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Why wait for Superman?

September 24, 2010

Of course, there is already buzz about Davis Guggenheim’s new film “Waiting for Superman”.  Guggenheim’s recent Oprah appearance as “expert” on education was a perfectly timed PR move. I was already bothered by something that I’d read on the film, and over the week the grain of irritation grew by degrees. It occurred to me, after I had read Trip Gabriel’s Sunday New York Times piece on this one-sided film that I am really pretty annoyed by the social paternalist implication of the title. The title purportedly refers to a childhood memory recounted by an Harlem educator interviewed in the film, who once yearned for Superman to arrive and save the neighborhood’s problems. It also vexes me that Guggenheim, with his money and potential influence, decided to make a movie whose thesis underscores the failings of public education.  Oh, yes, and allow this Spanish-speaking mama to quote him from the Times (and I will refrain from any Spanish groserías that I wish to include):

“The biggest problem is a lot of families’ first language is Spanish,” Mr. Guggenheim said. “People like us have sent their kids somewhere else. So we’re part of the problem.”

I’ll summarize this point. Rather than using his arguably potent voice to mobilize his  community in support of the neighborhood school he admits to maneuvering past while dropping his kids off at private school, Guggenheim has decided instead to become an active member of the doom-and-gloom crowd.  (Hmm, I think I’ll start calling them all that. Sabrina and I could design some t-shirts and paraphernalia!)  It makes me wistful for the things that could be accomplished if parents who wanted quality schools close to home would invest in their local schools. If all of us desiring change in our neighborhood schools would assist, support and apply pressures to schools as needed. I recently had a conversation with another parent from my community who commented about detrimental effects caused by our school district’s policy of allowing families in the district to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods.  This person said that the choice process has removed many of the natural advocates for a neighborhood school because parents with resources can now go and get their needs met elsewhere and don’t have to apply pressure to the school up the street. Those words from our conversation continue to resonate within me.

To return to my earlier remark about social paternalism,  I also believe that empowerment engenders empowerment.  I know that there are families who feel marginalized.  I also believe that they need not be, that they must not be.  There is a tipping point in which people see that others are speaking up and they feel that it is safe for them to do so as well.  Consider this: The schools belong to all of us, perhaps especially to those of us with children attending them. In the still timely words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Don’t wait for Superman, be Superman! May it be so.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. SMB permalink
    September 25, 2010 9:18 am

    Great post! Please be patient with a question that I fear will show me to be what I am: a well-meaning dabbler who doesn’t understand all of the issues involved in ed reform, and who doesn’t fully grasp how her own privilege enters in (but is trying!)

    What about when the neighborhood school is what most of the parents want, but it doesn’t work for your kid?

    We picked our house because of the neighborhood elementary school: it’s very ethnically diverse (around 40%Latin@ 30%African-American and 30% white), with a lot of community involvement, a respected principle, grant money, understands itself as a “community school,” year-round calendar, etc.

    The instruction is seat work, worksheets, drills, and tests. Very minimal play time or seat work, very little hands-on learning. No planting-seeds-in-paper-cups-type lessons.

    I don’t like this at all, and my son is in first grade and quite unhappy, and the strain that it puts on our family life is reaching the breaking point. However: evidently most of the parents actively want the education the school provides. They are happier and feel like their kids are getting better educations when there are a lot of worksheets, drills, tests, and long periods of seat work.

    And honestly, well… who am I to swoop in with my fancypants ideas about exploratory learning and projects and planting seeds in cups? I’m just not sure that’s the clearly non-paternalistic response. Meanwhile my son’s scores are fine and he’s not a behavior problem, and the school is serving 1000+ K-5th graders, so we’re just simply never going to be a priority. Or so I judge from the school’s responsiveness so far.

    Is my own infatuation with project-based, exploratory learning in a small-school setting a function of my social set’s own preoccupations? Are we basically looking for a school for the NPR-and-Prius crowd? With some diversity thrown in to assuage our liberal white guilt? Oh, almost certainly. And I hate that.

    But I don’t think it’s only that. I actually believe that the latter constitutes a better way to learn. But more to the point, my husband and I do feel real sense of obligation to the common good, and don’t want to just make decisions about education based on How They Affect My Own Precious-Wecious Child Who Is After All A Special Little Snowflake. At the same time, I don’t have jurisdiction over other people’s kids, and the other parents like the school.

    Anyway… Can you guess where the cultural chitchat directs people like us? Of course you can. To charters (“Just think, we could start your own school! Make it in our own liberal NPR-and-Prius do-gooder image!”) or to (obviously) private school. Both of which, frankly, no longer sound so much like “attractive options” as they sound like necessary escape strategies just to keep our family life minimally liveable.

    I guess what I’m asking is: Aren’t charters useful insofar as they allow people to venture forth and make schools that offer what they need, which is not what the people in their neighborhood need or want? I understand the problems with CMOs and privatization and teacher pay and oversight, but… in theory, isn’t this a valuable role?

  2. SMB permalink
    September 25, 2010 9:19 am

    Ugh. PrinciPAL, meant to say, of course. Pardon me while I go hang my head in shame.

  3. mariasallee permalink*
    September 25, 2010 10:34 am

    Wow, thanks for your thoughtfully crafted response. You raise some excellent points and I can respond as a teacher as well as a parent who has found herself in much the same position. The public choice school or charter can have value, particularly in scenarios such as the one you mention. The environment you describe sounds pretty dreary to me too, as well as thoroughly incompatible with my own teaching philosophy. It is a pity that people in your community are satisfied with it and that you haven’t found kindred spirits among them. (Also, 1000 students?!) I believe that we need more people advocating for approaches that develop the whole child, not just his/her ability to churn out measurable results and I hope that you will somehow use your voice to speak up for them. Fancypants, NPR label be damned–children need to be given opportunities to develop creative thinking skills that they will need in order to be fully-engaged citizens. Please consider taking your opinion to the streets.

    Here is my response to your personal struggle. Sometimes we have to make decisions in favor of our personal well-being over that of the greater good, and I of all people get that. While I won’t go into it here, I will say that my husband and I have chosen to send our kids to (public) schools out of our neighborhood to a model more compatible with our needs. While we had some struggles with this decision, it was easier to make knowing that we were still supporting local public schools and that the new environment was similarly diverse. (I’m sorry if you don’t have similarly palatable compromises available to you.) We made our decision well before my conversation with the other parent, but the point raised has stuck with me. Our choice had been made before my recent forays into activism but my current activism was/is in part inspired by the area’s lack of innovative options for students. There are other parents and community members who want what I want for our schools and we are beginning to mobilize but it will probably be a lengthy process, especially if we seek to engage the families who do not feel they have a voice. My point is: such changes should not be imposed by external forces, should not be done “to” or “for” communities. They should be cultivated by the communities themselves.


  1. Far out! « Failing Schools

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