October 12, 2010
Posted: 03:09 PM ET
The following is an essay featured in the companion book to the documentary, from Lesley Chilcott, the producer for the film “Waiting for Superman.”
I’m not a parent, and yet I’ve felt like one ever since I started making Waiting for “Superman.” Until now, I don’t think I’ve read sixteen books on any single subject ever, to say nothing of hundreds of scholarly studies, research reports, articles, interviews, speeches, and blog postings. Practically everyone who has attended school has an opinion about what is right and (more important) what is wrong with our educational system.
But no matter how many reports you read or statistics you study, they all fade into the background once you begin spending time with families who are wrestling with the real-world problems that underlie all the arguments—in many cases, families desperately trying to do everything they can to get their child into the one good school in their neighborhood.
We filmed many families over the course of many months and after a short time the kids whose stories we tell in the film became, in effect, “our kids.” I woke up with them and, with our cameras rolling, saw them go through their morning routines—Emily brushing her teeth, Francisco tucking in his oversized white shirt, and Daisy stuffing her notebooks into the extra large backpack she managed to hoist and carry. The same routine happens every morning in every neighborhood in every city and, like “our kids,” not enough kids are heading off to great schools.
One Monday morning while we were deeply immersed in rearranging colored index cards containing various story ideas on the wall in our edit bay, Davis came into the production office with an amazing idea. He’d just read an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about a local SEED school and the lottery they used to select students for the coming year. The SEED schools are the only urban public boarding schools in the country, designed to provide underserved kids with a nurturing round-the-clock atmosphere. Free from distractions that might exist at home, SEED students live on campus starting in the fifth grade and learn life skills in addition to academic ones.
At the time of the article Davis read, the original SEED school in Washington, D.C., was doing so well that a new school was opening in Baltimore, and the lottery Friedman attended selected the students for this new school. As Friedman put it, this was "no ordinary lottery. The winners didn’t win cash, but a ticket to a better life." Davis thought it could be the story that could tie everything together.
The idea came at the perfect moment for us all as filmmakers. Up to this point, we had a working framework for the range of issues we wanted to cover in the movie. But something was missing—a group of deeply personal stories that everyone could relate to and that would show the very real consequences of our flailing education system.
The lottery, we realized, was the story that would tie everything together as a whole. Talk about ironic—a collection of separate but wonderful schools, all around the country, has figured out what really works in education. But there aren’t enough schools like these or enough spaces for kids to attend. So instead we hold lotteries to decide which kids will be lucky enough to get a decent education. This year in New York City alone, 42,000 kids that applied to charter schools didn’t get in. There were so many lotteries last year when we were filming, in fact, that the papers started calling the day on which many of the lotteries were held Super Tuesday, just like an election—unfortunately, complete with politics. I could not get over this reference to Super Tuesday, and it stuck with me. The moniker seemed like a casual approach, in name, to a profoundly serious problem. It shows, once again, that it’s completely unfair that there are not enough spaces for these kids and a clear indictment of how dysfunctional our system has become.
So we began a nationwide hunt for different types of school lotteries and for a group of families that were desperately trying to get into one of the few good schools available to them. We attended parent information sessions and talked to families as they were in the process of applying for slots at highly-ranked local schools. We recruited admission directors to help us locate kids whose stories we might tell, and we visited school information fairs and chatted with the parents we encountered there. It’s a big step for a family to allow a team of filmmakers to follow them around for several months. The five families that appear in Waiting for “Superman”—as well as others who didn’t end up in the finished film—were extraordinarily brave to let us into their lives. All of them wanted something better for their kids, and I think they hoped that, by allowing us into their lives, they could help shine a light on the fact that all parents want a good education for their kids . . . and they all deserve it.
In the end, after shooting footage at schools in Texas, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina, we had to make some tough choices, limited both by time and budgetary considerations. The communities highlighted in Waiting for “Superman” are in Northern California, East Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But of course the challenges, opportunities, and heartbreaks they represent are replicated in thousands of neighborhoods in all fifty states.
