Waiting for "Superman"

My children went to public school. K-12. It was a conscious choice but an oft times torturous experience. Endured for the most part, defined not by educational joy but by butting up against how the schools were run. Listening to other parent's amazement that we would even try to stay in the public schools with so many excellent private ones around.

I, my brother, and sister went to public schools. There were no private schools and few parochial ones then. Why would there be? Public schools were uniformly excellent, nearby, and the teachers, deeply committed to their students, demanded excellence. In sixth grade my English teacher had us studying Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream in between reading Turgenev. My high school offered Latin, French, Spanish, German, and Russian. Familiarity with a foreign language was expected.

I don't remember any unions. I know that there were no politically mandated areas of study. The teachers didn't seem to have political points of view but were dedicated to inspiring curiosity among their students. As today: there were smart kids and dumb kids, a variety of races and religions, there were advanced classes, and tests that measured progress, there were poor kids and rich kids, divorced kids and bad kids. There was a 12th grade placement test that determined what kind of college you could go to.

I note this before writing about Waiting for "Superman" because the public education system it documents is unrecognizable from when I was in school... and most likely, even if you are only in your thirties, from when you were in sixth grade as well.

Which is why I sat in the theater with a deep anger growing within me watching this highly effective documentary. It's equal parts a tragedy, a desperate call to action, and an indictment of an expensive dysfunctional system that seems to exist to fund pensions and to protect jobs, not to educate poor powerless kids. Mostly Waiting for Superman is sad. So sad, as we watch innocents used by cynics with agendas far beyond the three 'R's.

If you see it, which I urge, you will watch the increasing number of political ads that constitute most commercial breaks these days with a mixture of anger and contempt. You'll read 'placate the teacher's unions' behind every 'more money for education' pitch. The spots hope that the dysfunctional education system shown in Waiting for "Superman" has left most Americans dumb enough to be swayed by sound bites and empty promises.

As effective as the movie is at describing what is, it doesn't go back to tell the story of why is 'is.' There is no examination of the casus belli of what made public education a nightmare rather than a dream. Of how the obvious justice of Brown vs. The Board of Education, eliminating de jure segregation, led to the judicial activism of de facto remedies and federal judges, not parents or teachers, as overseers of public education. The judicially mandated social experimentation of forced busing, quotas, and racial theories is not part of Waiting for "Superman". It should have been.

Teachers' unions are the most obvious villains of Waiting for Superman. The leaders interviewed are smug and emboldened by their political strength, forgetting, it would seem, that their members should be educators first, pension and work rule negotiators second.

I sat and watched and became misty eyed when the children of the movie were used so cruelly by the adults in charge of educating them, caring for them, caring about them. Instead those adults use them cynically to get more money, attain more political power, and exercise more control. I wanted to shout at the screen at them: stop, just stop. Who are you? What are you? How did you lose your way so completely?

I remembered visiting an 'official' when my school district decided, in its wisdom, to force my younger daughter to switch from the elementary school two blocks from my house, a school she attended with her brother, to another school, far away, to achieve an arbitrarily mandated racial balance of students. The official was calm and nauseatingly superior in attitude because he held all of the cards. Dealing with disbelieving, irate parents was a major part of his professional life. He didn't care about brothers and sisters, or families or what it meant to the community that a third of all families had opted out of public schools completely because of officials like him. He was a social theorist first, a bureaucrat second, and in some dim past, perhaps an educator.

I had never felt such anger. I remarked: so it's kind of like Vietnam, eh? What, he asked? You're willing to burn the village to save the village? Yes, he said, we have a written policy, you should have read it.

Do you have any data to support your theories in terms of educational effectiveness? Or do you have any studies on the emotional impact of separating a frightened little girl from her big brother?

You are purposely missing the point, he answered.

That same anger and frustration has stayed with me days after seeing Waiting for "Superman". All the wonderful kids in the movie, immaterial in the great political and money game; all those caring and committed (mostly single) parents, many of them recent immigrants, pleading for a chance for their children, casually dismissed by bureaucrats; all the powers that be hoping they can continue to collect dues, manipulate elections, feather their salary and pension nests, and keep the peasants in their place, so arrogant and convinced that they will always be on top.

Well, well, perhaps.

But, if enough people see this movie and, because of it, are motivated to change how our schools are run, we can give every kid who wants a chance a fair chance. If we act collectively, we can ensure that every parent who wants the American Dream for their children has access to a school system that encourages and educates their kids to achieve that dream.

It has to be us, not the unions nor the bureaucrats nor the Department of Education. Which, as an agency name, is proved by this movie to be an oxymoron.

See this movie; you'll never skip voting in another election.