Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Waiting for Superman: Reflecting on a Film and the Problem Behind It

Films like Waiting for Superman are dangerous if you let them in. They are inspiring and debilitating, uplifting and crippling.  All in all, they are as overwhelming as life itself.

For the greater part, most of us can drift through life deflecting the potency of it all but once in a while something comes along, grabs you by the short hairs, sticks a microscope in your face and shoves some truth up your ass. It forces you to open your eyes and your heart and despite your greatest efforts, to let it in. It screams, ‘I AM A PROBLEM! STOP IGNORING ME, PULL YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS AND LOOK AT ME!’

An Inconvenient Truth, one of Davis Guggenheim’s earlier efforts, accomplished this even though Washington's progress on the matter suggests otherwise. And even though Al Gore was a surprisingly effective conduit for his message, he was not nearly as persuasive as the children in Waiting for Superman.

Blogger’s Warning: You will fall in love with the children in this film. Your heart will swell and break with their triumphs and failures. They will get under your skin…and they will stay there.   

I went into this film with preconceived albeit incomplete notions about the imperfections plaguing education in this country. I knew that America was falling behind the rest of the world in a big, big way. I knew that ‘No Child Left Behind’ was, in fact, leaving millions of children behind. I knew that teachers unions were a force in politics and that tenure was enabling complacency if not incompetence in our public schools.

But I was shortsighted as to the scope of these problems. They are immense. And they are threatening our country’s future in ways I did not fully realize until I saw this film.

The extent to which children’s academic aptitude drops off from elementary school to middle school is nothing short of appalling. Merely one third of middle school children possess math and reading skills appropriate for their age levels. By high school, a large portion of these children will be, and I’ll be saying this a lot so get used to it, left behind.

Academically, they will slip between the cracks of a system that pays more attention to the students that need less of it and then they will drop out. With no degree, no job skills, no self esteem and no hope, they will wander the streets of America, predominantly its inner cities, and they will waste away. Many will have no choice but to resort to crime and most of them will spend at least a portion of their lives in prison.

Although the film points out that the problem does not only affect minorities, it does predominantly. Poorer families are simply less equipped to deal with the problems that arise with their children. They cannot afford to send their kids to private schools. They cannot afford to send their children to specialists to test for learning disabilities and they cannot afford tutors on the off chance that their tenured teachers are not doing their jobs. They are far more reliant on public schools and far more vulnerable to the detriments of their shortcomings.

Bad teachers = bad schools = bad neighborhoods.

This is a fairly obvious equation but changing the variables is not so simple.

Over the years, teachers’ unions have grown in size, muscle and political prominence. The two largest unions, when combined, are the single largest contributor to political campaigns in the United States, directing most of their efforts towards Democrats. Their clout is stronger than the pharmaceutical lobby, stronger than oil and stronger than my gun-toting cronies at the N.R.A.

I don’t know about you but I was not aware of this. And it is this fact that has made significant education reform difficult. These unions exist to protect the teachers from, among other things, employers’ audacious insistence that they do their jobs well. These unions have failed for two primary reasons; the first being that it has created an occupational vacuum that is impervious to internal or external forces…a vacuum that does not reward good teachers or punish bad ones. Not financially and not disciplinarily.

The second failure is tenure, which in many public schools is granted after only three years, at which point all motivation to improve or maintain performance levels are removed and the teacher is rendered all but unfirable. Outside of fucking or beating their students or setting their schools on fire, the odds of tenured teachers getting fired are remote.

I have had three teachers who have touched my life. One talked me through the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, the second let me smoke cigarettes outside her classroom while I vented about the maelstrom that accompanied adolescence and the third has been my best friend for the past thirty years.

Having attended three different high schools in my tour of Long Island’s educational institutions, I experienced the entire spectrum; great teachers, terrible ones, passionate and also indifferent, teachers that could connect with their students and teachers so detached from humanity that they should be studied in a fucking laboratory.

I have experienced firsthand how a good teacher cannot only teach their students but they can also reach them. I have watched kids treat my friend like a rock star because he has the rare ability to entertain while he educates, to empathize while he disciplines, to exert the effort to be original in his methodology. But my friend, a private school employee who makes roughly what I make bartending, is an exception, not the norm.

The film points out several other exceptions who are passionate, innovative and dedicated. But they are not the norm. The norm is a clusterfuck of ineptitude sheltered by an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy that the film refers to as ‘The Blob.’

This ‘Blob’ is the overlapping, interwoven web of laws, standards and people that is constructed out of school boards, superintendents, city, state and federal officials…all of which have different laws, protocols and political agendas.

The ‘Blob’s’ lack of a unifying set of standards and a single gauge by which to rate the performance of both students, as well as teachers, is an enormous problem. Communists are evil, yes. Socialism is the personification of mortal sin, we know. But socialized education has advantages; among them its ability to sidestep ‘The Blob’ and the fact that it has one measuring stick and one government body to answer to…not a multitude of unions, officials and bureaucrats that prevent this broken system from repairing itself.

The side effects of this systemic disintegration are widespread and we are feeling the sting from its backlash. There is considerable animosity about the growing outsourcing trend but, as Superman points out, this trend has become less of a choice and more of a necessity. Why? Because America can no longer provide enough adequately educated people to meet the demands of the global workforce. Although we have the brainpower and the brawn, we simply do not have the skills necessary to keep up with the rest of the world.

So all this animus towards the treasonous virtues of outsourcing needs to be directed at the real villain, our own inability to educate our children.

The Status Quo is basically me at the age of sixteen. It is petulant, it doesn’t want to be fucked with in any way and if challenged, it will fight back with everything it has. It’s got raggedy clothes and a shitty haircut but it just doesn’t care. Even if you send the Status Quo to a nuthouse, it will violently defend its sanity. Arrest and convict the Status Quo and it will insist upon its innocence, no matter how much evidence you have against it.

The Status Quo, as it applies to education is, as I was at sixteen, in dire need of an intervention. Without one, it runs the risk of annihilating itself in a whirlwind of self-destructive dysfunction. It needs to go to rehab and it needs to realize that it is hurting itself and everyone it comes into contact with.

The stakes could not be any higher. Our country’s ability to compete in fields like I.T. and renewable energy is lacking. We are…wait for it…falling behind. And if we do not pick up the pace…we will be left behind. As Superman illustrates, we have the means to do just that and the film points out the potential to universally implementing these means as well as the challenges.

Charter Schools work. But there are simply not enough of them and the lottery system employed by them is cruel. So another way must be found because, and suppress the uprising bile as I say this, our children truly are our future; socially, politically, occupationally. The fate of our future can not be tied to the occasional lottery ball. So go see Waiting for Superman and fall in love with these children. 

Look at her. Open your eyes, take a deep breath, relax your colon and allow the truth to be crammed up your ass. You want this truth and even though you may not realize it, YOU FUCKING NEED IT!

And what the children need is our help. They need us to mend this broken institution because if we don’t, and this is the last time I'm gonna say this, they will get left behind.