Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Waiting for Superman"

A year or so ago, our book group read Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough and since then has paid special attention to innovations in American education.

A new documentary, Waiting for "Superman", will open later this month and it's creating a lot of buzz. It's by the filmmaker who did An Inconvenient Truth . There's a terrific article in this week's New York Magazine by John Heilemann about the film, about Geoffrey Canada, and others who see the need for vast improvements and innovations in American education.

Here's an excerpt:
“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding “Superman” is difficult to overstate. “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency,” says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for “Superman”—though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for “Superman.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is “unfair,” “misleading,” and potentially “dangerous.” Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing “Superman” as “scathing” and “attacking U.S. teachers” and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give “the other side of the story.”

The excitement and agitation around “Superman” might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors—a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies—has created what Duncan calls a “perfect storm.” It’s a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It’s a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread—and which gives a movie like “Superman” a rare chance to move the needle.