posted 2011-05-11 12:00:57

Hopeful messages in the Waiting for Superman companion book

Waiting on the World to Change

Hopeful messages in the
Waiting for Superman companion book

Lydia A. Howrilka

Contributing Writer

Anyone passionate about education reform or teaching will have something to say about Waiting for Superman. The documentary received countless nominations from alliances like the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Gotham Awards and the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). The film presents shockingly awful data on the American education system that would convince any person, regardless of whether you share filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s opinions and concerns or not, that the film is potent and powerful.

It has the power to move you; before the final credits roll, in fact, information about non-profit and for-profit organizations in support of education reform are listed, encouraging viewers to check out those associations in their free time.

With all the hoopla over the film, very few people are aware that a book companion, written by Karl Weber and David Guggenheim and published by Participant Media, was released this past autumn. The book, resembling an anthology, is a collection of short essays on education reform from the perspectives of philanthropists, journalists, filmmakers, educators and leaders of nationally acclaimed education non-profit organizations.

While the authors devote ample space in their essays to praise their individual contributions in helping to close the “achievement gap,” the message gleaned from nearly all the articles was one of hope and the possibility of change, even though public schools cannot evolve overnight from being “drop-out factories” — a term Guggenheim used to describe schools that graduate less than 60% of their senior class — to nationally-acclaimed beacons on a hill.

One of the most interesting articles in the book was written by Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. She and her union were vilified by Guggenheim in the film as being resistant to change and willing to support mediocre or horrendous tenured teachers at the expense of America’s children. In her essay, “Five Foundations for Student Success,” however, Weingarten is lauded for her attempts to launch “major efforts to place education reform and innovation high on the nation’s agenda.” Weingarten is respectful to Guggenheim, his filmmaking team and their mission to portray the current public school system as failing, but she denies the claim that teachers and unions are the “bad guys,” as they are portrayed in the film, and argues that innovative, bottom-up reform projects like the AFT Innovation Fund, which helps school districts should be replicated. Unions can help facilitate progress, not impede it, by establishing a solid curriculum with good administrators that support teachers, mutual accountability, professional collaboration and school environments that help students overcome socioeconomic or health-related issues that may impede their progress.

Eric Schwarz, the CEO and cofounder of Citizen Schools, did not appear in the Waiting for Superman film. In addition to praising Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that partners professionals (known as “citizen teachers”) with middle schools to lengthen the school day from six hours to nine hours daily, on their efforts to help adolescents learn the value of school and learn through semester-long hands-on projects, Schwarz also speaks to average civilians who may not hold a public office or teach on the mean streets of Detroit. Schwarz’s main argument is that changing schools and helping children meet their potential is everyone’s job; metaphorically speaking, it takes a village to raise a child right.

While the film argues that charter schools are the exception to the lack of truly successful public schools, it is important to note that statistically speaking, charter schools do not perform any better (or worse) than most public schools. Changing schools into charters, changing tenure rules and outlawing teacher unions is not the way to change education for the better. The marvelous thing about the book adaptation of Waiting for Superman is not only that it gives different perspectives, but it reveals what great leaders in education reform are doing. Rest assured, reading this anthology will make you want to do some exploring of your own on how to help schools become more productive.

In all honesty, it will take more than legislation, better principals and community partnerships with schools to improve the education system. It will also take concerned parents and students who are willing to work harder for that A+. But most importantly, it takes all of us.