There’s plenty of blame to go around when you try to figure out why the nation’s education system is in such bad shape.
But there’s no greater problem than teachers who’ve given up, or perhaps never cared in the first place.
That is the central message of Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”
It’s a hard point to swallow, especially in a week when Soaring Eagles Elementary School first-grade teacher Gina Oellig won a Milken Family Foundation Educator Award and a $25,000 prize.
I’ve spent years telling people there’s no more honorable profession than teaching.
Lawyers cheat their clients, doctors molest their patients and automobile mechanics replace perfectly good parts. Those are gross and cynical generalizations, but we’ve all seen these things happen.
Teachers, on the other hand, are better than that. Better than the rest of us. They nurtured our minds and helped us understand the world. They were to be trusted with our children’s educations because, after all, who but the best of souls would sacrifice so much of themselves toward the betterment of all?
I still believe it takes a huge heart and enormous dedication to commit to a career in teaching. But “Waiting for Superman” wiped away any of my more naïve notions that teachers are paragons of goodness and light.
Guggenheim’s film focuses on schools in mostly urban communities in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. It takes us on a tour of some of the worst problems plaguing public schools.
We’re introduced to “drop-out factories,” or schools with a high drop-out rate; “lemon dances,” in which schools send their worst teachers to other schools and then accept failing teachers themselves; and “rubber rooms,” where teachers placed on paid leave sleep or play card games while waiting weeks or months for their hearings.
And we get a good look at the teachers’ unions. As the film makes clear, the unions have stood in the way of serious reform efforts for years, are interested mainly in ensuring tenure is left untouched, and in protecting the jobs of even the worst teachers regardless of their performance.
“Waiting for Superman” in part focuses on the efforts of D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee. In one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the film, we follow the action as the unions refuse to even permit their members to vote on Rhee’s plan to offer performance-based pay to the best teachers.
Just as importantly, “Superman” dispels any notions that poverty makes much of a difference in how well children learn. It shows us repeatedly that kids who are placed in classrooms where teachers teach can do extraordinarily well, even if nothing else changes in their lives.
The screening I attended was organized in part by United Way of the Pikes Peak Region. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
“Superman” is a devastating and depressing look at the dysfunctional education system.
It will leave you heartbroken, frustrated and angry.
Some of the students in the movie try their best to get ahead despite the obstacles.
The film closes as some of the kids, joined by their parents, fill halls and auditoriums across the country in hopes their names will be announced for a limited number of slots open at charter schools they hope to attend.
One is an 8-year-old girl from East L.A. who dreams of one day becoming a veterinarian. She’s bright, articulate, works hard at her studies and loves school. But it’s unlikely she’ll ever get the chance. Her number never gets called.
The same thing happens to several of the other children. It is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the movie.
If you believe education is important to a better future — does anyone seriously think otherwise? — then “Waiting for Superman” could be one of the most important films of our times.
Its title comes from one of the educators who helps narrate the film. In his youth, he tells us, he believed Superman would always save the day. His mother finally told him Superman didn’t exist.
For students with no choice but to attend classes in our school system today, we are the only superwomen or supermen who can fix the failures of education and save these kids.
I encourage you to see this film. Just bring a box of tissues.
Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at 719-329-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org