08 October 2010

Not Waiting for Superman

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

Geoffrey Canada opens “Waiting for Superman” with a story of how, as a child, he was drawn to Superman as a hero because he would sweep in and save those most in need. This provided a hope that no matter how bad things got, there was a chance that Superman would sweep in to the rescue. When he realized that Superman was not coming he knew that, “No one was coming with enough power to save us.” It is appropriate for a film who’s title references a superhero, the Davis Guggenheim narrated and directed documentary, features a list of heroes and villains in the world of American education.

The heroes (reformers, good teachers, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone, Michelle Rhee) are squarely pitted against the villains (tenure, the government, teachers unions, tracking, lotteries, bad teachers, rubber rooms, passing lemons), but there are just as often instances of overlap as there are conflict. This, is the ultimate problem with an otherwise informative film.

To those who are not a part of the education system (heroes, villains or otherwise), this will be every bit the groundbreaking film that Oprah and others have been saying. Those who are, the documentary covers issues that have been debated for decades and offers little in terms of solutions (hint: because we don’t know all the answers) and acts as a medium to motivate, inspire and/or anger.

At the end of the showing in Philadelphia, Guggenheim was asked what people should do. What did he say? Be informed and then check his website to see what you can do to take part in the city. Curious, cities seem to be the only places where education problems exist (or so the film portrays). The children we meet in the film are from Washington D.C., Los Angeles, the Bronx, Harlem and Redwood City, CA (tossed in for good measure). While cities are notorious for underperforming schools, states like Mississippi consistently are among the lowest performing states in the nation.

The opportunity to expand the discussion and consider the larger problems that impact American education as a whole is lost as the film only provides passing statistics and little nuance. While not every aspect of education could be included, one glaring omission is AmeriCorps. With over 85,000 members each year, AmeriCorps is tackling social issues with people committing to a year of service in America’s communities. Programs like City Year and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, are specifically designed to provide educational support in underserved communities.

Guggenheim said that we must, “move past self-interest and do what’s best for the kids.” There are thousands of Americans who do this every year. They are the teachers, the reformers, the volunteers, the communities and the parents. If you hope to accomplish a system of education that focuses on the students, you have to champion those who are already doing it.

So, go see the film, but know that it is not anywhere near the end of the conversation. In fact, think of it as the forward from the guest celebrity who wants to tout a few things in his personal interest that will be examined in further depth later in the novel. A critical eye must remain squarely fixed on the American education system. Improvement is to be demanded and expected. However, just because there is a new movie, we cannot ignore the fact that there are people who have been doing this for many years that did not make it onto the big screen.

Take some time to learn about these wonderful organizations and know that they are only a small part of the larger discussion. As Geoffrey Canada said on MSNBC on Sunday night, “charter schools are not the answer.” The film wants to make the solutions seem simple, but the reforms needed to get American education back on track are complex and require nuance. The heroes and villains are, in the end, not so clearly defined.

To help you along, start here, see the movie and do not stop moving forward:
Harlem Children’s Zone
City Year
Notre Dame Mission Volunteers
Mastery Charter
NativityMiguel Network of Schools
Teach for America

Tom Murphy is a former teacher at a NativityMiguel school, and AmeriCorps Alum, and the current site director for Notre Dame Mission Volunteers in Philadelphia.