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Waiting for “Supermom”

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #96, 2010.

The documentary Waiting for Superman helps us appreciate the advantages of homeschooling.
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Mary Pride

Do homeschoolers think we are “better” than public school parents? What, if anything, can homeschoolers do for children trapped in awful public schools?

Two weekends ago I attended the premiere showing of a documentary that points to the answers, though it never actually asks these specific questions.

Waiting for “Superman” starts with the haunting story of a young Geoffrey Canada. Mr. Canada has been CEO for two decades of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization whose purpose is to increase Harlem kids’ chances of graduating from high school and college. He tells the story of how he loved the comic book character Superman when he was a child—especially the way Superman would show up and rescue ordinary people from evil that they could not overcome on their own. When his mom explained that Superman was not real, young Geoffrey had the haunting realization that, in his own words, “No one was coming with the power to save us.”

From this beginning, the film’s writers shared how, ten years ago, they spent an entire year following idealistic new teachers around the classroom. They were making a documentary (it came out under the title The First Year) which they hoped would demonstrate that public schools could work.

Ten years later, it was time to choose a school for their own children. At this point, they realized their greatest parental fear was of sending their children to a failing school. Driving past three public schools to take a child to a private school, Davis Guggenheim (whose previous credits include Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth) wondered what happened to parents who didn’t have the finances to choose private education. In many cases, such parents make huge efforts to get their children into charter or magnet schools. But since the number of spots is always far less than the number of applicants, deserving children end up at the mercy of the lottery, placing “our children and their future in the hands of luck.”

To find out why so many public schools are failing, and what the chances are for parents and kids who realize how bad their local schools are, Waiting for “Superman” follows five children: Bianca and Francisco, both from the Bronx; Daisy from LA; Anthony from Washington, DC; and Emily from Silicon Valley. The children are an assortment of ages and ethnic backgrounds. What they all have in common is that, in their current schools, they are likely doomed to fail.

But Waiting for “Superman” goes beyond dramatic human interest. Through interviews, statistics, and even animations, Guggenheim zeroes in on exactly why these kids need to escape their schools.

This is an oddity in itself. As the film points out, “Until the 1970s, American public schools were the best in the world. Attending them was not an ordeal, but the single most formative experience in our lives.”

What went wrong?

Although Guggenheim doesn’t touch on every aspect of public education’s downfall (e.g., how local parental control has been eliminated or reduced, the Supreme Court’s takeover and mostly elimination of religious/moral instruction, and dumbed-down/politically correct curriculum), he does shine a spotlight on one big fat target:

“You can’t have a great school without great teachers.”

As this movie shows again and again, the last thing the public-school establishment wants is “great teachers.”

Here’s how it works:

  • First, it takes a new teacher about two years to even start being reasonably effective.
  • Teachers in the public schools are granted tenure (meaning: “I am now practically impossible to fire”) after two years, before it is actually possible to see if they are any good or not.
  • The teachers’ unions consistently fight every attempt to reward good teachers, or to get bad teachers out of the schools.
  • This results in absurdities such as New York City’s “Rubber Room,” where literally hundreds of teachers who are dangerous (e.g., sexually abusive) or incompetent are paid full salary to just sit in a room all day and leave students alone—sometimes for years.
  • It also results in principals playing what the movie calls “The Dance of the Lemons,” “The Turkey Trot,” and “Pass the Trash”—shuffling horrible teachers off to other schools while picking up a new crop of losers for their school

What this all means, in the insightful words of former D.C. Commissioner of Schools Michelle Rhee, is that, while unions claim they need more money and less accountability “for the children,” it’s “really about the adults.”

As former New York State Teacher of the Year John Gatto said decades ago, public schools are working exactly the way they are designed to work. The people in charge do not have good intentions. They know kids’ lives are being ruined and they just don’t care. For them, it’s all about:

  1. empire-building and money for unions and their members and
  2. the part Guggenheim leaves out—control over the hearts and minds of the rising generation.

As we follow Bianca, Francisco, Anthony, Daisy, and Emily through the movie, we can’t help rooting for them. These kids have such high hopes—and, if not accepted to the charter schools to which they have applied, so few chances. When, at the end, we go with them to the lotteries, I wasn’t the only one crying.

What I took away from this movie, though, was a bit different than Guggenheim’s call for public-school reform.

As I watched one sweet little girl, who reminded me so much of my own youngest daughter, have her hopes blasted, I wanted so strongly to reach through the screen and tell her parents, “You can homeschool! Let me put you in touch with your local support group. If you’re not able to homeschool for some reason, here’s how to start a University Model School with other parents. Check out the article about UMS on my website and ask your church to set aside a few rooms for the school. This particular charter school doesn’t have to be your only hope!”

Every homeschool family ought to watch Waiting for “Superman” with their children. At the very least, it will give your kids a whole new appreciation for the opportunities you’re providing them. But I hope it will do more than that. I’d like homeschool groups to watch the movie (either in the theater, or when it comes out on DVD) and start thinking about how we can reach out to the families who lose those public-school lotteries.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought, again quoted from the movie:

“Now that we know it’s possible to give every child a great education, what is our obligation to other people’s children?”

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