Distilled down to its core, the film’s message promotes the idea that there is only one thing that has been proven to make a difference in the education of a young person – and that is a great teacher. With great teachers, you get good education; with bad teachers, you won’t. Hence, the film is a call to arms demanding that we begin a new phase where we will glorify and incentivize the teacher. That has to be a good thing. However, if you sensed that there is a BUT coming, you’re right.
As much as I love the film, I wish that its lens had not been focused exclusively inside the box of the schoolhouse. While I support the quest for great teachers, I also regard this prescription with the mathematician’s axiom of “necessary but not sufficient.” I hate to be a skunk at the lawn party, but I can’t shake the feeling that we will now launch into a singular focus on teacher glorification that will ultimately lead us to yet another educational reform dead-end where we will realize the need for yet another ingredient. That ingredient has to do with parents and the family.
The parents of these five children are very impressive people – the best of America – who have grown up amid economic hardship and done everything they can to offer their children the very best opportunity possible. Our heart breaks when Bianca is denied the opportunity to participate in graduation at her Catholic school because her mother is unable to make the final monthly tuition payments. We saw how much she sacrificed to make this education possible for Bianca. If all of the parents in that film are truly representative of the typical American parent today, then I will stand corrected, but my experience says they are not. Furthermore, my visit to schools in China last year showed me that their admirable educational excellence has every bit as much to do with their culture of familial expectations as it does with the quality of their teachers. American families need to be strengthened. Unless that happens, no amount of great teaching will ultimately be able to pick up the slack.
To be sure, Waiting for Superman is an inspiring step in the right direction. The little boy in me still holds out some hope that Superman, in some form, is coming. I’m just unsure as to whether he will turn out to be a teacher or a parent. And if he isn’t coming, his substitute better involve plenty of both.
Onward, Malcolm Gauld