Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman *** ½
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim.
Written By: Davis Guggenheim & Billy Kimball.

America’s education system is cracked and broken. While there are many public schools across the country that do a fine job at preparing children to move on and become successful adults, there are far too many that do not. They are filled with teachers who don’t care, but cannot be fired. They do not get the funding they need to do the job successfully, and many are convinced that children from underprivileged areas will never be able to overcome the negative aspects of their lives outside of school in order to achieve well in school. The No Child Left Behind program was supposed to fix this problem – a National system that wanted children to achieve at the same level no matter where they come from. The problem is that the Federal government isn’t the only one who funds public education. So do the States, and they all want their say as well. Then there are many autonomous school boards within each state that have their own standards. And then there are the power Federal Teachers unions, who care more about job security for its members than about educating its students. It has become nearly impossible to fire teachers, even ones who sit there and do little to nothing every day. The education system is so clogged with bureaucracy that the chances it is going to improve are next to nothing.

This is the situation that Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary Waiting for Superman addresses. He was raised in public education, and always thought he believed in it. But then he had children, and because he has money, decided to put them in private school. He drives past three public schools every day to drop his kids off. Why does he do it? Because he doesn’t believe that his kids will receive a good education in public school. And the overwhelming statistics say that he right. No Child Left Behind had the lofty and admirable goal to have 100% of the kids in America proficient in reading and math by 2014. It’s 2010, and the stats are startling – hovering somewhere are 30%. That means that 70% of kids in America are not proficient in reading or math at the grade level they are currently in. But you almost cannot trust the stats, because although the tests are supposed to be standardized across the country, each state views things differently. And again, everything gets mired in bureaucracy and red tape.

There are some public schools – known as charter schools – that have produced great results, and often in the poorest neighborhoods that so many educators gave up on decades ago. Although these schools are publicly funded, they run independently from school boards and are by people with the authority to do what needs to be done. The problem is, there are only so many of these schools, and they each only have so many spots. When they have more applicants than spots – and all the best ones always do – a lottery system comes into play. Kids are not chosen by merit, but rather by a random number. The ones who get in, have a much better chance at achieving their educational dreams, than the ones who don’t. And there are far more people who don’t.

The Charter school system really isn’t fair. After all, they are publicly funded, and everyone pays the same amount of taxes to support both them and the regular public schools, yet some people’s kids get a much higher quality of education than others. Yet what is the alternative? The bottom line is that public education in America is broken, and charter school ensure that at least some students are given the education they deserve – if they didn’t exist, the chances are all of them would receive poor educations. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but the alterative is perhaps even worse.

Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has made an insightful, informative documentary here – one that is certainly an advocacy kind. But he is less overtly political and in your face than Michael Moore, and as a result his films are a little less entertaining, but also perhaps more effective at inspiring debate. The film does argue its case well, but if there is a case for the other side, it isn’t really made at all, which means the film will undoubtedly draw some criticism.

But I cut Guggenheim some slack here, because the system is so obviously broken. The problem is, just like with Health Care in America, is that the people who need it the most, are the ones with no money and no power. Until the stand up and demand changes – and speak with their votes – the system will never change. Movies like this make me happy to be Canadian. Yes, our education system has some major problems of its own that need to be addressed, but we are nowhere near as far gone as America.

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