Are You "Waiting For Superman"?

Last Saturday night I headed to the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood to see Davis Guggenheim's new education documentary, Waiting For "Superman". Yes, you should go see it when it opens in your town.

In my mind, whether or not you agree with the film's basic premise- that teachers unions are the antichrist of American education and some charter schools are the savior- is a bit irrelevant. The bottom line is that the problems facing our schools are so monumental, the time for divisions is over.

Without the unity of individuals, our public and private institutions and our community organizations, America's children will continue to miss out on the education they deserve. That's not an option, so whatever needs to happen to fix our schools needs to happen NOW.

That said, I didn't expect the film to enhance my belief that viewing education as somehow independent of the vast inequities and social problems present in our society is a mistake. The poverty most of the children in the film live in... this nation should be ashamed.

Daisy from Los Angeles... her neighborhood looks like something out of a documentary filmed in a developing country. Her building looks like the cinderblock housing I called home back when I lived in Communist China.

One of the boys from New York City, Francisco, shares a room with his parents. The children's bunk beds are in the same room as the parent's queen sized bed! The room itself is, sadly, not queen sized.

In both instances, the parents are very involved and are doing the best they can, but their poverty means they lack choices, and in a nation where money talks, schools don't take poor parent's demands seriously.

Make no mistake, I don't roll with using poverty or social ills as an excuse for students not learning. Saying a child comes from a poor family in no way absolves a teacher from moving heaven and earth to ensure that the kid walks out of that classroom at the end of the year totally on-point. But to ignore it and act like it doesn't matter is naive. In fact, one of the heroes of the film, Geoffrey Canada, is implementing a comprehensive, 360 degree path to student achievement through the innovative Harlem Children's Zone.

Anyway, an hour after I saw "Superman" I felt numb and depressed. I began reflecting on who the film's audience is- and came to the conclusion that the film isn't really for people of color or folks lacking the financial wherewithal to get away from a failing neighborhood school.

You see, most people of color or low income folks don't need a documentary to tell us that the schools in our communities are horrible. We don't need to see a film to know how some teachers, principals and school counselors lower their expectations for us.

We don't need Davis Guggenheim to tell us how schools don't teach us and actually actively discourage our learning.

We don't need a film to tell us how black middleschoolers are suspended at much higher rates than other races of kids.

We know these things because we LIVE them. Every day.

I cried at the end of "Superman" but after the lights went up in the theater, I realized that I wasn't just crying for the kids profiled in the film. My tears were for all the people in my family and all the people I've known over the years who've been denied an excellent education because of the color of their skin.

I thought about my own high school's tracking systems. Most of the black kids were segregated into "remedial" or "basic" English. A few in "regular". One or two in "honors". And then me in AP English. Of course, none of those remedial kids ever got remediated up to the AP level.

I thought about the high school guidance counselor who recommended I take an auto shop class instead of a class I needed to get into a top university.

I thought of the teachers who advised me to not take the PSAT or the SAT. Because a kid with a full load of honors and AP courses, yours truly, apparently didn't need to take either test.

I thought about my nephew's math teacher segregating his class into a high group and a low group - and putting EVERY single black kid into the low group -including my nephew who's gifted and has A's on everything.

I thought about the teacher next door to me at the school I taught at in Compton - the guy who read the newspaper every day while his kids went buck wild. I thought about his advice to me that I not try so hard to teach my students because they're just going to end up in jail like their parents.

I thought about a former student of mine and how he dropped out of high school because his father had a heart attack and died. He had to get a job to help support his pregnant mom and his younger siblings. We lost touch and I still cry when I think about him having to make that decision.

And then I thought about my own children. That's them in the picture on their first day of school - they were so excited. My fourth grader is still excited. My 2nd grader is not.

I often feel like I'm in a boxing match when it comes to ensuring LAUSD doesn't consign my boys to the educational dustbin. Or put them on the special education track. The, "he's having a hard time focusing in class" track. Or the dropout track a/k/a the prison track.

Because of my experiences with public education, and the fact that my sons are black males, I always assume that a teacher will have lowered expectations for my boys. I assume that till the teacher proves otherwise through his or her actions.

Let's talk action because "Superman" is a documentary but it's also a call to action, asking individuals to mobilize, write letters to their governors, get involved in schools and demand change.

Yeah, as if black parents haven't been trying to do that at public schools since before Brown v. Topeka Board of Education! You know us, we're just sitting around throwing our hands up, saying there's nothing we can do!

There are a whole lot of parents that need to step it up but if we weren't involved and taking action, the dismal education stats on our children might be even worse. Over the years with the exception of one teacher, getting my son's teachers to proactively talk academics with me, getting them to tell me what standards will be taught in a unit and what the assessment schedule is, that's been damn near impossible.

I got annoyed by the surprise expressed by some people in the film that poor black, Latino and Asian kids from LA, DC and NYC can achieve. Quite frankly, I don't need the damn Harlem Children's Zone or a KIPP school to tell me that children of color can excel! What is wrong with people if they need "proof" that it's possible? Get the eff outta here with that b.s.! Our children, just like children of all backgrounds are whip smart and capable.

Unfortunately, "Superman" did not see the connection between racial bias and our education problems. The deep-seated racism in our hearts does matter when it comes time to teach kids. The inherent sense of superiority that a teaching force that's mostly white middle class women teaching other people's children... the internalized oppression that black teachers manifest in their classrooms... according to "Superman" those things don't need to be addressed.

