Saturday, April 30, 2011

Waiting for Superman and Our Responsibility

By Matt Buccelli

This past Monday, I was riding a bus back to DC from New York and happened to be sitting across the aisle from a GW student who had been in New York for an interview and became my friend for the trip.  After we exchanged the usual pleasantries (school, major, class year, etc.), and I mentioned that I worked with DC Reads, my new travel companion (David was the kid's name) asked me about what it was like to work in the DC school system.  Immediately this set off a very interesting conversation that I think says a lot both about the state of education reform in this country and about our broader responsibility as people who work in schools.

David had recently seen Waiting for Superman, and once I told him I worked in a school he could not ask me enough questions about education.  This kid was pretty chatty to begin with (that's an understatement - I had been trying to put my headphones in when he started talking to me), but I also got the sense that he was genuinely interested in learning more about education after seeing the movie, and as someone who is always down for a good conversation about education, I was happy to oblige.

David's existing perspective had been almost entirely formed by the assertions made in WFS - the first thing he said to me, almost verbatim, was "so it really seems as if the big problem is just the teachers' unions then, right?"  Regardless of your personal opinion on the movie (I had generally positive but still very mixed feelings), we know that this is simply not true.  I started from scratch and tried to use the way WFS portrays unions as a jumping off point to talk about how there are a lot of issues for schools to contend with, and shared my own personal view that the only way to solve these problems effectively is for every party in the educational process (parents, students, teachers, administrators, policymakers) to respect each other and work together.

The education gods must have been having a good time that day, because not five minutes after David and I started talking about the movie, a young twenty-something girl sitting in front of David turned around, apologized for eavesdropping on our conversation, and explained that she was interested because she teaches preschool in Ward 8 and thus had a firsthand perspective on the exact issues we were talking about.  For the next 2 hours or so, David, the teacher, and I had a lively conversation that consisted mainly of David asking questions, the teacher answering them, and me trying to chime in where I could but treading carefully and being careful to respect this teacher's experience and not saying anything that might make me sound like I didn't know what I was talking about.  The conversation touched on just about everything - from unions, to charter schools, to teacher evaluation, merit pay, and the role of standardized tests in contemporary education.

What's the broader point here?  I didn't get on the bus back to DC to have a lengthy conversation about every education-related issue under the sun, but it happened anyway.  The kid sitting across from me got on the bus with a perspective on these issues that had been almost entirely formed by a two hour documentary, and got off of it understanding that things might just be a little bit more complicated in real life.  And while I would have to say that the teacher sitting in front of David deserves the lion's share of the credit for this, it still shows how much of a difference we all can make in DC Reads by using our experience inside of the classroom to help better inform people outside of it.

Waiting for Superman was effective in the sense that it introduced mainstream audiences to the education issue, just as An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.  But that doesn't change the fact that it also presents an overly simplistic portrayal of school reform, makes some fair points about teachers' unions but also makes it seem like they are the only thing standing between underserved kids and a good education, which isn't true, and gives the false impression that charter schools are always the answer (in reality, only 17 percent of charters outperform traditional public schools).  Waiting for Superman should not be taken as gospel, but treated as a place to start a more extended and better-informed mainstream conversation about education. 

In this regard, it is incumbent on all of us, as people who work in schools, to share our perspective, and insure that one well-produced film doesn't create legions of faux experts who, in the words of an old MTV show, think they know but have no idea.  When we talk about being advocates for our students in DC Public Schools and for just education throughout the country, we need to show that we mean it by taking advantage of opportunities to share our knowledge and experience - and become better informed when our own perspective on the challenges of school reform isn't as complete as it can be or should be. 

There is a lot of attention being focused on education right now in America.  It's up to all of us to help make the most of this opportunity by being the best informed and most willing advocates that we can be.