I sort of have a confession to make.

I don’t think I’m moved very much by movies anymore.  Well, the dramatic stuff, mainly, which I think mainly has to do with the fact that not many characters are so fleshed out to make me actually break down into a sobbing mess when something truly dire happens to them.  There are a couple – Never Let Me Go, Farewell (seriously, just a couple) – that did in fact move me because of the predicaments of the characters (the former being the search for humanity in cloned people, the latter in the midst of Cold War Russian).

Part of the problem too, as I watched Waiting for “Superman”, is that I see too many documentaries, and they involve actual, real life people, who live and breathe just like everyone else does.  There’s no fictionalizing them.  They’re us, probably a month or a year before we see the film, but they’re still us.  (I realize that I probably mentioned this fact before, but it’s always important to remember that and to keep it in mind, simply because it is the truth.)

Documentaries have done that all year to me, and Waiting for “Superman” is no exception, especially when it focuses on a few families who rest their hopes in a lottery.

Guggenheim’s premise is simple: why are public schools failing all over the country?  The problem is very complex, spanning a variety of areas that involve a child: poverty and low-income families; teacher’s unions and the use of tenure to keep bad teachers in teaching positions for life; bad teachers period; and, government bureaucracies.  The solution to the problem may seem simple, looking at each example above, but it really isn’t.

Guggenheim searches for a solution, but mainly comes to the conclusion that good teachers who genuinely care for the students and teaches like they should are the answer.  There’s more to that, obviously, but it’s where the solution starts.  There are good teachers in public schools, but there are also bad ones, and there is such a gap in knowledge that American students are falling far behind the curve compared with the rest of the world.

Breaking up the teacher’s unions is another solution, but also impossible (not even improbable, just impossible).  The teacher’s unions are there for a reason (to prevent unfair firings and help provide fair payment for the teachers), but have gotten extremely powerful since their inception, providing to both the Democrats and the Republicans in elections.  Michelle Rhee, selected to be chancellor of the D.C. public school system, introduced controversial measures to help the failing schools in the capital.  She knew that the problem was bad teachers, but couldn’t get past the union without trying something gutsy.  The idea of incentive-based raises while losing tenure made the unions balk and prevented a vote from occurring.  (Following up, Rhee and the union agreed to a contract wherein raises were granted based upon student achievement, but seniority was weakened and teachers lost a year of tenure so evaluations could occur.  Rhee resigned the post last month.)

Perhaps the most charismatic person in the film is Geoffrey Canada, an activist and educator who decided decades ago to help get kids to college with the best education possible.  He’s extremely vocal about the need to reform the education system.  In Harlem, he runs a charter program that gives each student the individualized education, as well as the broad education they need to become successful in life.  The model is extremely successful, with the charter encompassing 97 blocks in Harlem, with possible expansion across the country.

That also seems to be part of Guggenheim’s solution – charter schools – but the only way to get there is through a lottery (required by law when there are more applicants than there are spots).  Each of the families highlighted in the film take their chances on the lottery for each prospective program, knowing that the chances of success or failure for their children depends entirely on luck.  Of the five who are shown, only one gets in straight away, while a second is wait-listed (and he had the best odds out of the five).  Their pain is shown, but each is a small part of a larger whole, with every other family that didn’t have their story told.  Each family has a kid who wants to be a doctor, a vet, a lawyer, or any other professional that can work and be successful.

That is probably what’s most draining about the public school system: that kids with their ideals and their future ambitions are left to rot because of teachers not doing what they’re paid to do.  Guggenheim offers some well rounded solutions, and a lot of it comes down to us as individuals and what we can do to change the system.  Eye opening and insightful, just the way it should be.

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