I guess when "Superman" comes, he's gonna be post-racial and colorblind. Oh, and eliminating teacher tenure will solve the problems of racism in our educational system. Right?

But what about white children, you ask? "Superman" profiles an upper class white girl and how her fancy public school is failing her too and she needs to escape to a charter school in a rugged, urban neighborhood. Nevermind that this girl lives in a million dollar home in Silicon Valley and most of the kids at her school go to college. If she doesn't get into the charter, her life will be RUINED!

Every time her story came up, I felt angry. Maybe I'm just tired and cynical but I started to feel like the film was using a couple of scare tactics on it's target audience.

1) You need to care about children of color because if you don't educate them, they're gonna run the country into the ground and then they'll mug you and join gangs and go to prison so our economy will tank even more because they're not making taxable income.

2) You think your mostly white upper class school is good? Pfft! Education sucks so bad your privileged white child might end up as a high school dropout too. Or at the very least, he won't learn the math and science skills he needs to get a high paying tech job - and then China and India will REALLY take over!"

Like I said, I'm cynical, but I wanted to yell at the screen when this girl was waiting to find out if she got into the charter.

Whether she got into the charter school or not, chances are she's gonna be OK. She's gonna go to college! Maybe she won't get to Harvard but she'll get to UC Santa Cruz! Clearly, her educated, upper class parents know how to work the education system and help her navigate the college admissions process, and they looked like they had the money to pay for it.

Speaking of money, last night was back to school night. In both boy's classrooms their teachers noted that due to LAUSD's draconian budget cuts, there's no money for field trip buses, so if parents wouldn't mind contributing to the bus cost... and they need money for printer ink, paper and there's no tissue for the kids to blow their noses. Sorry, budget cuts eliminated the funds to purchase such luxuries.

"Superman" is quick to point out that education spending has increased while student achievement results have not. I don't care. We need to fully fund education.

People say they want to run education like a business -- Do you have to bring your own paper and printer ink to work? Nope? I didn't think so.

I mean, I love organizations like Donor's Choose and want to help a classroom at the school I taught at in Compton buy culturally relevant books - you can go donate here - but the truth is, Donor's Choose shouldn't even have to exist! Plus, if parents didn't have to spend so much time doing fundraising for our schools, maybe we could have conversations about the academics!

All that said, you should go see the movie. I didn't hate it, but it didn't rock my world. It didn't tell me much of anything I didn't already know, and using the charter school lottery as a plot device... let me tell you, I cried every year when my kids got rejected from LAUSD's magnet lottery so I've been there, done that.

My warning to you is don't get caught up in the education blame game. Blaming parents, teachers, principals, district fat cats and unions -blame us all. Ultimately we are all accountable for the souls and minds our educational system has failed.

We need to unify regardless of race, ethnicity, color or income level and fix our schools because our peace and prosperity as a nation depends on it. Reform needs to happen and it can't wait. Ensuring the most highly qualified, competent people are working in our schools, and have the resources to do their jobs... we have to make it happen.


nick said…
A great call to arms, Liz. The examples you give of discrimination against black kids are shocking but I'm sure all too prevalent. The only way to stop it is concerted pressure by ALL those at the receiving end but so many people for one reason or another will fight shy of such a mammoth task.

It really is disgraceful that teachers who should all be cultivating ALL their pupils' abilities are so frequently undervaluing so many of them. Of course that should be a disciplinary offence but of course also it's taken as absolutely normal.
Elita said…
This is a fabulous post. As the mother of a black son who will be starting school in 2 years, I am scared shitless. And we are upper middle class and my son will go to good schools! I am scared because I remember the racist assumptions, too. I was put into the remedial group in second grade for both math and reading based on....well, the only thing that comes to mind is my race. I had come from a private school that didn't do any standardized testing, so they just had to guess and so of course they guessed "dumb." By the end of the second day of class I was moved to the highest reading and math groups where I proceeded to kick everyone's ass. My son is super smart, but I am so nervous about how he will be treated in school. But truth be told, even he will be OK because he has 2 smart parents to advocate on his behalf. But what about the other kids of color who aren't as lucky?
BlackLiterature said…
I posted the link on my facebook page. A friend commented that one of our advisors in high school tried to push her(and her mom) towards trade schools. We went to one of the "best" (parochial)schools in Oakland.

Today, she is an MD and is delivering babies at a local hospital. I guess she didn't do so well at that trade school. :-)
Liz Dwyer said…
They're WAY too prevelant. The lowered expectations should be taken more seriously, but if we're really honest, it's merely a reflection of the general society's attitude.

I hate to say it, but your fear is justified. The kids who don't have parents or other advocates with the know how and ability to go toe to toe with schools are at a clear disadvantage.

Trade school. Yeah, I'm glad she didn't listen to that mess. I'm glad I didn't either. I can't see myself as an auto mechanic.
Rose's Daughter said…
Great Post! I'm a mother of a 10 month old, and I am scared out of my mind when it comes to putting him in school. And it shouldn't be that way. Thanks for calling attention to this issue. I've got to find a way to go and see this movie.
Liz Dwyer said…
Rose's Daughter,
I wish the film wasn't showing in such limited release/in such few cities. Let's hope that by the time your 10 month old gets to school, things will be different. --yeah, I'm optimistic, aren't I?
jstele said…
I feel that everything would be much easier if parents were more involved and did their job. I have seen way too many bratty kids. Yes, schools need to do their jobs as well, but at some point, learning starts at the home.

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