Waiting For Superman Explores Education Reform Through The Eyes of Children

by Latoya Peterson

One hot summer night in June, I cradled my brown industry pass and debated watching a surely depressing movie about school reform or a (relatively) light-hearted look at North Korea.  One of the first benefits to joining the Public Media Corps was the access to SILVERDOCS, the annual documentary film festival produced by the AFI Silver Theatre and The Discovery Channel. Late on a weekday night, we finished up our training and trooped over to Silver Spring, hoping to catch at least one of the films before the festivities finished for the evening.

My friend Brittany and I both decided that we wanted to at least check out the film on educational reform called Waiting for Superman – and hour and a half later, we exited the theater with pain in our hearts and tears in our eyes.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Nothing that we saw should shock anyone who has been paying attention to the increasingly desperate debate over our nation’s schools.  The synopsis of the film is as follows:

When we think of No Child Left Behind we likely think of the 2001 legislation that expanded the federal role in schools and has become a controversial focal point of education policy. But when filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, IT MIGHT GET LOUD) examines this policy and the state of education today, he reminds us that “statistics” indeed have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily, whose stories make up the captivating heart of WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN”. In Guggenheim’s epic assessment of the rise and fall of the U.S. school system, we are confronted with much sobering information. Yet he does leave us with some hope that education reformers are taking innovative approaches to reshaping the culture, and truly refusing to leave any student behind.

Watching this film is kind of like bleeding from thousands of paper cuts.  Guggenheim introduces each child and their back story, and uses their experiences to illuminate different aspects of our failing educational system.  The stories cross race, region, class, and ethnicity to produce a heartbreaking tapestry.  Each of these children are so bright, full of life…and dangling on the precipice of educational reform. 

Francisco, a sweet faced first grader, is warned that he will fail the first grade if he doesn’t learn to read.  The problem?  Francisco reads with his mother for an hour each night, and is often captured on camera at the back of the class, reading through a variety of picture books.  Francisco’s mother has been trying in vain to get a parent-teacher conference, but realizes that with the large class sizes and apathetic teacher, she would be better served trying to place Francisco into a charter school.  Bianca is enrolled in private school at the beginning of the film, but her mother had her hours cut a work, and the school bars Bianca from her class graduation ceremony.  Bianca’s mother has pledged to give Bianca a far better education than she herself received – but with bills mounting, she believes the only choices for Bianca are public school or the private school lottery.  Daisy dreams of being a veterinarian – she isn’t afraid of the many years of school ahead.  Her parents, however, are quietly afraid for Daisy – all the neighborhood schools are tagged “drop out factories” giving Daisy dismal odds of ever graduating, let alone graduating with the needed skills to enter college.  They hope the Kipp schools in LA will be a solution.   Anthony is a young boy who carries the weight of life like a much older man.  With a deceased father and absent mother (both possibly due to drug use), Anthony’s grandmother hopes that he will be selected to get an education at the Seed academy, while Anthony worries about leaving his friends and games behind for a shot at a better education.  And Emily lives in an affluent suburb, with million dollar homes and a two parent household.  Her problem is less severe than the other children profiled – at her school alone, she will still get a decent education.  However, her family is concerned that Emily, who is starting to get lost in the swirl of academics, paper, and homework, will be tracked into regular classes and not receive the attention she needs to stay a solid student.

Along the way, Guggenheim talks to many different educational reformers like Michelle Rhee (the current chancellor of DC Public Schools), Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone, and Bill Gates who testified before congress on the need for more STEM graduates and has undertaken educational reform as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The film does a wonderful job in painting how dire the entire situation is, and illuminating the realities that face these kids.  The results of the lottery tend to reflect life – those who have the least need somehow end up with the best breaks. 

Waiting for Superman explored a variety of reasons for student underachievement, and details the current issues facing the nation well.  Schools are underfunded, tracking (shifting students into gifted/average/special education classes) is rampant, national standards are spotty, parents are often trying to navigate systems they just do not understand, and bureaucracy tends to win over the best interests of children.  But the answers are more elusive.  Guggenheim’s ideas rely heavily on charter schools to provide an answer and a way out for some kids.  However, even within the film, we see the limitations of charter schools – even with the best case scenario, most of the charter schools do not have the room to accept all the children who need a more challenging curriculum and more involved teachers. And that assumes that the charter school model will work for public schools. However, many charter programs have a provision where if a student is not performing in line with school standards, they can be booted out – back into the public school system. This can create a false impression of the effectiveness of charter schools – after all, if public schools had the option of expelling low performing kids, I am sure their scores would be far higher as well.

