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Waiting for Superman: Education System, We Need to Talk

The opening sequence of Waiting for Superman begins with a routine that many Adventist families know well: narrator/director Davis Guggenheim describes driving past several public schools each day on his way to dropping his kids off at a pricy private school. In a sheepish tone, he describes the small pang of guilt that he feels. He explains that in 1999, he tried to bring hardworking public school teachers to the forefront in his documentary films Teach and The First Year. While the clips of these films show an eager optimism for public education, Superman illustrates a darker side: administrators become helpless in a sea of conflicting laws and regulations, unions protect ineffective teachers, and neighborhoods suffer as students become victims of “drop out factories,” or low-performing schools.
The film follows the stories of five children who are desperately trying to break free from their current school as they vie for admittance to charter schools through a lottery system. These include a Boyle Heights 5th grader who dreams of becoming a doctor, an African-American Washington D.C 5th grader who lost his father to drug addiction, and Bianca, a Harlem kindergartener who knows at a young age, education is the key to a better life.
While their backgrounds, locations and ages differ, their stories all echo the same plea: in their current public school, they feel their odds of success are greatly stacked against them, and they are all trying to seek alternatives in order to set their life on a track that does not end in unemployment, dropping out of school, prison, or even death.
Their stories are interspersed with experts and educators who weigh in on public schools’ failures, offering explanations and alternatives. Most notably, activist and educator Geoffrey Canada, the founder of The Children’s Zone in Harlem (which boasts over a 90% success rate in getting inner city kids into college) critiques the public system. Canada is joined by Jay Matthews, education columnist for the New York Post, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor and reformer of Washington D.C. public schools and Randi Weingarten, president of the National Education Association, one of the largest teacher unions in the nation. While these individuals vary on how education reform should occur and in their assessment of various public schools, they all agree that the business of education is difficult, yet vital to our society and economic stability.
The film brings to the surface sadly common issues among the news reports that currently float on our airwaves: every day 7,000 high school students will drop out; our national averages for proficiency in reading and math hover around the 35th percentile; and other countries are increasingly outperforming the U.S. It also addresses the fact that student success is largely attributed to what is occurring in the classroom daily, and that a mediocre or low-performing teacher can directly impact a school’s success rate. Still, others critique the use of educational funds, and point to inadequate school buildings and materials, where teachers feel that they are not equipped with home support or resources to do their job effectively.
While the film stirs up hot topics, it also highlights a key solution that experts have agreed upon: a good teacher works; bad teachers don’t. In many cases, good teachers have congregated to start their own schools like the Knowledge is Power Program or The Children’s Zone. These schools set out to do what others thought impossible: demonstrate that inner city, low-income, English language learners and minority students from bad neighborhoods can perform at high levels with success.
As the students in the film try to spin the wheel of luck and win the lottery for entrance to these schools, they do so because they want the success that is demonstrated at these institutions in order to have a better future. Unfortunately like public schools, all charters are not created equal. While the ones highlighted in the film are examples of excellence, only one in five charter schools succeed.
Despite the grim examples of failure, the film reiterates that children are what truly matters, lost in a metaphorical bus, waiting to be saved by a superman that doesn’t seem to exist. As they sit in crowded auditoriums waiting to hear if they’ve been accepted into the school of their choice, it seems as if this decision will define the course of their young lives. As the audience views the faces of those who were rejected and accepted, Guggenheim reminds us that we cannot give up on our system no matter how broken it may seem, because OUR students are counting on great schools, and great schools come from us.
As a public school educator who spent 16 years in the Adventist system, I found myself drawing parallels with the message that our church and faith offer in a world that desperately wants to be saved. As I watched families in the film perilously seeking alternatives to their current realities, I couldn’t help but wonder how close the nearest Adventist school was in their neighborhood, and if they even knew of its existence or had access to it. I also found myself wondering whether Adventist institutions, if required to take state exams, would see math and reading averages fall. I reflected on the role that Adventist institutions play in educating low-income and inner city students, minority and English language learners, and how these sub groups are represented in our institutions’ populations. Lastly, I thought about the teaching trends in the public sector, and evaluated where the Adventist system is working, and perhaps where we have room to grow.
While these questions and those the film raises may strike a chord of intense reaction, the business of educating warrants it. Most would agree that when it comes to kids, we want what is best for them. The problem is, as adults we often can’t agree upon what that looks like. In the meantime while we hash out politics, curriculum, policies, finances, practice, purpose and resources, the students are left on the bus, waiting for us to come and save them from the situational monsters that we’ve created. It’s not that these things aren’t important, but as the film points out, schools sometimes lose sight of what is.
While Superman addressed these issues in the public sector, I speculate how many of these factors are dividing forces in our own institutions. I also reflect on how Adventist Institutions could be a possible solution in the marketplace of education, and I wonder if we capitalize on the needs of the students who do not regularly attend our Sabbath School classes at church.
By the end of the film, Guggenheim elicits strong reactions from the audience, calling the viewer not just to evaluate the current state of education, but also to get actively involved, as the economic and social success of our society depends on it. The end credits seem like a commission calling us to go forth and spread good news–a native concept to our church and our faith.
Sitting in a dark theater, I was reminded of why I became a public school educator: I wanted to make a difference and follow Christ’s example of service to those in need. When I go to work each day in an inner city district that unfortunately suffers many of the issues raised in the film, I strangely don’t feel hopeless. I watch my father, a public middle school principal, raise the bar on educational excellence as he plays a large role in changing the lives of thousands of at-risk students who could easily become a statistic of failure, but haven’t. In addition, I reflect on the students that I have had the privilege of educating and marvel at the high expectations that they were able to achieve, despite the fact that many of them had been told that their opportunities were labeled and limited. Finally, I contemplate how my life might have been different if I didn’t attend my academy or Adventist college.
While I am no superman, I know that there are students who are counting on me not to give up, because they are waiting to be saved. While I am not a savior, I recall the words of One who is, when He said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). In comparison with Guggenheim, I hope that as we drive our children past public schools each morning to attend Adventist Institutions, we are not just seeking shelter in our own bubble, but instead providing an education that instills the principle of service to a world in desperate need, and perhaps even taking steps to open our institutional doors a little wider. After all, isn’t that a charter that we have the market on?
Lauryn Wild is an English Language Arts Program Specialist in the San Bernardino School District, where she previously taught 7th and 8th grade English.

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