When a friend first suggested a few months ago that I see the new documentary Waiting for "Superman" I thought she was referring to my love life (I tend to be pretty picky)! Instead, what I found was a documentary that follows five children and their families as they try to escape the public school system for what is portrayed as the panacea of charter schools. The film lays much of the blame for the woes of our education system at the feet of teachers unions that oppose tying student achievement with teacher pay and school leaders who prefer the status quo to innovation and change.
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, is drawing mixed reviews for his latest work. Critics, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, point out that problems exists in states that don't have teachers unions and, when it comes to charter schools, studies have shown that only 17 percent of them provide a better education than the public schools that are nearby.
The message that the U.S. education system is obsolete is not new. As I've written previously, Bill Gates said essentially the same thing in a speech to the National Governors Association four years ago. And, while I tend to agree with the premise, I believe the system has been broken for a very long time ago. Education in the United States, for the most part, hasn't changed with the times and, as Gates says, the system operates in a 21st century world with a 1954 model. Students today are learning in a two-dimensional classroom but living in a 3-D world.
The reality of the linear nature of today's education system hit me squarely between the eyes last week when my daughter opened her 5th grade social studies textbook. It was written in 1991. And, while it included a slightly more non-European based history of this country than my elementary school text did in the late 1960s, it still fails to address the rich cultures of the many ethnic groups that helped build the United States.
My daughter has always struggled with reading and being forced to read a dry text with an occasional picture on the page isn't the best way for her to learn. After reading the assigned pages from the 2-D textbook, I took my daughter to the family computer where she was able to navigate the internet and pull up a more interactive, 3-D history "text." She jumped quickly between hyperlinks in which she could actually see Zuni potters at work, hear what a fife and drum corps in Colonial Williamsburg might have sounded like and become an "eyewitness" to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. (If you're interested in doing the same for your child go to your favorite search engine and plug in key words like "interactive history websites for kids" and a multitude of options will be at your fingertips. Many of the websites include interactive games that help teach children through yet another learning modality (more on that in my next blog)).
Unfortunately not every child attending public school in our country today has computers in their homes, or even consistent access to computers in their classrooms.
Waiting for "Superman" repeats what is becoming a pretty cliche statistic: Since 1971 the U.S. has more than doubled the money it spends per pupil on education yet still lags behind most industrialized nations in math and science scores, ranking 25th in the most international scores. The problem with those statistics is, as my colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Howard Blume, suggests, "All the players in the education reform wars tend to cite research that aligns with their views."
The numbers only tell one side of the story. Yes, we're spending more per pupil on average -- but the reality is in the averaging. Schools in upper middle income neighborhoods get more money than their ghetto counterparts but students in the country's less affluent (poor) neighborhoods are expected to perform equally as well. It doesn't work that way. Add to that the costs of administration which, according to some, have gone up at twice the rate of instructional expenses and it becomes easier to see that "double the money per pupil" doesn't always mean improved performance.
One reason for applauding Waiting for "Superman" is that it is opening a new conversation about the state of education in this country. Oprah takes up the issue this afternoon with Washington, D.C. school chief Michelle Rhee and Seattle's own Bill Gates. Waiting for "Superman" opens nationwide on Friday.