All of us on the filmmaking team quickly became immersed in the lives of our five exemplary families and their long march toward the fateful lotteries, which are generally held in the late spring. We put their pictures up on our wall in the edit bay. As we watched them, they watched us. We knew we had a responsibility to them to get their stories right. I become very attached to all “our kids.” Bianca was only in kindergarten, yet here she was, reading a million miles a minute and narrating her life for us, on camera and unprompted, overly wise for her six years.
Francisco was bright, curious, and could clearly read well, as we saw every time we filmed at his house, yet in school he struggled with reading—we found ourselves wondering and worrying about the disconnect.
Fifth-grader Anthony had the wisdom to tell Davis that what he wanted was to find a good school to go to—and was already talking about the importance of education for his own kids, someday in the far-away future.
Daisy was good at a variety of subjects and talked in clear, graceful English about becoming a doctor, a vet, and a surgeon—yet she was stuck in an English language learner class intended for kids with problems with fluency.
And Emily, the ideal student from a “nice,” middle-class family with all the advantages, loved studying and relished math camp—but just didn’t test well and needed extra help.
Our decision to include Emily in the film was an important one. Most Americans agree that our education system is in crisis, and most realize that the problem is worst in our underserved communities—less affluent, often located in the inner city, disproportionately populated by minority-group members. But the dirty little secret uncovered in our film (and elsewhere) is that our middle- and upper-class communities are suffering as well. When we talk about U.S. students ranking 25th in math, we’re not just talking about underserved communities, we’re talking overall.
This is about all kids in all neighborhoods. The middle-class school campus might be well-groomed, offer great athletics, and provide other attractive features. But when you look behind the superficial structure at many such schools and examine the actual data on student performance, you often find that the top-performing kids are dragging up the overall test scores, masking the mediocrity in which the bottom 75 percent are stuck. And the bottom 75 percent of students in American high schools amounts to about 11 million people. That’s a very big number.
This is one big reason why we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country any more; the majority are coming from other countries. This means we are not only less educated, but less economically competitive—a problem that could have ramifications for decades.
I remember each of the lotteries as if it just happened last week. We ran four cameras at each lottery, so we could follow not only our kids and their families but others as well. Of course, we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, and I struggled to listen to names of “winning” students being called, watching our kids and their families as they grappled with this emotional and somewhat absurd event, and making sure all our cameras were in the right places, while at the same time feeling a knot in my stomach.
Often the tension was almost too much to bear. At one lottery, I wanted to throw the bingo ball cage across the room—it didn’t look to me as if there were enough balls in the cage for each grade. There were simply not enough spaces.
Another time, I watched a lottery official reach into a bin of folded index cards inscribed with individual names in Sharpie pen and accidentally grab two, only to shake one off and give a classroom seat to the student whose card was left in his hand. Whose card did he drop? Was it one of our kids? Did one of our kids just lose their chance at a good education?
The lotteries with computer-generated numbers were no better. Maybe the numbers were larger and the process more technologically advanced than a hand reaching into a bin or basket, but the results were just as arbitrary.
Adding to the tension was the fact that, like sports fans agonizing over a playoff game, we became ridiculously superstitious. I won’t reveal here what happened at the lotteries, but let’s just say that we alternated between crossing our fingers and thinking our cameras could be a talisman for luck, impossible as it was, and thinking we might be a curse, because no matter where we went in the end, not enough kids got in–not even close. The ball bounced the wrong way more often than not. Of course, we knew deep down it wasn’t us either way, it was just the odds. But the odds sucked. And there we were, witnessing heartbreak after heartbreak. The only consolation was the hope that if we shared these horror stories, and they were horror stories, that we might be able to help bring about change.
When I interviewed the parents afterwards, no matter how professional I aimed to be, I couldn’t keep the tears from forming. I know that many of our camera people shot through bleary eyes. And yet we knew we had to be there. The absurdity of our education crisis had to be seen in a new and immediate way. All the damning statistics don’t really resonate until you look at one kid, one parent, and one bingo ball.
There is no reason for this kind of mess in 2010. As journalist Jonathan Alter says in the film, the educational reform battle has reached a new stage, for one simple reason: “We now know what works.” Political dogma and customary ways of thinking must be set aside to provide what’s best for our kids.
There is no more waiting for “Superman.” There is only you and me.
From the book Waiting for Superman: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools edited by Karl Weber. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.
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