It's clear that the United States continues to fall behind the rest of the world in the quality of public
education. Last Friday, there was a lot of buzz around the $100 million challenge grant that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was giving to the Newark, New Jersey schools to reform.
There's also a new documentary from the Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, director of "An Inconvenient Truth," that takes on the task of dissecting the public education system. I read a big piece in Time magazine about his film Waiting
For Superman which opened last Friday.
Whether the film will get to enough people or inspire them to take action remains to be seen. I have very mixed feeling about the film and I haven't even gone into a theater to see it yet.
It bothers me to see parents and kids praying that they win a lottery to get into the better school in their city. I agree that tenure is outdated but I haven't seen a good alternative. Merit pay based on standardized tests doesn't seem to be a solution. Then again, I have trouble listening to a teachers' union president fight back so hard that it seems like they oppose any change.
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, gets a lot of attention in the film (and appeared on Oprah's show with Zuckerberg). Canada's organization tries to increase high school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem. He's the "rockstar" reformer in director Guggenheim's film. The documentary looks at Canada's successes and follows the lives of several talented children.
The film's title comes from Geoffrey Canada who says that as a kid he saw Superman on TV and thought that he would one day swoop in to save him and his classmates. Most of us doubt that any one hero armed with either millions of dollars, political power or charismatic words about achievement is going to fly into our midst and make things right.
Watching the kids families in the film (even in the preview trailer) waiting to hear if their kid can leave their substandard schools for a mediocre one is suspenseful and sad. They ARE waiting for a Superman in the form of a school.
The film hits at the teachers unions pretty hard. I'm not in one now. I was in one for 25 years. It's the one that NJ Governor Cristie hates. The film, Christie, and plenty of other people accuse the unions of putting politics and salaries ahead of pupils. But that's as simplistic a reason for failing schools as waiting for a Superman is a fool's solution.
Several reviewers have said that Guggenheim doesn't hit as hard or make a film as one-sided as another big documentary director, Michael Moore. In fact, Guggenheim makes a confession of sorts in the film when he explains that he drives by some of these failing public schools every morning - to take his kids to private schools.
It's good that people are talking.
Visit waitingforsuperman.com to watch the film trailer and clips, and learn more about what you can do. Oprah Winfrey jumped on this early last week and then she did a show Friday about the $100 million challenge as a kind of followup to the show about the movie. Geoffrey Canada appears on both shows. There is some good discussion online and video of Zuckerberg, Christie, Booker and Canada at http://www.oprah.com/showinfo/