Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Ever since I was a child I knew that most American children couldn’t read as well as I could. I do not recollect ever being taught this, but it was somehow common knowledge that in the US, an impoverished education system and lousy testing methods meant that most of my star-spangled peers were way behind me. This, despite America’s reputation as the last of the old-world superpowers.

Waiting for Superman is the new documentary by David Guggenheim, the man behind 2001 fly-on-the-classroom-wall TV doco The First Year and An Inconvenient Truth. In Waiting for Superman Guggenheim revisits the average public schoolroom, which has received increased funding and promises of salvation under successive administrations. In particular, the monumental co-operation between liberal and conservative figures during George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” shake-up. School funding has doubled in recent years, so what are the outcomes? Are American students learning better? The answer is a clear, statistically proven ‘no’. The ability of US kids to read, write and calculate at the appropriate level hit “poor to average” in the seventies and has flatlined ever since. And as impassioned narrator Guggenheim will tell you – flatlining signals educational casualty.

The documentary reviews current educational protocol at federal, state, neighbourhood and classroom levels, and troubling practises are identified in all strata. This overview paints a portrait of probably causes of the poor performance of American students. Statistics abound, which is only natural in a documentary that would otherwise suffer the wrath of its detractors, and they provide sound protective padding. Presented via engaging illustrations, the numbers also serve to make a very complicated issue appear to have a number of simple solutions. The film is book-ended by unbelievably appropriate Superman footage, and peppered with sweet comments from schoolkids, darkly humorous bouts of irony framing the adults, and one or two “Bushisms” from ol’ George.

Expert commentary is provided from charismatic educators and innovators, in particular the charming and pleasantly verbose Geoffrey Canada, and Washington D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, whose dedication to improving the system is so recklessly noble as to verge on professional martyrdom. As the issues identified by Guggenheim are scattered, there is no body of opposition as such, and certainly no commentary condoning current practises, which suggests everybody involved desired change. Curious also is the absence of footage discussing Obama’s approach to education. This might reflect Guggenheim’s wish to judge success only after the presidential term, or perhaps just a desire not to attach Obama’s name to a failing system.

Perhaps the most moving and effective technique employed here is the use of anecdotal evidence. Guggenheim follows five families who are excluded from the opportunity to make use of private schooling due to its expense and must instead select from the public and independent (or charter) schools. Both the kids and their guardians lend valuable insight. In particular, these five children provide proof that nobody cares about quality education more than they do. It is easy to see how a child will give up on academia when surrounded by bad teachers, dropouts, and plummeting test scores. The children may be victims, but they aren’t blind to their losses.

The various solutions discussed in Waiting for Superman are largely concerned with getting rid of problematic teachers, yet the examination of foreign systems is conspicuously absent. Top educational nations include Belgium and Norway. Australia is eighth internationally. America is in the high twenties. It didn’t even cross the minds of US legislators to adopt methods from other countries with high-functioning systems. Australian teachers are required to participate regularly in courses to promote better lessons, classroom management, discipline techniques and first aid. I was surprised that this kind of continued training was not even mentioned in Waiting for Superman. It seems Americans are as introspective as ever.

I saw this film with my mother, who is a classroom teacher at a public Western Australian metropolitan primary school. Afterwards I asked her if she could identify any similarities, or any problems that the Australian public system shared with the US. She told me there were – however, nothing as dramatic. Her major complaint was about standardised evaluation. The tests that generate statistics determining school funding, ranking or performance analysis are flawed. Most teachers who are offered incentives, performance evaluated, or have their students’ performance tested, will manage their class time to focus on test content. This prevents a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary education, and may even encourage children to memorise information rather than focus on understanding it. It was clear from our discussion that America’s problems were advanced well beyond any of Australia’s and therefore whilst union negotiation, testing and increased funding might work here, American’s flatline has proceeded well beyond the realms of anything but a drastic and ruthless solution.

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