“Waiting for Superman,” a new documentary film by Davis Guggenheim, who directed “An Inconvenient Truth,” asserts some truths about the nation’s K-12 education system that are as ominous as melting glaciers leaving polar bears stranded and violent storms that leave populations homeless.
By 2020, the U.S. will have 123 million high-skilled jobs to fill and fewer than 50 million Americans qualified to fill them. A child who doesn’t finish high school will earn less than those who do finish, and be eight times more likely to go to prison. In many parts of the country, high school dropouts outnumber graduates. When ranked with the 30 industrialized nations in the world, U.S. students are at 25th for mathematics and 21st for science, according to testing. And this generation will be less literate than the one before it.
The film, Mr. Guggenheim has said in interviews, is not all doom and gloom. It features profiles of people from a wide range of backgrounds who are working to reverse those grim statistics and trends. Among them are Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation funds efforts to improve how schools select, train, support and reward teachers. Bowdoin College graduate Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, explains his work, revealing how students living in the most challenging backgrounds still can learn. Also featured is Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, who is working to reform education in that city.
Mr. Guggenheim’s film, which opened Sept. 24, also profiles children for whom education is quite nearly a matter of life and death. They include students from Los Angeles, and the Bronx and Harlem in New York City.
In Maine, we feel removed from the plight of inner-city schools and their problems with drugs, overcrowding, teachers merely marking time and weak family and social support systems. But as recent news stories have highlighted, Maine schools are not achieving all they must achieve.
The temptation is to begin pointing fingers. Teacher unions impede reform efforts that weed out bad instructors or at least help those who are struggling to succeed, some say. Others argue that the fraying family fabric, where single parents struggle to hold down multiple jobs and don’t have time to help children with homework, is a key factor. Still others blame the distractions of electronic entertainment and the lack of accountability in the focus on student effort, not achievement.
Though identifying the problems is important, more important, Mr. Guggenheim says, is that communities roll up their sleeves and get involved in working to build better schools.
The film’s title refers to the American propensity to rise to heroic levels of response to catastrophes, whether they be man-made like the 9/11 attacks or nature-made like Hurricane Katrina. Where are the supermen and superwomen, Mr. Guggenheim asks, to jump in to help with what he calls “the hidden catastrophe, spreading quietly, insidiously through our nation’s cities, towns and communities”?
Even if we are motivated only by self-interest, we all must don our capes.