Saturday, November 6, 2010

What do Godot and Lefty have in common?

by Brian Edgar

Someone walking out of the theater having just seen Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for “Superman” shouldn’t be blamed for feeling a breezy confidence about the direction we should be headed with our nation’s schools. “The problem is complex, but the steps are simple,” the film assures us. We simply need to build more charter schools, get rid of lazy and incompetent teachers, create accountability regimes and—oh yeah—hire better teachers. But, first we need to get rid of the archaic bureaucracies and unions that protect these cretins. This would be great if it were true. Unfortunately, the film amounts to propaganda for the reform efforts beginning with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative of 2001, not a prescription for reform.

Superman tells the story of five children as they attempt to transfer from their local public schools (and one parochial school) for better opportunities at nearby charter schools. These stories are poignant and devastating as we watch families pin their hopes and their child’s future on lottery systems to gain entry to charter schools with few openings. Guggenheim’s film creates a sense of urgency about the problem—low graduation rates, poor literacy and math skills, and the associated costs of an inadequate educational system on individuals and society. This sounds like a snoozer, but the film is emotionally charged, compelling, and well-made. While the film does a good job of depicting the overall context of reform from the policy perspective from charter schools, standardized testing, and merit pay, it cherry picks its cases to push an agenda and fails to illuminate what these reforms mean to teachers and students in the classroom, where learning presumably takes place...

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