Who Knows if We Can Wait for Superman?

October 22, 2010 Opinion

It is time that America stops turning a blind eye to our faltering education system, and the latest documentary hitting theaters, Waiting for Superman, forces Americans to do just that.

The film centers on five children, each from different towns, who are not able to reach their full potential at their flawed public schools so they are forced to apply to charter schools. The problem is, there are many more applicants than spots available at all these schools, so what solution is chosen? To have a lottery. I am not kidding; the fate of thousands of children and their families is given to luck.

The film focuses on revolutionary educational leaders Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Canada, born and raised in the South Bronx, is the charismatic creator of Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school that promotes a “cradle to college” approach to education. Canada promises to supply these students with support from early childhood education throughout their college career through services such as cheap health care, healthy meals, after school programs and small classes. He has brought national attention to charter schools which use public funds but usually offer better opportunities for students.

While many praise Canada for his innovational system and his determination to give disadvantaged youth a middle-class education, people criticize the fact that despite the whopping $16,000 spent per student, there has not been a great rise in test results. We should not be relying on charter schools as the answer to our public education woes; there are thousands of children who are not fortunate enough to have a choice in their education and must attend the local public school. We need to find out why students are failing in these schools and how we can solve the problem in a costeffective way.

Rhee is trying to do just that as chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public school system. She created controversy by closing down schools and firing hundreds of teachers and principals. She also proposed a revolutionary idea of eliminating teacher tenure and giving them bonuses based on their achievement.

Hopefully the choice would solve the problem of having so many ineffective teachers who are given tenure a few years after teaching, since once they are given tenure it is nearly impossible to fire them, no matter how poorly they perform. It is an odd predicament – about one in 57 doctors and one in 97 lawyers lose their licenses, but only one in 2500 teachers lose their credentials. Studies have shown that teacher performance is one of the most important factors in student achievement, so the fact that principals and superintendents cannot fire teachers proven to be inadequate is extremely frustrating. Unfortunately, the Washington Teachers’ Union refused to even vote on the subject. On Oct. 13, Rhee resigned from her position but wants to continue changing the system.

Another issue the film brings up is our school system’s method of tracking students. Usually schools group students based on initial performance and they remain at that level throughout high school. These groups of students commonly receive the less-proficient teachers and are not given the proper college preparatory skills and never achieve their full potential.

Eighth-grader Emily from prosperous Silicon Valley has this problem. Her local high school features the tracking system, and since Emily struggles in math, her parents fear she will remain in this lower track. She applied to a nearby charter school that does not have this system, and luckily she was chosen in the lottery.

But some of the other children featured in the film were not so lucky. Three of the children were not chosen. Take, for example, fifth-grader Daisy in East Los Angeles. She is a very determined and bright young girl who dreams of becoming a doctor or veterinarian; however, she lives in an impoverished part of town and the local public high school is one of the “dropout factories,” where two-thirds of the entering class does not graduate.

She applied to the prestigious Kipp L.A. Prep charter school, but lost the lottery. Her road to medical school is much more difficult now.

It is truly heartbreaking to watch this film and see the disappointment in the children’s faces who are not as lucky as others. It is embarrassing for a nation that prides itself on equal opportunity and free education to supply such a school system. And while politicians may not want to spend money on education now, there will be damaging effects for that decision in the near future. Already the annual cost of an inmate in prison is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. And by 2020, Bill Gates estimates that only 50 million Americans will be qualified for 123 million highly skilled jobs. We simply cannot afford to invest our money in prisons and not education.

I encourage all of you to see this compelling and eye-opening movie. It proves that we can no longer hope for a “superman” of some sort to rescue us from the mess we have created in our educational system.

We need to voice our opinions and start small to eliminate some major injustices, because we can no longer rely on luck and the lottery to determine our country’s future.

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