Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waiting For Superman

In Waiting For Superman, director Davis Guggenheim explores how America's public school system is failing students and their families, resulting in tens of thousands of drop-outs, while also contributing to the phenomena of failing neighbourhoods. Guggenheim initially filmed a documentary in 1999 on teachers which showed that many teachers are heavily invested in the children they teach, coping not only with academic problems but also those problems from home that children bring into the classroom. Ten years later however, as he was preparing to send his own daughter to school, aware of the precarious state of education in America, he chose a private school for his child. But most parents do not have this option. They may not have the finances or they may not live close enough to a good school.

Education has captured the social conscience of America for decades now. Starting in the 1950's almost every president has claimed to be an "education president". The solution has been to throw more and more money at schools in an effort to improve the quality of education that a child receives. The amount of money spent per student has gone from $4300 in 1971 to over $9000 in 2007, while test scores in math and reading have flatlined.

In 2002, President Bush announced across the board testing for all students in the No Child Left Behind initiative. In 2009, with 4 years left in the program, most states show math and reading levels that are well below proficiency. In Washington, for example, only 12 percent of students are reading at grade level.

Researchers have begun to study the problem of why students are not learning and have identified that certain public elementary schools are "dropout factories", producing students who are poorly educated, unable to read and do basic math. They identified 2200 such schools across America. One such school is Locke High School in Los Angeles. Approximately 1200 students enter grade 9, most reading at only a grade one to three level! By grade 10 only 300 to 400 students remain. Why do so many kids drop out?

Experts use to believe that failing high schools were the result of failing neighbourhoods, but now the opposite is believed to be true: failing neighbourhoods are the result of failing schools.

So what is the cause of failing high schools? First the education system in America is a huge bureaucracy which makes reform almost impossible. But more importantly, the quality of teachers is important to student success and there are many poor teachers who are impossible to remove from the education system.
"Students with high-performing teachers progressed three times as fast as those with low performing teachers. A bad teacher covers only fifty percent of the required curriculum in a school year. A good teacher can cover up to 150%."
When bad teachers were caught on video, Milwaukee school superintendent, Howard Fuller attempted to fire them, only to be forced to rehire them with backpay due to a "tenure" provision in their contracts. In public schools today, tenure is automatic, regardless of teacher performance. School boards across the country do, what in Milwaukee is called the "dance of the lemons" - bad teachers are passed on from school to school because they cannot be fired. Every state has its own way of dealing with bad teachers - except firing them. In comparison to other professions, in teaching, only 1 in 2500 teachers have ever lost their teaching credentials due to poor performance. But say researchers, just firing the bottom 6% would vastly improve the American education system. Of course, opposing this type of action are the powerful teacher unions.

But some, like teacher, Geoffrey Canada are successfully attempting to reform the school system by starting their own schools. Geoffrey Canada is passionate about children and a strong advocate for both social and educational reform. He has demonstrated that good schools are possible and make a difference in student outcomes. Taking a 24 block area of Harlem, known to be the worst for poverty and crime, Geoffrey Canada organized a school that took an active interest in student's academic progress. The Harlem Children's Zone is brilliantly successful - demonstrating that children from failing neighbourhoods CAN learn.

Similar to other excellent schools,  there are more students than places and that means that lotteries must be held to determine which students are accepted. To demonstrate how precarious the situation is for these children, Director Guggenheim followed five children, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco, as they struggle through a school system where the emphasis is not on learning but on the rights of teachers and adults. Each of these children have dreams of what they would like to be when they grow up. But whether or not they achieve their goals will largely be determined by the school they attend. So for many, the race is on to try for a spot in a good school which means entering the lottery system. Whether or not they are accepted will profoundly affect their future lives.

This documentary was eye-opening mainly because it reveals just how many schools in America are failing schools and it drives home the importance of good teachers. The statistics were sobering and more than adequately demonstrate that good schools are within everyone's grasp. We now know that students from poor neighbourhoods can learn and it is up to the teacher unions to decide whose side they are on; their own self-interest or kids in America?

You can watch the trailer below:

To continue to advocate for better schools in America go to

If you would like to know more about the work of Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children's Zone, check out their website,

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