Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Waiting for "Superman"

"Just Another Brick in the Wall"

In June of 1948, The New Yorker published a short story by Shirley Jackson called "The Lottery," the response to which shocked the publishers and author. In it, a typical American community prepares for a lottery, the drawing of which will guarantee a good harvest for the citizens. Lots are drawn and one family is chosen. Of the members of that family, another lot is drawn, and the mother is chosen, to which she is submitted to a stoning and killed...all for the good of the community, of course. Sacrifices must be made. Since then, the story has become a classic of American literature, and its condemnation of group-think and mass-hysteria, or simple neglect made it a cornerstone for building an understanding of 50's and 60's conformity. It spoke to a cloistered populace the danger of the cloister, and the mentality of a group turning against one of their own.

Of course, it was speculative fiction.
Davis Guggenheim, who managed the minor miracle of making Al Gore compelling in "An Inconvenient Truth," takes on the education "system," in this latest documentary, by focusing on four mavericks and five children trying to beat it and improve the way we learn.

Waiting for "Superman" starts with the supposition that our public schools are bad, very bad (as a quick line chart shows the nation flat-lining in math and science, and a sink-hole map that shows just how far behind kids have been left in reading and writing—in the most extreme example, only 12% can manage a grade-level literacy in Washington D.C. "Wow!"*), while President after President throws money at the problem, to no avail; your tax dollars at recess.  We are introduced to five very bright kids throughout the country, who are close to innovative charter schools, and are hoping against hope to get into them.

We then meet the folks who are trying to change the way we learn from within and without, and their results are staggering in their implications for student potential.  And we get to meet the plucky School Superintendant of Washington D.C., who is trying to change the system by any means necessary, which means finding alternatives to tenure situations, and coming head to head with an entrenched Teacher's Union—the Union being the villain of the piece is a "given" and responsible for everything from keeping the teaching profession from fluorishing to, I guess, your kid getting beat up at school.

She sums up her frustration succinctly: "The way things are the way they are: it's all about the adults."

Exactly.  The teachers want to keep the status quo, except make it better.  Politicians and government workers all want to keep their jobs, even if it's filled with non-controversial "busy work."  And I presume you want to keep yours, too, and might even take steps to ensure that you keep it...that is, if you had one.  Nature abhors a vaccuum, but your boss despises it...quick, better look busy.

In the meantime, the focus of schools—educating children—takes a back-seat to the agendas of the "grumps" in charge of the asylum.  The charges who pass through their classrooms are instantly disposable sponges, and what they learn, which will shape their lives, is never given a look forward.  They learn what we give them, not what they will need, and in many cases, that includes motivation.

Waiting for "Superman"** is a common sense look at a public system in crisis (but, then, aren't they all?), and effective alternatives are proffered, examined and found good...but not enough.  The film ends with those kids we've been following...and caring about...attempting to connect with those schools they so desperately need to go further, but with too few spots for all of them.  And in a heart-breaking sequence, we see them sit and wait as "the only fair" system is used to determine their fates...a lottery, dispassionate, unsophisticated, and totally devoid of merit consideration.  In a way, it is the most effective lesson they can be taught: that life isn't fair, merely expedient and free from litigation.  And the grown-ups are in charge. ***


Waiting for "Superman" is a Matinee.

* Are they sure they weren't measuring Congress?

** Yes "he" does make an appearance in the form of George Reeves.

*** I saw it with a theater full of teachers and their comments before, during and after indicated to me that not only did they respond favorably to the movie, they were all for its reforms.

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