This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, September, 28, 2010
On opening night I got to see the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” a film that is bringing cognitive dissonance to educators across the country. Before that, I had read a dozen or so well-written blogs that had described in detail the movie’s “anti-teacher, union-bashing and pro-charter school stance” purportedly portrayed in the film, some by those who had seen early previews of the movie (and by several who had not). Therefore, I found myself more than a bit surprised when I walked out after seeing the movie — amidst a teacher protest that was taking place outside of the theater — feeling what I can only describe as relief. I felt relief because the film had rather skillfully named the proverbial elephant(s) in the room, raising issues that many educators find extraordinarily uncomfortable to talk about. And I thought, is there room for a new dialogue now that these problems had been expressed so publicly?
For some, the education problem in this country is one of social justice and eradicating poverty. To others it is about staying competitive in science and technology, or making sure we have an abundance of critical thinkers, global problem solvers, and creative minds. To say that the film offers evidence of the parts of the system that are broken is probably an understatement. But at the same time, to say that one film by itself can tell the story of all education in the country seems foolhardy. And to Guggenheim’s credit, he does not attempt to tell all stories about our education system.
He tells a story through a poignant journey of the promise of education as seen through the lives of five low-income families who are desperate to provide their children with a better life — a life which they know can only be obtained through education. It portrays failing public schools and the limited opportunities for these children to get into public charter schools that have demonstrated high levels of success. The title of the film is taken from a line by one the film’s stars who tells us the story of realizing as a young boy that Superman is not a real person, and therefore, no one is going to magically come along and save him and his community. The film shows the real heroes (not Superman) as the educators who work tirelessly to create a system in which all can succeed. At the end, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel the disappointment of the families who are denied that opportunity (via a lottery).
Conversations about education reform are taking place every day, at education conferences, in online forums, in teachers’ rooms across the country, etc. But it is time that public education be on everyone’s agenda, not just teachers, administrators, and education reformers. However, airing our dark secrets in a more transparent public debate is something we do infrequently. And it is uncomfortable. Because, after all, why, after decades of education reform, are these problems as prevalent as ever?
Perhaps riding on the coattails of the movie, NBC sponsored a teacher town hall on Sunday, in which teachers’ voices were heard on a nationally broadcast. That is not something we see every day. And what was surprising to outsiders (perhaps even to the host himself) was that not all teachers agreed on the solutions. For example, younger teachers in the audience were adamant that teacher tenure was keeping incompetent colleagues in place and stymied their ability to innovate. These teachers had taught both in public schools, as well as public charter schools, and had seen a difference. In what professions wouldn’t its workers be demoralized by those who do not perform?
I left the film thinking about how public education as a system is entrenched in old ways of doing things. I did not leave thinking unions were obsolete. Teachers want to create better schools. So do unions. These were tireless teachers, and hard-working administrators. The film gave us no silver bullets. The film itself notes that only one in five charters is highly successful. While we know that any large systems, unions, governments, etc., are hard to innovate within, the question raised in the film was a good one: How can we be sure that the decisions we make in education truly put the needs of the kids before the adults. Are there better ways of organizing human talent? How can we support all the young people in a city, not just the few? Are there great ideas incubating in public charter schools that can scale into traditional public schools? What about new strategies to engage students and allow them more freedom to love learning by learning what they love, more transparency, more support for risk-taking. We need new ways to think about using resources, and strategies to move us away from where we are now to achieving a vision of what a new kind of education might look like. It’s worth thinking about.
We all know that a good education should not be determined by a lottery. “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” puts that squarely in our face. Yet, my hope is that we can resist the urge to turn this film into a story about heroes and villains. We have an opportunity to bring the public into an open debate on public education. The spotlight is on education like never before. Can we use this opportunity to start meaningful dialogue and discussion? To spur a movement catalyzed by the conversation? Education can learn a great deal from the innovators in this country. Not the least of which is that innovation can be scary. It takes courage and risk-taking, and outcomes are often unknown before you start. Let us use this as an opportunity to write the storyboard for the documentary that will come out five or 10 years from now.