A few weeks ago, I went with several of my Blackboard colleagues to see Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for Superman. I think that it is important that I preface this post with an admission: I am an outsider. Unlike many of my peers at Blackboard, I am new to education – I have never taught a class in my life nor have I ever attended a PTO or school board meeting. I am, however, a product of the public school system, so I assumed that what I would see on the screen wouldn’t be a huge surprise. I think that is why I was both shocked and touched by what I saw: children who really wanted to learn, with parents who genuinely took an interest in their futures, desperately fighting to succeed in the public education system.
Let me set the scene. In one corner are the reformers – Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system. Both come out swinging – Canada, with a common-sense approach to intense charter-school education, and Rhee with sweeping overhauls to the DC Public school system including firing principals and teachers and shutting down several schools. In the other corner, the national teachers’ unions. I will admit that I felt that the unions were cast in a very unfavorable light. According to Guggenheim, while unions intend to protect good teachers they ultimately end up safeguarding bad ones. Finally, in the middle of these two energized forces, are the students, each serving as the living embodiment of Guggenheim’s facts and statistics. Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco, and Bianca. Five children, with caring parents, all facing roadblocks to success created by the very system that we entrust to educate them. Each struggles to survive “dropout factories” and reach their goals of higher education. The fate of all five is decided by a dramatic charter school lottery which serves as the climax of the film.
What astonished me most is that while officials are aware of these conditions most feel helpless to make the necessary changes. When Guggenheim asks Michelle Rhee if she thinks most DC students get a poor education she answers, without flinching, “I don’t think they are – I know they are.” While the film outlines the problems of public schools as complex and reform as difficult, it does offer a glimmer hope – good teachers. The allure of the charter school is embraced by the film, but the overarching theme is that good, caring teachers who are supported by the system can change everything. Guggenheim describes a good teacher as a skilled artist who works relentlessly to hone their craft. I have to say that I agree (thank you Mrs. Metzler, Mrs. Kennedy, and Mrs. Talbert!).
I more than recommend Waiting for Superman to everyone regardless of their career. I am not exaggerating when I say that there was not a dry eye in the theater by the end of the screening. I have even felt a change in the way I think about how my work at Blackboard, in some small way, is ultimately helping great teachers improve the educational opportunities of children across the country and the world.