The new documentary “Waiting for Superman” is causing a stir in the education world as filmmaker Davis Guggenheim makes the case that American public schools are failing and puts much of the blame on unions, tenure policies that protect poor teachers, and expensive, lumbering bureaucracies that are resistant to change. The film follows the plight of a handful of inner-city children trapped in failing schools by poverty and circumstance, and focuses on a handful of successful charter schools as the potential savior for these kids.
As one would expect, many public school teachers feel vilified, while many education reformers and charter schools feel validated by the film.
But regardless of your views on public schools and the fairness or unfairness of the film, there is one statistic Guggenheim cites that should alarm us all: By the year 2020, there will be a need for 123 million high-skilled, high-paid employees in the American workforce — but only 50 million Americans will be qualified for those jobs. This means businesses here will do what they already do, but to a much greater extent: Import their employees from other countries where schools have kept up with the demands of a more advanced, technologically changing world.
Guggenheim points out in his film that the United States lags behind other countries in student achievement in math and science. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Arizona’s students aren’t even keeping up with their peers in other states. In 2009, the average math score for Arizona fourth-graders was lower than those in 44 states and their average reading score was lower than 43 states. Average reading and math scores for Arizona eighth-graders were lower than those in 33 states.
In “Waiting for Superman,” Guggenheim presents a few successful public charter schools as educational models that may hold the answers for improving all public schools. For example, Anthony, a fifth-grader in one of Washington D.C.’s most troubled neighborhoods, never knew his mom, lost his dad to drugs, and now lives with his grandparents, who fear for their grandson’s safety and future if he moves up the next year to a middle school with a history of failure. So they enter Anthony into a lottery for the SEED Charter School, a public boarding school with a record of success. The message — that this boy’s only hope is to let a school essentially raise him — is particularly poignant as we see Anthony choose his bunk at his new school and tape a snapshot of his dad on the wall. His grandmother is sad for him to live away from her, but overjoyed that he is being given this chance for a better life. But Guggenheim never says how much it’s going to cost the taxpayers to fund Anthony’s education in his new home away from home.
The price tag for school reform is important nationally and in Arizona because at a time when we need to be beefing up the quality of our schools, federal and state budget deficits are skyrocketing. When the Arizona Legislature reconvenes in January, lawmakers will be trying to dig us out of a nearly $900 million sinkhole — and education faces some steep cuts. Already, Mesa Unified School District is projecting cuts upward of $65 million next school year.
John Huppenthal, our next state superintendent of public instruction who takes office in January, has said he wants to look at public schools — both district and charter — that are producing good results and see how their methods can be replicated in other schools. He’ll be doing this at a time when Arizona ranks at the bottom in education funding, and given the current budget situation, that standing isn’t likely to improve. So Huppenthal, educators and lawmakers will have to find ways to improve public education without more public dollars.
In his documentary, Guggenheim chose to follow children who, despite their impoverished backgrounds, already have something far too many American students lack: A strong desire to learn and equally motivated parents who are involved and doing whatever it takes to help their kids succeed.
In 2000, the Tribune published a series that followed eighth-graders at Mesa’s Powell Junior High School, which has since closed. During that time, the school sent home letters with every student and made phone calls to every home asking parents to attend an important meeting about the state’s AIMS test. But out of hundreds of parents, only five or six showed up.
It’s an example of how education reform can’t just be a matter of more money, more choices, more ways to fire teachers, more ways to eliminate bureaucracy. Public school teachers cannot save our nation’s future by themselves. A vital starting point is finding a way to motivate kids and parents to truly value education, to have that desire to learn more, to be willing to do whatever it takes to be successful.
If we fail to do that, by 2020 the only super heroes America will be waiting for are the millions of workers imported from Asia, Europe and elsewhere to fill the high-skilled, high-paid jobs we need — but are unable to do ourselves.