5 Years Later and We Are Still Waiting for Superman

By Matthew Lynch

Recently I viewed the documentary, Waiting for Superman, for the umpteenth time, and I noted that almost 5 years after the film’s September 24, 2010 U. S. premiere, the American educational system is still not living up to its potential. Sure, education reform was the phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but after a year most of the fervor and commitment to educational change that was initially exhibited has all but subsided.

The comparisons with other developed countries show that the strongest nation in the world is still falling behind academically. The cost per pupil in the U.S. has soared to five times the level in the 1950s, after adjusting for inflation. With this kind of money being pumped into the system, why are many our school systems of such a low caliber, and further falling behind?

Statistics and common sense born of observation tell us that the biggest crisis in our schools is finding ways to educate students in low-income areas. However, as Waiting for Superman illustrates, our educational problems are not limited to poverty-stricken areas alone. As Lesley Chilcott, producer of the Waiting for Superman put it, “the dirty little secret… is that middle- and upper-class communities are suffering as well. When we talk about U.S. students ranking twenty-fifth in math, we’re not just talking about underserved communities, we’re talking overall.” Yet, despite decades of knowing that these problems exist, little improvements are being made to the system itself. Of course, everyone seemingly wants to improve America’s education system; they just do not seem to know or agree on how to do it.

The American public must believe that educational reform is a top priority issue in these times of severe economic troubles. It is understandable that, in today’s economy, people are primarily concerned about their jobs and putting food on the table. Upgrading education, although important to most, can hold a low priority in the mind of the average American, who is mostly concerned with keeping a roof over their head. The paradox here is that this is precisely the time to make that investment into education. When times are tough in an economy such as ours, workers need to improve their skills to compete effectively in the local (and global) marketplace. The education system is where people turn to acquire these skills.

Furthermore, enhanced skills and technological talents are going to be desperately needed in the future as America continues to struggle towards sustaining a dynamic 21st century labor force. Production is not getting easier and simpler — in fact, it is just the opposite. Along the same lines, workers down the road will need to be able to adapt to technologies that are just now being developed. If American students and workers find themselves in an educational system that cannot fulfill these necessary, required functions because it is sub-par, not only will these individuals and their families find little success in an economy that has left them behind; it will cripple America’s competitiveness.

Waiting for Superman has been criticized as being against teacher’s unions, placing the blame too squarely on the shoulders of educators, and misrepresenting educational statistics. Nevertheless, the film shined a bright spotlight on the harsh reality of our educational system, showing the exodus of middle and upper class children from our public schools; the sadness of the lottery system; and the general hopelessness that some express about our educational system and its future.

One segment of Waiting for Superman illustrates American self-confidence through an image of kids doing daredevil bike stunts, and then crashing. This scene shows, in a metaphorical sense, that while our students seem to have confidence, many do not have the skills to actually succeed.

A year later, Waiting for Superman still serves as a stark reminder of just how bad our educational system has become, and just how ineffective most of our efforts at improving it have been. The American educational system has reached a turning point, a time when things seem at their most dire, and yet many appear to simply sit idly by “Waiting for Superman.

America needs to view this film as a public call to action, where each of us is summoned to be a Superman (or Superwoman, as the case may be), or at least to lend a hand in saving our educational system, perhaps without the flashy heroics and cape. Rather than waiting, we should strive towards getting every educator, educational leader, government official, parent, and citizen to educate themselves about the problems that exist in our educational system, and to work together to fix them.

What is most important is that we understand the deficiencies in our educational system, and strictly forbid placing blame — which rarely serves to encourage cooperation. Rather, we must demonstrate accountability for our situation and fulfill our responsibility to our children. Collectively, we must come together with an understanding that “Superman” is not coming to save our children, and it is up to us to work together to find innovative ways to rise to the challenge of fixing our education system.

The future must be planned for; now. It certainly will not be an overnight process. However, by taking positive, productive steps, one at a time, an enormous amount of ground can be covered in the coming years. If we simply work together, we can restore the U.S. educational system to its former preeminence, and give our children the bright futures they deserve in our great country and aboard. We must become the Super-citizens that we have been waiting for.

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