Waiting For Superman-Finally

Well it finally arrived. Released Tuesday, I was lucky enough to have Netflix give me first look. Finally I got to see what all the hub bub is about. And as I suspected, there were no surprises.

There is no disagreement among everyone that our school systems are in disarray. Broken is the word used in the film. But as I have commented before, we seem to have different ideas on how to cure this disease. Administrators and parents say it needs to be fixed. My stance is that this system needs to be obliterated.

The main thing that Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman (WFS) poses to us is that good teachers do good things, and bad teachers do worse than nothing. There are many voices in the film that speak to this point of view. They show us the rubber rooms (which have since been closed) where the bad teachers sit in exile waiting for hearings. But the main point made here is that because of tenure, bad teachers cannot be fired. One of the main issues expressed by administrators who want to “fix” the problem is to get rid of tenure.

Also shown are the better performing schools, which are mainly charter schools. To get into these schools, parents from poorer communities have to enter a lottery in order to win the few seats that are available for their children. As the film shows in heart breaking detail, many of the main characters  in WFS are not accepted. Their number did not come up so it is back to hopeless prospects they have for their children getting a good education.

My contention starts with asking why we are condemning teachers for this mess. No one interviewed the “bad” teachers to see what it was that happened to them to make them that way. It was pointed out by an earlier Guggenheim film, The First Year, that many teachers come into the system enthusiastic and ready to make an impact. So why is not anyone curious as to what happened along the way? What made them despondent and no longer enthusiastic? What would happen if we completely restructured what they call “drop out factories?”

The answer lies in looking at the system itself. The odds are already stacked against the teacher and the students from day one. It was illustrated early in the film that the passing of “No Child Left Behind” had a negative impact on our test rankings. It took a bad situation and made it a thousand times worse. By testing and measuring every child by a test or a grade, we are diminishing even more, the individual potential of every child. We are essentially saying that if you do not fit in this box, go to the garbage heap, or prison. You have no value.

Last week I sited an article by Marc Prensky about how Obama is leaving our schools back in the past (The Reformers are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century.) WFS even agrees that the system is no longer adequate for the present or the future. It is a product of the past, and it can even be argued that it did not work very well then. I had a chance to speak to Mr. Prensky on the phone earlier this week. His comment was that he would wish to strike the entire curriculum away and start again from zero. I often think in the same way about a lot of things. What would it be like if we start from a place where we had no idea how to do it. Would it not be better to have parents, teachers and students all in the same room discussing what education is? Are we afraid of hearing what kids want?

A democratic free school is exactly that. It is a giant pow wow. And as the years go by at our school, I feel more and more a part of a growing community. A truly intelligent community that empowers everyone to participate as an equal. And watching children engaged in this process has astounding results over a period of time. Math and science are not the focus of intelligence in this condition. But what you find is thoughtful consideration for the impact of one’s ideas.

This week I got to attend a BFS board meeting. And though I am bound by a non disclosure agreement to say what went on there, I will say that I have never been part of a more caring community in my life. And I have participated in many things that are artistic and spiritual and the one thing that often comes up are people’s personal agendas. But at this board meeting, the table was surrounded by adults who really care about this form of education. I could see how all of us have been affected over the years by this democratic process. What Waiting for Superman—as well as many of the other films that portray the critical situation schools find themselves in fail to address, is that there are alternatives out there that work from a completely different point of view. These solutions do not want to fix the system, they go ahead and create a new one. One which adapts to its participants. One that is not founded by administrators or politicians wishing to get a photo-op while signing a paper, but by people.

The last thing I want to address about the film is one of the short segments found on the extras section of the DVD. It shows the success of such schools as Kipp, Seed, Harlem Success to name a few. The thing that struck me was that each teacher interviewed spoke with enthusiasm as to what was needed, while their name is listed with their title of CEO. Now I may be getting picky here, but the title CEO applies to a corporation. Are they telling us that privatizing schools is the answer? Are teachers who motivate children to recite back to them rote facts considered good? I am confused. My view is that a good teacher will motivate a child to seek out what they feel an inclination towards. They will assist the student in using that interest to generate knowledge. And through the support of the community, they may discover understanding. This would develop a human being with a conscience. One who cares about their environment. In a world governed by specialists, which in my opinion only serves self interest, a caring individual who feels the need to give something back is what is needed. And I do not think Mr. Guggenheim would disagree. I just think we have completely different ideas on how to achieve that and what exactly we are shooting for. My wish is to get children away from the desks, get rid of the blackboard, evaporate the notion that a teacher needs to stand in front of the group like a general and bark facts. Give the child some breathing space. Let them play. Make ALL people feel part of the process. Rich or poor. They all need to be invited to the table. We need to break down the walls that divide us. The conversation needs to go a lot further and much deeper in order to understand the real problem of what we are dealing with. If poorer neighborhoods show higher dropout rates, then what is it we are missing here?

I feel that Waiting for Superman has opened a conversation. I do not agree with its’ answers. But the fact that the film exists and has gotten a lot of attention is a good thing. We need to keep this process going. There is not one solution, but many. The amount of solutions is equal to the amount of people who are curious and wish to take action. In that there is hope.

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