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Superman running in a race to nowhere

I think it’s indicative of our times that there are two films about education making the rounds of theaters right now. Everyone seems to know that there’s a problem. Many people are sure they have the answer.

The places where we disagree are are simply these:

What is the problem?

What is the solution?

OK, so that should be easy to fix, right? Just kidding.

For background, you can read my review of Waiting for Superman here, and my review of Race to Nowhere here.

The easiest way to think of these films is as Superman, the Republican, and Nowhere, the Democrat. Superman as tough love, Nowhere as nurturing earth parent. Superman as quantifying and Nowhere as qualifying. That would be oversimplifying, but oversimplification is something both films had plenty of.

Here’s where the films agree:

Our schools are really not working. Our students are not happy. We aren’t producing the right sorts of students that are needed. We’re going about it all wrong.

But really, the films don’t even agree on what the problem is. According to Superman, the problem is unions, lack of flexibility, big schools, lack of government oversight, too much government oversight, low expectations, non-involvement of parents, and teachers.

According to Nowhere, the problem is too high expectations, too much homework, too much stress, over-involvement of parents, and cavalier attitudes by administration.

I think that both films are right, in the sense that for any reasonable problem you investigate, you’re going to find plenty of kids who fit the bill. And both films did a great job of finding those kids. Superman found kids who wanted to work harder, who wanted their parents to be involved, who wanted to be asked for more. Nowhere found kids who needed lower expectations, less work, less stress, schools less focused on numbers.

Neither film, true to what’s going on in general in our culture, spent much time talking to the teachers who are on the front lines of all this. Superman simply vilified them; Nowhere showed them as passive enablers of society’s worst attributes.

Both films suffered from what all 2-hour documentaries suffer from: lack of depth and oversimplification of the issues. I got the sense, however, that Superman would not have benefited from a longer length because, frankly, the film-makers were trying NOT to look at the wider picture. They had a narrow thesis and they stuck with it; the film was not nuanced enough to deal with all the exceptions to the rules they were stating.  Nowhere, however, did attempt to do a quick tour of all the issues, and would simply benefit from the format of a PBS series instead of a film that tries to say it all in 2 hours.

What it comes down to is that these two films are a great opening to a much wider conversation. That conversation absolutely must include the undeniable fact that although we have the same rights, we are not all the same. We do not all need the same kinds of schools, the same kinds of instruction, the same levels of stress, the same kinds of teachers… or really the same of pretty much anything.

Superman suffered from the assumption that all neighborhood schools are failing, all charter schools are succeeding, and all kids would do better in the environment they were pushing.

Nowhere raised some very good points, and allowed for a bit more fluidity in the assumptions about what kids need, but it also didn’t speak for all kids, all schools, or all families.

In my wandering about the educational opportunities where we live, trying to place two very different kinds in an environment that suits them, I have seen the whole spectrum. It always comes down to this: For almost every school someone hates, someone else loves it. For almost every teacher who can’t reach your kid, there’s another kid she can reach. For almost every kid who is stressed out about a high level of expectations, there’s another kid who’s suffering because so little is expected of him.

What we need is educational choice. We need to admit that there is not one answer for every child, and we need to open up the possibilities for all children. I actually wrote about my vision for community schooling a few months ago, so I won’t go into details here!

I do hope that these films open up the conversation more: really, Superman and Nowhere could have quite a discussion if they both agreed to leave politics aside and talk about what’s good for all kids. All of us need to stop thinking quite so much about political clout and money, and a whole lot more about how to serve the needs of the students who walk in the doors of our public schools, no matter who they are today and who they will be tomorrow.

Posted in Culture, Education, Films.

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