Superman's Race: Documentaries and Problems in the American Educational System

The New York Department of Education just released testing information for fall 2011 entry into their Gifted and Talented classrooms. In a few weeks student paperwork must be submitted so that testing can begin in the new year. By June parents will know whether or not their child has made the cut and won a much-coveted spot in a talented and gifted class in a public school.

That parents clamor to have their young children take standardized tests so they can be admitted to public schools might seem confusing if you've recently seen two buzzed-about education documentaries. Race to Nowhere argues schools push children too hard to succeed and kids should have less homework and testing so that they can enjoy their childhoods. Waiting for 'Superman' gives voice to critics of public schools (one man dubs a fairly large group of them "failure factories") who promote charter schools.

Waiting for 'Superman' (WfS) almost exclusively criticizes urban public schools with teachers who seem to think poor, minority children can't learn. Race to Nowhere (RtN) almost exclusively focuses on suburban middle-class kids who are over-scheduled, over-tested, and over-stressed in pursuit of entrance to elite colleges. Both documentaries conflate the problems of "middle class schools" and the problems of "urban schools" and pay lip service to each. WfS features a girl in the suburbs of Silicon Valley and RtN highlights an African-American high schooler in what is presented as an unsafe city school.

The high-end and low-end educational problems featured in the documentaries are real. How different they are shows how increasing inequality has affected the educational system, family life, and childhood socialization. Both films, shot in 2008, reflect the ever-growing divide in our country between the haves and the have-nots. Sure the "have" kids have stress and the weight of expectations, but the material goods they have will propel them to more educational credentials and a life of having ever more. The WfS families would likely be happy to have some of the problems the RtN families face.

Other recent educational documentaries present more nuanced stories, and provide suggestions for future action to bridge the gap. The Lottery, just released on DVD, focuses on the 2009 lottery for spaces at Harlem Success Academy. Most of the featured families have done their homework, enrolling their children in multiple lotteries and exploring various educational options. (One mother even has the good sense to not bring her son to the lottery, worrying how he would react to not "winning." After seeing tear-stained cheeks you have to wonder about the psychological impact on kids attending these lotteries and how not getting in makes them feel about themselves, school, and their futures.) It's likely that many of these kids are also signed up for the free gifted and talented testing offered by the New York City Department of Education -- and their parents are looking for other ways to help their children compete and achieve.

Pressure Cooker and Racing Dreams, both now out on DVD, show children in poor and working class communities being pushed to achieve and compete in different settings. Pressure Coooker features the culinary arts program run with tough love by Wilma Stephenson. Mrs. Stephenson's students, most of whom have serious problems at home, win thousands of dollars in scholarships by excelling at cooking competitions. The kids in Racing Dreams also compete, but on the karting circuit that serves as a feeder to NASCAR. The three featured young teens all make sacrifices to excel in this expensive sport, but they don't sacrifice school achievement in the process (one boy's principal waxes poetic about his scholastic gifts and another is shown heading off to military school).

The Lottery, Pressure Cooker, and Racing Dreams provide a glimpse of the middle ground not covered by the extreme pictures presented in Waiting for 'Superman' and Race to Nowhere. They suggest that there are many choices within our educational system, broadly conceived. These choices go beyond traditional afterschool activities and beyond charter schools -- including specialty programs like gifted classrooms and vocational programs run by public school systems. Yes, there are a lot of problems with our educational system at both ends of the spectrum, but when we look deeper we find examples of what works. Reformers should think beyond the traditional boundaries of education and figure out how to translate what works on a smaller scale to produce change throughout the system -- hopefully, ultimately, combating that growing inequality in American society.