country but spends more per students than nearly every other district nationally. The money flows. Parents in the district send their kids to schools that persistently produce failing results. A new chancellor tries to make radical change with the blessing of then Mayor Fenty, closing failing schools and removing some of the rampant incompetence so evident by the results.
But the D.C. reformist, challenging an intransigent system and neighborhoods seemingly unaware of the negative impact of the failing education system, were swept out of power by the ballot. The status quo remains, winning the day, ensuring the economic base of the failed education system continues even if the kids are left behind.
The major flaw of the movie “Waiting for Superman” is the lack of solutions considered or discussed. There are school districts across the country that are making changes, reforming from within, re-aligning the status quo to focus on student performance.
In Massachusetts, one of the largest high schools has embarked on a path of reform that has shown progress. Brockton High School re-aligned its teachers, union and administrators to focus on student performance. It transformed its culture from one in which the status quo of lowered expectations was replaced by a focus on accelerating achievement. The development of an achievement culture is no small feat for a high school with more than 4,000 students. But it can be done. “Waiting for Superman” gave us a glimpse of yet another inconvenient truth of our society. However, on the ground day-to-day leadership, the likes of Brockton High School, give us hope that real people – teachers, union leaders, administrators, parents and students – that face the reality of reform can make a difference without waiting for some mythic super – hero that will never come.
Waiting for Superman Trailer