Last fall, the documentary Waiting for Superman swept America by storm. With the problems inherent in the American public education system simmering at the surface of discussions at every level of society, the movie added even more opinions to the virtual Babel already comprising the mix.
Winning accolades at the Sundance Film Festival and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, director Davis Guggenheim’s work followed several students in cities across the United States on their journeys to be accepted into charter schools. The majority came from lower-income neighbourhoods, where the public (state-run) schools they were assigned to attend have poor graduation rates and little history of sending students to top universities. The film dubbed many of these schools ‘dropout factories’, indicating the lack of support given by their administrations and low achievement levels of students.
The film sought to display the realities of public education’s pitfalls, and portrayed charter schools, such as those in the Harlem Children’s Zone network in New York City run by Geoffrey Canada, and the nationwide KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network, as one possible solution. Interwoven with footage of the young applicants to these schools – which are free to attend and provide an alternative for families without the financial resources to pursue other options – were interviews with education figures like Mr. Canada and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the public schools in Washington, D.C.
Waiting for Superman ended on a warning note with few of the students profiled gaining acceptance through the competitive application process for the charter schools, as if to show the audience how futile the wait for a solution to the problems has been. Race to Nowhere, written by Maimone Attia and directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, had a similarly bleak tone, though this film documented a very different aspect of American education. In contrast to the students and families for whom charter schools were only a glimmer on a dreary horizon, those profiled in the latter film were from middle-class and affluent backgrounds.
These students were not waiting for Superman: in fact, many had schedules themselves that would be difficult for Superman himself to handle. They packed their days with involvement in athletics and the arts in addition to academics, both at school and in the wider world, and racked up so many hours of community service that their levels of activity approached those of adults holding multiple full-time jobs. The filmmakers sought to expose the underside of teenage lives in a high-pressured, overachieving environment where expectations by parents and teachers, not to mention within themselves, drove many students to cheating, self-abuse, and even to suicide.
Coming from a hometown and a high school which resemble the latter documentary, but being passionate about education reform to aid students like those who were portrayed in the former, it’s my own personal view that there has to be a middle ground. Because it’s not just in the United States that the state education system is badly in need of reform. Every child deserves a high quality education, one of the most important tools to achieve success later in life. But while striving to provide this, it’s also important to realize that there should be limits to ensure that children have time to be children as well. No student should have to wait for Superman to come and save them, or to feel as if they’re in a race, not to the top (as President Obama’s education initiave is labelled), but to nowhere.