“It’s like turning the lights off in the middle of heart surgery.”
That’s how director Davis Guggenheim described the recent resignation of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in a recent interview with conservative talk show host Michael Medved. Rhee resigned after her political patron D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary in his re-election bid. Rather than deal with a boss whose support for strong school reform is less pronounced, Rhee will be leaving her position at the end of the month. Her departure is particularly tragic considering that her remarkable work is now being highlighted nationwide in Guggenheim’s film “Waiting for Superman”.
The title for the new documentary comes from one of the educators featured in it. In his youth, that educator believed in superman and was saddened to learn that his hero didn’t exist. Superman, he eventually realized, only existed in a fantasy world where he could prevent great distress.
For students who face disappointment and distress in our school system today, there is no one superman who will arrive to fix the failures of public education.
“Waiting for Superman” explores the lives of several students who are trying to make it through public schools today. Many of these students are stuck in a system that does not work and they are forced into inferior schools where their opportunities for success after graduation are sometimes limited. One parent in the film talks about the importance of her child having a career versus a job. She knows the difference between the two as she knows the difference between sending her child to a good school and a mediocre one.
Many of the obstacles blocking the progress of millions of children in schools today are highlighted in the film. Some of the most blatant failures of the public school system like “drop-out factories” (schools with a high drop-out rate), “lemon dances” (schools sending their worst teachers to other schools and then accepting failing teachers themselves) and “rubber rooms” (places where teachers placed on leave waste their time playing card games while getting paid) are discussed in detail. These phrases might not be familiar to you but parents have likely seen the consequences of these failings firsthand. Another obstacle shown blocking progress in today’s schools are the teacher’s unions, whose support of tenure and strict union contracts help keep bad teachers in classrooms.
“Waiting for Superman” isn’t the best film I’ve seen this year but IT IS the most important one. As this film points out, changing our failing education system isn’t easy. If a person tries to take dramatic steps to improve it, he or she will likely be vilified for fighting against the status quo.
A prime example of that is Michelle Rhee, who is featured prominently in the documentary. Rhee became chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007 and found out how difficult changing the system really is. Several months ago, a Washington Post editorial explored Rhee's early impact in schools:
She was the mayor's surprise choice three years ago to lead the schools after he persuaded the council to give him control of the public school system. Mr. Fenty saw Ms. Rhee, who had never run a school system, as a change agent who would make the hard decisions that generations of D.C. officials lacked the political will to do.
Ms. Rhee did not disappoint, cleaning up the central office, firing principals who couldn't deliver, closing underutilized schools and insisting there be higher expectations and new accountability.
A Post editorial a few months later noted some of Rhee’s accomplishments in office:
Under Ms. Rhee's leadership, the District went from having the country's worst scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to leading the nation in the rate of improvement. African American students make up about 75 percent of the public school enrollment and -- contrary to claims by critics -- they have not been left behind. On local test scores, 23.93 percent of black elementary students were proficient in math and 32.62 percent were proficient in reading in 2007; the percentages rose to 36.9 in math and 38.77 in reading in 2010. The gains of black secondary-school students were even more remarkable: In 2007, 22.48 percent were proficient in math and 25.85 percent were proficient in reading, compared with 37.59 percent proficient in math and 38.05 percent in reading in 2010.
These improvements only tell part of the story of Rhee’s successful tenure. On a large scale, these improvements speak for themselves.
However, other stories point to Rhee’s impact on a smaller scale. Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews recently reported on a small change in a local classroom that made a huge difference. As Mathews wrote, a broken classroom door lock was causing issues for Anthony Priest, a D.C. schoolteacher. Because the lock was broken, students and non-students often barged into the room and interrupted his class. Security didn’t help and the school principal denied the broken lock’s impact in the classroom. After receiving little support from his principal, Priest e-mailed Rhee and the lock was fixed the following day. As Mathews wrote, “The repair, Priest said, became ‘a huge help on my ability to control the class.’"
There are some critics who have noted that Rhee is not the only person who can fix D.C. schools. After she leaves her position at the end of the month, one of her closest associates will become interim chancellor. That’s encouraging news but if progress falters in D.C., Rhee’s departure will likely be seen as a pivotal turning point for school reform in the district.
Fortunately, “Waiting for Superman” captures some of her work on film. The movie is often dispiriting and distressing but when it focuses on Rhee and other reformers, it is also inspiring.
Parents and teachers alike should see “Waiting for Superman”, along with anyone else who has an interest in the future of this country.
If you aren’t upset about the state of education today, you should be. If you aren’t disappointed in the failures of public education, you ought to be. If you’re not aware of the issues facing public schools today, then you must see “Waiting for Superman” and get involved so that students today won’t have to wait forever for a hero that will never arrive.
*This piece was also posted on Big Hollywood.