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Waiting for Superman A Powerful Call For Change

Rick Green

October 15, 2010

Anyone who drives through Hartford regularly might recognize something of themselves in the much-hyped documentary, "Waiting for Superman," opening in Connecticut today.

The movie begins with Davis Guggenheim the liberal-minded director of "An Inconvenient Truth" talking about how he feels guilty when he drives by struggling Los Angeles public schools as he takes his children to their exclusive private school each morning.

In Connecticut, we've blithely been cruising by public school carnage in cities for years. Our own "dropout factories" in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport rival those in Guggenheim's gripping, must-see movie.

Davis argues that this isn't about spending more money or decades of legislative reforms including No Child Left Behind it's about the schools themselves.

The problem is that very little has changed.

It's still nearly impossible to get rid of inferior teachers. Union contracts make it difficult to open innovative schools that operate for longer hours and hire nontraditional staff. Tenure remains the job-for-life cornerstone in our public schools even as we have created a system in which poor and minority children fail and suburban children succeed.

We have turned "a blind eye to what is happening" in our urban schools, "in the name of harmony amongst adults," the recently resigned Washington, D.C., Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, says in the film.

Among school reformers, parents and educators who I joined to watch the emotional film this week, few disagreed.

"I am frustrated because of the system and the bureaucracy," said Karen Bell of Windsor, who takes her two children to Jamoke Academy, a charter school in Hartford, each day.

"It is very, very hard to watch parents who are unable to fufill their dreams for their children," Ramani Ayer, retired CEO of The Hartford, told me as he left the theater. Ayer leads the governor's Commission on Educational Achievement, which will make recommendations for improving urban schools next week.

The numbers are alarming. Low-income 4th- and 8th-graders in Connecticut are, on average, three years behind other children. Just 6-in-10 low-income students which means city kids graduate from high school on time, if ever. With much of our future workforce coming from Connecticut's cities, this isn't an injustice, it's a coming economic crisis.

"Waiting for Superman" tells the tale of five children, mired in traditional and apparently underperforming public schools, and their heartbreaking quest to get into independent public charter schools. Along the way, the movie, its cute kids and sincere parents skewer unions, ineffective teachers, school bureaucracies and, most of all, our acceptance of profound inequality in public education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the movie's release "a Rosa Parks moment." Outraged teacher unions call "Waiting for Superman" a smear that mischaracterizes them as barriers to change while idealizing the success of charter schools.

What I struggle with is whether we are on the verge of change or just another Hollywood moment about a losing war. Ayer, the retired CEO, thinks we're on the verge because, for the first time, parents, school and business leaders are joining together to demand change. That remains to be seen.

Two candidates for governor, Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Tom Foley, promise to make urban education a priority. Foley, who might be the "Waiting for Superman" candidate, promises more charter schools, more choice for parents and a willingness to fight restrictive teacher union contracts.

Malloy, an experienced negotiator, points to New Haven, which has shown that working with its teacher union including Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president vilified in "Waiting for Superman" can lead to significant change, such as the ability to remove bad teachers, close low-achieving schools and pay more to effective teachers.

Yes, "Waiting for Superman" holds charter schools up as a panacea, when on average they aren't any better than traditional schools. And, yes, blaming schools and ignoring poverty is a simplistic critique. It will most certainly cost more money to overcome the causes of poor student achievement in the cities, which extend from the school into the home.

But the point of the movie isn't that unions are the villains or that if parents could only choose their child's school everything would change.

The point of this powerful film is that we can no longer afford to just drive on by.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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