This week, I and several Chamber volunteer leaders had the opportunity to attend the local premiere of the new documentary Waiting for Superman,
directed by Davis Guggenheim, the same filmmaker who produced An Inconvenient Truth. Stand For Children,
a grassroots advocacy organization that works on education issues, hosted the packed showing at the Green Hills Regal Theater. The film has stirred a lot of national conversation about education reform, with NBC News and Oprah both focusing on reactions to the movie.
The thesis of the film is that the public education “system” is bloated, broken and ineffective. Guggenheim begins by admitting he sends his own child to a private school, but then follows five families in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Redwood City, who, for the most part, have no options outside of public education. At varying stages, each of the families decides to try and enroll their student in a high-performing charter school. Because many families are flocking to these schools, the film ends with a nail-biting lottery drawing, where the implications are clear: if your number is drawn and you are admitted, you are saved and on the path to success; if not, you are doomed to academic failure.
In between compelling vignettes with these five families, the film provides commentary and context as to why public education is in dire shape. Teachers' unions are singled out as reactionary, politically-powerful impediments to reform. The school system is characterized as a “blob,” a vast bureaucracy impervious to change. Together, unions and schools perpetuate the “dance of the lemons,” where bad teachers are never fired or rehabilitated, but are instead shifted from school to school where they continue to shortchange children. The conclusion is that we now know what works to close the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers, and the lessons are to be found in high-performing charter schools.
Unsurprisingly, the film has received a mixed reception -- effusive praise from education reformers, and outrage from teachers' unions. Both reactions are understandable. No mention is made of the local teachers' unions with a more progressive outlook, who are willing to think about teacher compensation in a different way. On the reform side, Michelle Rhee gets special attention as Washington, D.C.'s take-no-prisoners schools chancellor. Ironically, Rhee has recently left her post after the election defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, perhaps jeopardizing her bold reforms. The film's greatest value is in sparking a broader conversation about public education, informing and motivating people to become involved who may have previously been content to sit on the sideline. The film opens to the general public in Nashville on Friday, October 22, 2010.