Quick Review: Waiting for Superman

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, a film that received a lot of media attention after it was released late last year. It does try to take on an important on-going problem: how to improve American schools? This is an issue that one can hear average citizens, politicians, college professors and others discuss frequently. Here are my quick thoughts about this film’s take on the issue:

1. The framing of the issue in the opening and conclusion of the film is quite effective. Toward the beginning, we meet several students who want to go to the better schools (often a magnet or charter school) in their school districts. But since they are not alone and these schools are attractive to many families, the students have to go through a lottery. At the end, we see the results of the lottery. This is the question that is raised: should a child’s educational opportunities be left to chance in a lottery? Get into one of these elite schools and life will likely be good; not get in, and children can be doomed to terrible schools that are termed “drop-out factories.”

2. While the documentary hits on some possible reasons behind the problems of American schools (No Child Left Behind, bad neighborhoods, tracking), the main emphasis here is on two things:

2a. Teachers are a problem. The idea pushed by the documentary is that the bad teachers need to be replaced and unions resist this process. Michelle Rhee, the attention-getting superintendent of the Washington, D.C. schools is followed as she tries to make a deal with the union involving merit pay for the good teachers. Interestingly, we don’t really see evidence from districts where teachers are not as unionized – does this help improve student performance?

2b. Parents deserve choices in schools. This involves magnet or charter schools within districts plus other operations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP schools.

2c. I wish they had put these two ideas together more: so how do teachers operate within these “better” school settings? How are teachers trained and encouraged within these settings? What exactly about these schools boosts student performance – is it just the teachers?

2d. I also wonder how all of this might be scalable. Later, the documentary talks about raising expectations for children and Bill Gates talks on-camera about having the right “culture” in the schools. How might this fit into the idea about American schools being more of a competition-based system versus a country like Finland that pursues more equal outcomes across the spectrum of students?

3. Even though most of the documentary is about inner-city schools, it also follows one “average” suburban girl and the suggestion is made that even suburban schools are not doing that well. This is backed up with data showing that American students are the most confident among a group of OECD nations but their scores are behind those of many nations. Additionally, it is suggested that these suburban schools are not preparing students well for college where a good number find that they need to take remedial courses. Since many Americans likely are influenced by school district performance as they look to move, what exactly is going on in these suburban schools that needs to be fixed? Outside of the exemplar schools held up in the movie (magnets or charters, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone), are there any good schools? Is the whole system so broken that no school can really succeed?

Overall, I was a little surprised by the message and who I have seen support it: improve the pool of teachers (and fight the unions!) and offer parents and communities more choices of schools that are more effective in providing educations. Considering what I often see blamed as the problems of schools, No Child Left Behind or funding disparities, this is a change of pace.

At the same time, I wonder about whether these two solutions are really the answer. Are they band-aids to the issue or would they really solve educational problems in America? I keep coming back to the idea of residential segregation, the concept describing how races and social classes live apart from each other. Life chances are better for people growing up in wealthier, more educated settings but of course, these people can buy their way into such settings and avoid others. Would school districts near me, say in Naperville, a suburb that takes great pride in its schools, really go for the idea of charter or magnet schools? Do they even really need them?

At the very least, this documentary raises some interesting issues and a different perspective on a problem for which many wish to find a solution.

(This film was well-received by critics: it is 89% fresh at RottenTomatoes, 99 fresh out of 112 total reviews.)

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