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Laramie Movie Scope:
Waiting for Superman

What's wrong with America's schools?

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 8, 2010 -- “Waiting for Superman” is a documentary film about what is wrong with primary education in the United States. It offers a very limited perspective on the problem, but is very effective at showing some of the things that are wrong with the system. What is especially moving about it is the heroism and dedication of some parents who are shown trying with all their might to find a good school for their children so they can achieve their potential in life. The system is stacked against them, especially the poor, but they struggle heroically against it.

There are a number of systemic problems in American schools, such as poor instruction methods, poor curriculums, a lack of funding, particularly schools in economically depressed areas, a very short school year compared to other countries, and the cost of a college eduction is way too expensive. None of these issues are addressed in any detail in “Waiting for Superman.” Instead, most of the blame for poor schools is blamed on the national teacher's unions, the NEA and American Federation of Teachers in particular, which are accused of standing in the way of school reform.

The film also gives very simplistic solutions to educational problems: Good teachers and charter schools, plain and simple. To get good teachers, you have to pay them well. Where does the money come from? The film doesn't say. Smaller class sizes, which allow teachers to spend more time with each student also help, but again, that costs more money. While the film makes a strong argument for charter schools as the answer to the problem (mainly because charter schools are often union-free), the answer in real life isn't that simple. According to a Wikipedia article: “A study released on August 22, 2006 by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that students in charter schools performed several points worse than students in traditional public schools in both reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.”

It is true there are some charter schools that do a very good job of teaching students, and some of them are profiled in this film, but there are also charter schools that are failing their students as badly or even worse than some public schools are. While the documentary is tough on teacher's unions, it isn't exactly a right-wing film, either. It doesn't mention the educational reform heavily favored by conservatives, school vouchers. If all parents could choose where to spend their property tax money in the form of educational vouchers, and schools had to compete for that money, you'd have an education system that looks a lot different than the current one. It might just work, based on what the movie shows us about parents trying so hard to find good schools for their kids.

We see, for instance, a single mom, working multiple jobs so she can spend $500 per month on a private school for her son. That is heroic, considering she could have easily opted to send him to a public school which she is already being taxed to support. The mother cries when she runs out of money and her son is forbidden to attend graduation ceremonies at the school. We see other parents trying to get their children into the best charter-type schools where educational outcomes are far superior to public schools. There are scores of applicants for a single opening at some of these schools. The film makes it look as though parents already know where the good schools are and are willing to make sacrifices and huge efforts to send their kids to those schools. This is a pretty strong argument for school voucher systems.

The film attacks the widespread practice of granting tenure to teachers after only a couple of years on the job (as opposed to six years or more before some college professors can qualify for tenure). The film notes that it is far harder to get rid of a bad teacher than it is to get rid of a bad lawyer or doctor. The film argues that if you could get rid of less than one-third of the worst teachers in the school systems around the nation, the U.S. could have the highest rated education system in the world, instead of one that currently ranks 14th out of 34 countries for reading skills, 17th for science and 25th in mathematics, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's latest Programme for International Student Assessment ratings.

The film also attacks racist or elitist notions that some people have about students from poor families or from racial or ethnic minorities being unable to learn. This has been proved false in some exceptional schools where those same kinds of students excel, even when those schools are located in some of the worst ghettos in the nation. It isn't the children who are failing, but the educational system, the film argues. This film is a call to arms to fix our ailing educational system. While it may not be comprehensive in its approach, it is powerful enough to get all but the most apathetic people stirred up enough to do something. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2010 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)