Also, the film generally ignores issues of race and class, even when the students or parents bring them up in the course of the film.  Many of the parents involved were not big on education when they were young and are generally struggling to make ends meet.  Daisy’s father admits he was no good at school and dropped out.  Bianca’s mother explains that she didn’t take school seriously until it was too late.  And Anthony’s grandmother mentions that she never put much of an emphasis on school, and didn’t really press her children to take education seriously either.  She wants the best for Anthony, but these stories show that many parents do not have a clue what type of support their children will need and what type of education they should be receiving.  Recently, Essence magazine ran an article on “The Middle Class Achievement Gap,” noting that this isn’t just an issue for low-income families – far too many students are falling behind even when both parents are in the home and dedicated to their children’s education.  The article isn’t online, but I typed out a few excerpts for Jezebel:

This logic is deployed often to explain why black boys (never girls, no one is concerned) fall behind academically – but the report in Essence is remarkable because it shows this academic gap is still present within financially stable, two parent homes.

So what’s the problem with Teaneck, New Jersey?

Some experts see the problems as part of shifting societal norms about the role of a parent in education. The article mention how more and more black parents are focusing on extra-curricular supplements to the school system (like foreign language classes, college tours, and family run field trips) to help their children achieve. But the next sentence is telling: “In other words, they are adopting the aggressive, proven strategies for boosting performance that many plugged-in, affluent White parents take on almost as soon as their children are born.”

The parents quoted in the article care deeply about their children and their scholastic future. But many came of age in a time when schooling and education was the responsibility of the teacher and the child, and the parent was there to ensure discipline. Many parents still reflexively defer to the school system and teacher’s decisions, while juggling all other responsibilities.

Essence profiles various parents and their involvement, and the narratives reflect the same shell-shocked feeling when it comes to additional parental responsibilities after enrolling children into school:

Deanna Toler-Kuhney, 49, had a vastly different upbringing. When she was a schoolgirl growing up in the 1960′s, there was a certain rhythm and routine to her education, and for the most part, it didn’t include her parents. “My mom would ask, ‘How was school?’ I would say, ‘Fine,’ says Toler-Kuhney, a mother of three and a project manager in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I did my work and my mom would say, ‘Isn’t it right?’ And that was really it. She didn’t check it. That’s how things were in my family.

Toler-Kuhney changed her tune after seeing district test scores, and seeing how far behind young black children were falling. She and a group of other parents formed a tutoring group, and Toler-Kuhney immediately saw an improvement in her daughter’s test scores. However, as the article notes:

It’s the [...] parent-school partnership Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson insists it is critical if the achievement gap is to be closed. “Parents of color often defer to institutions more than Whites,” he notes. “Even upper-and middle-income parents sometimes will work really hard to move into the best school system in the area, and then watch and wait for the school system to turn their kid into a great student, not understanding that a lot of the work is still theirs.

Flawed institutions are a major part of why modern schools are failing children in the United States – however, the reformers highlighted in the film have drawn their fair share of controversy.  The Harlem Children’s Zone, and their comprehensive programs are generally critiqued on scalability – how well would the HCZ work if they had to accept all children from the surrounding area, including those whose parents can’t or won’t commit. And Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of DC schools, has been dogged by controversy since she took office. Outside of her methods, and reportedly brusque manner with adults (she is far kinder to children), politics once again plays a role in what ultimately happens in DCPS. Rhee has dropped a lot of hints that her tenure as chancellor is dependent on the continued governance of Mayor Fenty, who is facing a potentially tough election.

Ultimately, even as the film ends on a message of hope, stressing involvement and advocacy (with a pledge and a books for kids program), one can’t help but to remember that the majority of the children profiled (3 of 5) were more or less condemned to a subpar education with the roll of a lottery ball. Superman was able to fight the Ku Klux Klan – but it will take far more than a superhero to combat the multitude of issues surrounding educational reform.