Waiting for “Superman” Oversimplifies a Complex Issue

In Waiting for "Superman", Daisy wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. That's why she enters the lottery to attend KIPP LA PREP.

Fitting complex issues like global warming or educational reform into a two-hour documentary is a monumental task, but an impressive one nonetheless. In Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim pits high-performing teachers and charter schools against the crumbling public school system, which he claims lacks accountability and consequence for union-protected teachers who don’t pull their weight.

If only explaining the crisis in public education was so simple. It’s much more advanced. Guggenheim makes plenty of strong points about potential — what any kid can do if learning from great teachers at great schools — but the movie skirts around several factors, including shrinking state budgets, a brutal job market and educational alternatives outside of charter schools.

1. Public schools are poor. Schools across the country are cutting teachers and administrators for budgetary purposes, which in turn leads to larger class sizes and less classroom space. Gym and music classes are seeing the guillotine, along with safety patrol, nurses and counselors. This isn’t to argue public schools should be given a free pass. (They’re not being given anything.) However, they’re being asked to do more with less — an impossible expectation.

2. The unemployment factor. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a study examining the graduating class of 2009, about 7.6 percent of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree would wind up unemployed. Compare that to students who would graduate with an Associate’s degree. Their unemployment rate? 6.1 percent. The face of higher education is changing. If the purpose of college is to earn the skills necessary to find a job after graduation, we need to start thinking about what’s best for youth, not our mantel. As many of my friends can relate, a four-year degree means nothing without a job.

Guggenheim’s documentary makes constant reference to the importance of earning a Bachelor’s degree. Why? Not all students can/will be doctors, lawyers or engineers. That doesn’t mean they can’t find quality employment. I believe over the next decade, factoring in the overwhelming costs of college and burdens of student debt, students should be encouraged to pursue community college or trade school if that’s where their interests lie. It plenty cases, it makes more sense.

3. Public, charter and private. That’s it, right? Wrong. Perhaps some of the most exciting changes in secondary education are being found online. Public and for-profit schools alike are allowing students to earn their diploma through online education. In his annual letter on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates wrote, “A lot of people, including me, think [online education] is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.”

Gates, who advocates for reform in “Superman”, believes online learning can provide opportunity among budgetary constraints and access issues. Online education means students wouldn’t have to be shackled to the “dropout factory” in their district. It could also mean longer study hours, individualized education and more resources for research and tutoring.

Waiting for “Superman” wasn’t necessarily intended to provide a prescription so much as offer a diagnosis. Guggenheim’s documentary, as was the case with An Inconvenient Truth, is meant to create a dialogue and throw our attention at public education, the most important service in our country. Pledging money to help fund classroom projects is a good start, but we need to think bigger and broader.

This movie is only the start of the conversation.

Waiting for Better Teacher Wages

Tonight, I’m attending a screening of Waiting for “Superman”, the new documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim which captures the shortcomings of the public school system and miseducation of American youth. It’s a highly controversial doc because Guggenheim seems to suggest the problems start with the grown-ups, not the kids.

More particularly, teachers.

I’m a product of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) public school system, which employs the lowest-paid teachers in the country. Though the cost of living is lower in South Dakota compared to most states, $35,000 is hardly a livable wage for someone with a family to support. Despite having teachers whose annual income ranked dead last in the country, I had many great mentors who guided me all the way through graduation. I can’t speak on behalf of my former classmates, but I feel like I got a quality education.

I had initiative, but I also had stability. I had supportive parents who were involved in my studies. I’m sure many teachers — among them, my long-retired grandmother who taught elementary school for nearly 40 years in Fairmont, Minn. — would argue much of the problem with underachieving students comes from poor parenting. That’s hard to dispute, but this is challenge is what singularly makes teachers so important. Today’s parents may stink at raising their kids, but don’t forget, teachers are educating tomorrow’s parents. Teachers have the opportunity to break destructive cycles and mobilize their students. The great teachers know this. The great teachers do this.

The problem is the great teachers aren’t being paid enough and the complacent ones hide behind tenure and unions. Again, I haven’t seen “Superman” yet, but if Guggenheim’s doc suggests teachers be rewarded for excellence while the dead weight gets lopped off, I’m on board.

I’m coming back to this topic tomorrow, but I’m interested in what teachers — current or future — have to say about the movie. More than that, why have you chosen such a demanding job?