So often, we hear that students need to learn “critical thinking.” After watching “Waiting for Superman” and hearing the unrelenting chorus of support for that movie, I’d say many adults need to improve their own critical thinking skills.
Filmmakers, even those who call themselves documentarians, muster the facts they need to support their point of view. Nobody should mistake Davis Guggenheim’s film for a piece of journalism. It is clearly not that. He starts off with a point of view and pursues it all the way to the credits. Viewers, of course, have no clue about what was left on the cutting room floor because it didn’t adhere to Guggenheim’s point of view. My guess would be a lot.
Guggenheim is clearly charmed by the notion that charter schools are the way to improve public education. And he has predictably chosen the teachers union, especially the AFT and Randi Weingarten, as the bogeyman. He makes a lame attempt to demonstrate that suburban education also needs improvement but the focus of his story is really on the woes of urban education.
He’s right, of course, that the quality of education in many urban schools is awful. Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee says quite bluntly that the kids in her district are getting a “crappy” education.
But charter schools are not the solution and the unions alone are not the problem. Every gain made by the union has been accepted by someone on the other side of the table, whether it’s been a negotiated or a legislative change. The union isn’t capable of making sweeping change, positive or negative, by itself. Union leaders like Weingarten require partners in every effort. So, any criticism of excessive union power grabs must be accompanied by an equal amount of contempt for the school board members and legislators who allowed them to achieve so many of their goals. Who, for example, agreed to the outrageous use of the “rubber room” in New York City?
The problem with American education is that most adults simply don’t care about the quality of their local schools. They complain loudly and consistently about paying too much in taxes, failing to recognize the benefit of what they receive in return. They pay little attention to whom they elect for local school boards and once their own children are out of the system, schools are far from their minds. Adults who don’t live in urban centers generally don’t understand that the quality of education in that big hub city is relevant to the healthy future of their states, indeed the entire national economy. So, when they read about some of the shenanigans in urban districts, they turn a blind eye — or worse, talk about “those” people — because they think it doesn’t affect them.
The challenges facing our schools are evidence of a much deeper national divide over race and culture. There is a deep-seated unwillingness to do what it takes to provide excellent education for all children — especially poor black and brown children. That’s a battle we’ve been fighting in this country for decades and one that won’t be resolved by building more charter schools or by bashing the union.
As Michelle Rhee asked at the end of the movie, do we have the fortitude to make the difficult decisions? By that, she really means do we have the will to support leaders when they make the difficult decisions. I think the answer is too often, no.
But, where there’s a will, there is a way. The question is whether Americans have the will to create classrooms that serve all children. This is not an issue for educators alone. Ninety percent of the teachers and principals in the public schools already answer that question every day just by showing up to work. None of them start the day intending to provide a “crappy” education for a child. But, can the broader American public be convinced to care at the same deep level about providing every child with a quality education. Can a movie spur such a widespread response? I hope it does, but I think it might be naïve to expect that it will.