Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Waiting for Superman

I was lucky enough to catch a free screening of Waiting for Superman last night at the Oriental. The controversial documentary, which takes a closer look at the American public school system and its failures, opens on Friday at a theater near you.

This film also screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival to a sold out theater, which is why I missed it then. I heard from viewers that it takes an unfair stance against the public school system, highlights charter schools as the end all be all, and paints the teacher's unions as the main, evil obstacle to reform.

I found out that these were not only overly simplistic criticisms, but also not entirely true when taken in the context of the entire film.

Guggenheim does show the major pitfalls to reform, showcases some of the worst public schools in the country, and highlights some of the best charter schools. Sure, it's a little biased. But I think the main point of the film is that the system is broken. What it was designed to do in the 1950's is no longer relevant to the reality of today's job market or what our country needs in educated workers in order to be globally competitive.

As my friend, an educator, stated after the film, if all this documentary does is raise awareness of the problem and all of the underlying, systemic issues that reform faces, then it was successful. (J - I paraphrased)

One of the most surprising things I learned was that American schools do employ - to some extent - the track system similar to that of European schools, and of which I'm not sure many of us were aware.

In Europe, students are tested throughout their time in school - much like the U.S. - and based upon the results of those tests are put on certain career tracks. For example, when I taught in Hungary, my students prepared for their Matura examinations. Their choice of university - and subsequent career - was based upon the marks they received. This was mainly because university is free in Hungary for any student who gets the marks to attend.

In the U.S. we would know this as Gifted & Talented programs - students who perform best on the tests are put into these higher-learning programs with a lower student-to-teacher ratio and higher expectations.

If it's one thing I know, kids will fulfill your expectations. This film proved that. Whether those expectations are high or low, and what they achieve according to those expectations, is up to us.

Students who do not perform well on the tests remain in their class, likely with a higher student-to-teacher ratio, or if they perform abysmally, are sent for remedial learning. What winds up happening is that students are broken into three groups: those who will become leaders (doctors, lawyers, CEOs), those who will become skilled professionals (accountants, managers, etc), and those who will become workers.

Sure, it doesn't apply to everyone and there is room to move beyond your track if you're an exceptional student, but as one mother in the film said, it's the difference between having a career and having a job.

I also found it interesting that the filmmakers suggest that it's not poor neighborhoods that develop poor schools, but vice versa. I think there's proof in this theory. Just look at some of the wonderful things happening in the neighborhoods of good schools in Milwaukee. Bruce Guadalupe Community School (and the United Community Center, by extension), for one.

Yes, our system is broken, but it's not the fault of just any one factor. Reform needs to happen, proven success from model programs needs to be adapted and scaled to make a larger impact, and adults need to be able to keep it about the kids. As Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools - and controversial reformer - said, "it becomes about the adults," and that's when we hit the hardest roadblock to achievement.

What's interesting is that the Washington Post just reported that Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools will announce her resignation later today, effective at the end of the month. I can't help but feel that with this film poised to make a major impact on the nation, possibly upcoming elections, and our overall thought process and awareness, that this is crappy timing.

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