I just watched Waiting for Superman. It is an expertly made, powerful examination of the troubled public school system in this country. It does a terrific job with laying out a brief history of how we arrived at this place, follows the anecdotal experience of five students and their parents who attempt to break out of the soul crushing system, and draws some hopeful conclusions in the way of potential solutions.
If only those damn teachers and their teaching unions would get out of the way.
That’s right. The pervasive feeling one gets from watching the movie is if we could just fix the teachers and the organizations that lobby for them, then all the problems could be solved. As they say in the clever, John Legend underscored credits, “the problem is complex… the solution is simple.” And that solution seems to lead to one logical place: kicking teachers in the nuts.
Okay, I have over simplified the thesis of the movie, but I am only doing it out of anger at the gaping hole the documentary leaves. You see, the five stories it tells are about children with good parents. The five young people have loving, supportive, pro-active guardians who not only theoretically want the best for their children but also understand what are effective methodologies for achieving that outcome. They attempt to stay actively involved in their children’s lives, make decisions that prioritize the needs of the child over their own, and are willing to hold their children accountable for their own failures.
Unfortunately, what most failing public schools lack is a critical mass of those parents. It is the great elephant in the room that no one seems to be willing to discuss. And the problem with voucher systems, KIPP schools, and Magnets is they do exactly what they are intended to do: act as centrifuges for committed adults who put their children above everything. Those institutions drain other public schools of involved parents, leaving behind bewildered parents who lack time or skills at best and emotional terrorists who view school as a daycare system to unload their problem children upon at worst.
The story from The Bronx about Francisco‘s mom Maria trying to have a conversation with her son’s teacher is telling. It points to one of the biggest gaps in the film. Yes, my heart breaks for Maria, particularly because of the obvious time she devotes to his homework, but we never see the culture of the classroom in which the child is working. Is it possible that the teacher is so busy fighting to control 4 to 5 disruptive students for whom there are no consequences, and because of this, Francisco is falling between the cracks? I realize this is neither Maria nor Francisco’s problem, but if that is the case, it changes the teacher from an indifferent incompetent into an exhausted, unsupported victim caught in the same trap as Francisco.
What director Davis Guggenheim is doing borders on insidious. There is a crypto suggestion that the parents are not to blame, because they do not know any better. Poor, ignorant people who cannot help themselves from raising disruptive, entitled children, and therefore, they are absolved from complicity in the situation. I do not believe for a moment that is the director’s intent, but the film has an absence of cases where the children cannot be expelled, gives no example of parents refusing to see the cruel behavior of their children, and never shows students who view the building as a social and pleasure club rather than an institute of learning. Watch the movie, and tell me where I missed those moments. That lack accumulates to the point where the conclusion of innocent parent/bad teacher is inescapable.
What we are dealing with is the dark side of “The Tipping Point”. Enough Marias leave the system, and the foundation of support for all schools, the parents, collapses. Teachers are left in buildings where they are never given a chance to teach, because a select few parents and students never let them get started.