by David Denby | The New Yorker October 11, 2010 |http://nyr.kr/9pMtoC
ILLUSTRATION: MARCELLUS HALL
- October 11, 2010 - The most upsetting images to be seen in a movie so far this year arrive at the end of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” a hot-under-the-collar documentary about the failings of the American school system. All through the film, Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), the director and co-writer, has been following the educational ambitions of five children, four of whom are enrolled in public school and one in a parochial school—the youngest in kindergarten, the oldest in the eighth grade—in urban areas across the country: Los Angeles, Harlem, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., and Redwood City, California. In their seriousness and their ambition, the children have a moving beauty. Their hardworking parents (and, in one case, a grandparent, who is raising a fifth grader) come off well, too, but they are chagrined. Most of them messed up at school or had to drop out to get a job, and now they are determined to see their kids stick it through. Nakia, a single mother in Harlem who has taken pay cuts in her job as a receptionist, says of her daughter, a six-year-old named Bianca, “I don’t care what I have to do. I don’t care how many jobs I have to obtain. But she will go to college.” As Nakia and the other parents see it, getting their kids into college depends on first getting them into a charter school.
Despite receiving public funds (as well as much private support), charter schools can hire non-union teachers and adopt their own curriculum and standards. They tend to be small and to include smaller percentages of special-needs students. Since the charter schools in the film all have proven records of success, they are besieged with applications, and the families have to submit to a humiliating lottery system. Balls tumble in a revolving cage; slips of paper are drawn out of a box. As winning names and numbers are called, Guggenheim cuts back and forth among the anxious families, and I was torn between sympathy for them and annoyance at the filmmakers for creating a conventional kind of nail-biting suspense. We get the point—a child’s future shouldn’t hang on so primitive a process. But the emotions of the moment may distract us from asking certain obvious questions, such as: Who says that charter schools will save these children—and, by implication, all children?
Davis Guggenheim has a pained sense of personal responsibility regarding educational issues. In 1999, he made a documentary (“The First Year”) that celebrated a group of dedicated young public-school teachers in Los Angeles. Yet, at the beginning of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” he drives past three L.A. public schools and drops off his kids at an expensive private school. Guggenheim, narrating, then aims a swift jab at the movie’s likely audience of upper-middle-class Americans. Like him, they have the resources to get their kids a good education, and they pass over the failures of the public school system with a mournful sigh, as if nothing can be done about them. It’s a fair charge, but I’m not sure that Guggenheim has fully explored the options.
In the movie, we see the children at home, working and getting ready for school. Guggenheim interviews them with great gentleness. Gravely, they announce their ambitions: they want to go to college, they want to be a vet or a nurse or “a recorder—like you guys.” Guggenheim mixes the narratives of the five families with two other strands. Dreadful statistics are presented in a series of animated episodes: decades of flatlining in national reading and math scores; America’s low standing compared with other countries; the high dropout rate in urban public high schools; the tenure system, guaranteed by union contract. The animators mock the way principals rotate lousy teachers within a given district, in a cynical shuffle variously known as the Dance of the Lemons, the Turkey Trot, and Pass the Trash.
Among the animated sections and the narratives, Guggenheim brings forth his heroes, who are determined to shake up this morass of mediocrity. In 1990, Geoffrey Canada took over the Harlem Children’s Zone, a network of charter schools and social programs which serves nine thousand children in a ninety-seven-block area. Tall and lean, with the long face of a nineteenth-century itinerant preacher, Canada is withering and even funny about the nation’s “failure factories,” the urban high schools where only a tiny percentage of the students go on to college. Citing one of his afternoon programs for high-school students—in which ninety per cent of the seniors graduate—he shreds the canard that poor urban kids can’t learn.
Guggenheim also talks at length with Michelle Rhee, who has been the chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., since 2007. Where Canada is excitable and rhetorical, Rhee is cool and logical, in the style of a C.E.O. who sees the organizational big picture. In Washington, Rhee has closed more than twenty underperforming public schools and fired hundreds of teachers. Her most radical idea, which was partially put into effect after the movie was made, was to persuade the local teachers’ union to give up tenure in exchange for merit-based salaries that can now reach nearly a hundred and thirty thousand dollars a year. But Rhee angered many parents, especially those who had to scramble to find places for their children when their schools were closed. And many of the teachers she fired were black in a predominantly black city. (Rhee’s methods were a major issue in the recent Democratic primary, in which her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated.) Summing up her feelings in the movie, she lays out a simple charge, which the movie fully supports: the current system works for the school bureaucracies and the teachers but not for the children.
But what does work for children? Despite the success of the schools in the film, charter schools, judged as a whole, don’t perform better than district schools, and they often perform worse. Guggenheim interviews Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who cites research (confirmed by many other studies) showing that the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in the success of a school. But “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” gives us only a few snippets of teachers at work. For that, you have to turn to Guggenheim’s earlier film, in which the teachers deal with disruptive students, intervene in family situations, and struggle to get their schools to meet their obligations. For them, there is no boundary between school time and personal time. Or you can watch Frederick Wiseman’s documentary “High School II” (1994), which is set at Central Park East Secondary School (as it was then called), in East Harlem, and shows what effective teachers do in the classroom and in one-on-one conferences: again and again, they demand evidence, reason, and appreciation of perspectives different from one’s own. They are incisive without sarcasm, a kind of pedagogic ideal. In 1994, the student body at Central Park East was forty-five per cent black, forty-five per cent Latino, and ten per cent white. The film is a study of multi-ethnic education as a success.
The other place to get an idea of what effective teachers do is, believe it or not, Hollywood. There is an earnest genre of what might be called teacher-goes-to-the-ghetto films. Based on true stories, these movies are shaped for their inspirational value: the teachers meet with initial disrespect and insults from their kids, then coax them into learning and success. In the best of them, “Stand and Deliver” (1988), Edward James Olmos gives a wily and revealing performance as Jaime Escalante, the real-life math teacher who, in the nineteen-seventies, brought the Promethean gift of calculus to the sleeping students at Garfield High, a public school in East Los Angeles.
In last year’s tale of educational redemption, “Precious,” starring Gabourey Sidibe as the abused teen-ager, a remedial instructor in a public-school program, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), teaches Precious to read and to express herself. The way Rain maintains control over her antic, chattering students—now getting tough, now letting them loose—feels like the rhythm of a teaching genius. But there is a disturbing implication in the film that only teens as strong-willed as Precious can be saved from disaster. “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” leaves a similar unsettling aftertaste. Not only are the charter schools, as the movie tells it, the sole successful schools in their areas; there is seemingly no hope for the children who don’t get in—and, currently, just three per cent of students in the public-education system are enrolled in charter schools. We need another movie, one that shows us why some charter schools work and others don’t. And there’s an issue that needs to be addressed by Guggenheim and such people as Bill Gates, who appears in the movie as an advocate for charter schools, which he has generously funded. It is the question of scale. How can reforms that work some of the time in small schools with engaged kids and committed parents work in an enormous urban school with all kinds of kids? Will the charter ideals continue to benefit only a minority, or do they have the potential to change everything? ♦