Having spent most of my life living in or around DC, I’ve been socialized to know that DC public schools, well, they suck. At age eleven, with tears in my eyes, I asked my parents why were moving from DC to a nearby Maryland suburb. They consoled me coolly explaining that, “the schools are much better. I know it’s tough, but in the long run, you’ll thank us.” Wandering around my parent’s dinner parties, I’d overhear adults tell each other how they would fix DC’s broken public schools. I’d listen to local newscasters rattle off statistics that condemn DC’s youth. I’d catch a glimpse of my dad’s newspaper which chastised the amorphous DC establishment.
Residents of DC, unknowingly, have come to accept its unacceptable schools. Just like the sun will rise, DC will have bad schools. We’ve become desensitized by politicians that make promises they never keep and set goals they never reach. But who can blame us, we don’t know anything different. I suspect lifelong residents of most major cities have similar tacit beliefs about the public school system.
After years of frustration induced apathy, Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee burst onto the scene. An irreverent School Chancellor Rhee invigorated a city that had been lulled to sleep. People loved her, and people hated her. She immediately became the most divisive figure in DC firing objectively bad teachers and the principals that protected them. She closed down failing schools. In doing so, she stirred up the hornets nest; she affronted the teachers’ union. Rhee was cleaning house so that children could get the education they deserved.
Teachers’ unions exist to protect their dues paying members; the quality of education children receive is not of their concern. It is important to differentiate between the union, which inhibits reform at every turn, and teachers who are part of the union. Teachers are incredible public servants who, for the most part, care deeply about the children they feel compelled to educate. Conversely, unions refuse to make any meaningful concessions lest they lose clout. Rhee picked a fight with the neighborhood bully.
After only three years in office, Rhee’s reforms were working; DC’s test scores were rising faster than test scores of any other large metropolitan area. Rhee knew that the reforms she implemented would be her downfall, that the unions would run her out of town. And they did. Union-backed Mayoral candidate Vincent Gray trounced Adrian Fenty, and subsequently Michelle Rhee, in the Democratic primary this year. It seemed the establishment had won, that unions controlled the system.
Back to the status quo, the sun will rise and DC will have bad schools. But maybe, the night is darkest before the dawn, a sentiment believed by Davis Guggenheim. Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore’s an Inconvenient Truth, set his sights upon America’s public schools in his new film, Waiting for Superman. Not only does he walk the audience through the problems inherent in our school system, but he personalizes abstract dropout statistics. The film follows a handful of academically engaged, adorable children who are on track to attend America’s “drop-out factories,” schools where nearly every student is destined to fail.
Waiting for Superman puts faces to the millions of dropouts every year. It is enraging to think that children who attend these schools never really have a chance. Guggenheim’s refrain is that everyone in America is supposed to have a shot; if you work hard enough you’ll succeed. Unfortunately, this comforting axiom could not be farther from the truth—children who are unlucky enough to be born in areas with bad schools will be crippled for life.
Waiting for Superman has the possibility to change the current debate, and it is already succeeding. Everyone and their mother is publishing op-eds about school reform. My lefty friends are beginning to rethink teachers unions and their role in propping up a failing system. After Michelle Rhee’s departure, everyone engaged in the education debate pick-me-up. Thank heaven for Waiting for Superman.