B.C. teachers gave notice about a pending strike on administrative duties during the last moments of summer holiday. Tasks such as watching playgrounds and meeting with principals may be affected, and wider action is still an option. I watched a great documentary about the American education system recently, and the B.C. teachers strike provided the perfect segue for my column.
Waiting for Superman is not director Davis Guggenheim’s first foray into the world of documentaries. Guggenheim directed the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, and the 2008 rock-doc It Might Get Loud. Those who’ve watched his films know he’s a great storyteller using hard facts and personal stories. Waiting for Superman follows this trend, making this important topic extremely watchable.
In 2001, Guggenheim followed five teachers and their students for a whole school year. Ten years later, he felt guilty enrolling his two children in private school but noted that the public school system was in shambles and he couldn’t justify putting his kids in a second-rate classroom when he could afford the best for them.
Guggenheim’s 2001 project tracked four families who don’t have a choice. The kids are diverse: one little boy is extremely bright but with an uncommitted teacher; another boy with learning disabilities is falling through the cracks; and a five-year-old girl who plans to become a vet.
Guggenheim explains that for each of these kids, the path to success is covered in landmines and deadends. In each neighbourhood there’s only one school with a proven track record, but the competition to get in is fierce. If the kids don’t get into those schools, the alternative is attending schools considered to be “drop-out factories”. These schools are faced with warring state and federal bureaucracies, terrible teachers who don’t care to teach, and teacher unions fighting to maintain teacher tenure’s status quo. As Michelle Rhee, public school chancellor for Washington, D.C., pointed out, there’s a trend of adults putting their own interests and agendas ahead of the needs of students.
While our public school system in British Columbia isn’t facing these problems to the same degree, I never cease to be amazed when I hear about strike notice being dropped the week before classes begin. Parents, teachers, politicians and anyone concerned about the future of the Canadian society should watch Waiting for Superman and consider it as a cautionary tale. Be sure to pick up this movie before you write your angry Letter to the Editor.