Dean A.G. Rud
A.G. Rud

Sponsoring a film series is a bit of an experiment for our college. Based on the first presentation, I predict it will be a success. Our goal is to address educational issues affecting children,  families, schools and communities.

Waiting for Superman” was screened Sunday at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow, launching the three-part series, Rethinking Education, that we’re co-sponsoring with our colleagues at the University of Idaho College of Education.  We had a large crowd, filling the first floor of the theater and part of the balcony. A special thanks to Amy Cox of our development staff and UI faculty member Melissa Saul for organizing the Sunday program.

“Waiting for Superman” revolves around five children whose futures depend upon winning a lottery to attend a charter school.  The discussion that followed Sunday’s showing was led by Cori Mantle-Bromley, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Education. The eight panelists included WSU faculty members Kristin Huggins, who came over from Vancouver, Paula Groves Price, and Xyanthe Neider. Cori asked them to consider some of the ironies of the film as well as their reactions to the portrayals.

Kenworthy marquee advertising 'Waiting for Superman'
Our film series opened in Moscow

Kristin, who has conducted research on professional learning communities, noted shortcomings  in the film, such as a focus upon elementary and middle schools but not high schools, no mention of special needs students, and a concentration on only the good news about charter schools. For example, there was no mention of the corporate funding that helps support many of these schools, money that isn’t available to other public schools.  Xyan spoke about her son and his struggles with schooling and how some parts of the film resonated with her experiences. Paula said that her reaction to the film was powerful and unexpected.  While calling it overly simplistic, she noted that she is the parent of a young child and wants the best for her daughter as do the parents in “Superman.”  (You can see Paula’s response in this YouTube clip.)

My own reaction

I found the film powerful, disturbing, and frankly a mishmash of many narratives and explanations. The recounting of recent school reforms, such as No Child Left Behind and the embattled tenure of Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee, was fascinating. The tale of the triumphs of charter schools ignored studies that point to less stellar achievement and to some of the colossal failures of charters over the past decade. We cannot say unequivocally that public schools are doing a weak job of educating students or charters are one of the best solutions, as was implied by this film.

I was also struck by the sheer insensitivity of the charter selection process, the famous “lottery” held in a public setting as if it were a game show, with triumphant “winners” and many more disconsolate “losers.” This is perhaps the most poignant part of the film – you see the children whose stories you have followed for the past 90 minutes wait expectantly for the roll of the dice. It is profoundly saddening to think that education is reduced to such a spectacle.

Finally, I was dismayed by the drumbeat of emphasis put upon a college education by many in the film. It was not even any post secondary path they trumpeted, it was a “four-year college.”

Certainly many of our children are ill equipped for college, and for those who seek such an education we must do better. But to assert that a bachelor’s degree is necessary for a good life is foolish and biased. I did well in school, and hence became college educated, and now work in a university. But I don’t know much at all about how to take apart a motor, or build a house, or service a broken furnace. I admire those who have these skills, and I know I value them when my car won’t start. Why engage in idolatry about a college education? It is not for everyone, and it is particularly galling to see this emphasized in the film when President Obama is supporting community college degrees and post-secondary training.

More to come

The films and panel discussions in our series are free and open to the public. The other two documentaries will be shown on the WSU campus. “The Lottery” will be screened at 7 p.m. March 9 in Todd Hall 116.  In the words of its creators, the film “uncovers the failures of the traditional public school system and reveals that hundreds of thousands of parents attempt to flee the system every year.”  Kelly Ward, the interim chair of our Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology, will moderate that panel.

I will lead the discussion after “The Race to Nowhere,”  set for 6 p.m. April 14 in the CUB auditorium.  The film features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

We look forward to seeing you there!