Whether you realize it or not our public education system is seriously broken. Some will admit it but very few, teachers or politicians, are ready to do much about it. Myths about the real problem abound but the recently released DVD Waiting for Superman is the first thing that I have seen or read that makes a compelling, factual and emotional appeal about what can and should be done to change our schools. At the end of viewing this documentary I was angry, hopeful and had tears in my eyes. (I really mean this, I was all three at once!) This film simply blew me away. I intend to order a copy so all my friends can borrow it. I have been forced to act on this film’s message with a growing commitment to justice and mercy.
Many experts have said, for a long time, that public schools were never designed to prepare students for college, merely to join the work force and become competent citizens and employees. With high tech industries in need of better trained employees with skills in math, science and English speech, writing and grammar, businesses often have to look outside the country to find help because US students don’t have the aptitude or degrees to compete. Just a few days ago I looked for this video at Borders and the manager engaged me in conversation. He insisted that the “real problem” was in all our jobs going overseas. I responded by saying one way to stop this was to prepare more young people for the world they must work in to survive and thrive inside the US. He got testy and I backed off. (He is about to lose his job due to Borders closing many stores and filing for bankruptcy. I respect his feelings but think that as bright as he is this manager simply refuses to consider that the real problems are not in overseas business competition but in overseas educational competition and the failure of the most prosperous nation on the planet to find a way to educate our children properly.)
The fact is that new public schools (called charter schools) are opening in America’s inner cities every year. These schools plainly help students (they have the facts to prove this) but the whole movement has become a huge political football. Kids are the real losers. A lack of state funding, in major part held up by teacher’s unions, means that only a select few kids, chosen by a lottery, will ever get the chance to better themselves in student-oriented learning environment where great teachers are the norm. The documentary suggests that too often people wait for others to act, thus the title: Waiting for Superman. But Superman is not going to solve this problem. Only self-educated and concerned citizens can solve this one, which is one of our most pressing social problems. After watching the film I believe this is our most pressing social problem, period.
Saving Superman reveals how twenty years of observation, reports, and statistics have created a sharp decline in student performance in neglected school districts. Tenured teachers (those who have been employed for only two years in most states) are a major part of the problem, thus this film is guaranteed to be controversial. It is so hard to fire a tenured teacher that they can get away with almost anything. In fact, only 1 in 2,500 who are challenged by attempts to remove them will actually be removed. Compare this to 1 in 57 with doctors and 1 in 98 for lawyers brought before the bar and you see the point. Union based contracts make it almost impossible for schools to fire bad teachers regardless of performance, thus creating a void in real education. This has led some school systems to rotate teachers from school to school in the hopes of getting something better in the end. (Schools literally swap bad teachers and shuffle them around hoping to change the problem. Tell me what business could tolerate this system and thrive?) Public school teachers understand that private schools don’t have to follow union rules. But what happens when private schools and charter schools blow these other schools away by performance and results? One has to hope that the sheer force of this argument will eventually force a revolutionary change. One also has to wonder how much of this is involved in the Wisconsin battle but I leave that for another time and place. Meanwhile, it is our students who suffer, and not because teachers go on strike. They suffer because we retain bad teachers and refuse to solve a problem that cripples our best investment in America’s future—our children. Our kids deserve so much better in a land with so much wealth. We could give it to them but we lack the will and the voice of the people demanding it.
There are stories in this documentary that will move you. There are stories that will make you very mad too. And there are stories here that should prompt you to get involved whether your children attend public schools or not.
My children went to public schools, home school and Christian schools. They all had advantages and disadvantages. But that was several decades ago. Things have grown far worse since they were educated. Even in suburban schools the problem is growing. The way kids are tracked and slotted for classes will determine whether or not they have a real shot at college or not. And some of the reasons kids get put on a slow track have to do with things that are not related to academic ability. (This is frightening to think about if you are a parent whose child might stand out from the pack for one reason or another.)
When I finished watching this film I said to myself, “Every pastor and community leader in America ought to watch this film.” In fact, if churches and church leaders got involved in this issue it would be a marvelous way to express missional-ecumenism. For this reason, I would encourage you to get the film and show it to leaders and start the discussion. This subject really is that important. I am sold on the importance of this film and the significance of its message for the future of this country. So goes public education so goes much of our society. Some Christians would rather public schools fail. The consequences of this are higher crime, more prisons and more jobs overseas. Is that what we want to support as Christians? I hope not. Make your own choice about how and where to educate your own children but do not close your eyes and hearts to the plight of your neighbors and their children. We have a time, a unique time I think, in which we can become involved as Christians in a great and needed social revolution. In some ways this is at the heart of a new civil rights era. I hear a lot about homosexual rights being at the heart of the new civil rights movement but whatever your sexual choice you will fail in life without the skills needed to compete and secure a good job. The field is not level. The rich can get a good education while the poor are stuck. Most of the poor are black and most of them live in our cities or in poorer counties in the South where schools fail as well. If we are serious about poverty and America’s future then we must get serious about public education and the massive reforms that we need right now, not tomorrow.
Watch this film. Get engaged. Help change America. Be a “good neighbor” in the name of Jesus Christ. Do something about this issue.
The bottom line of Waiting for Superman is that great teachers make for better students. Education is about the kids, not about politics. Our colleges are not equipping teachers to be great educators and our schools do not encourage and financially promote great teachers when we do get them. I know more than a few outstanding teachers who got out of public education for just this reason.
Tomorrow: Waiting for Superman Has Several Significant Flaws