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Review: Waiting for "Superman"

Last night I went to the New York premiere of Waiting for "Superman" (the movie opens in select theaters on Friday). I was excited to attend -- ok, partly because it was my first-ever movie premiere -- but mostly because this is a movie that matters so deeply to Parenting. Yes, it matters because we partnered with the movie's book companion to create our Lesson Plan for Change, but it matters because many of our editors here (like you) have young kids waiting to enter the public school system, or already in it -- and if nothing changes, they might face the same fate as the five kids in the movie, whose chances at getting a good education came down to one thing: pure luck.

The sheer luck-of-the-draw aspect of getting a good education is only one of the things that will leave your head spinning after seeing "Superman". The movie throws out staggering statistics left and right -- dismal reading and math proficiencies (only 33% of 8th graders in Virginia are proficient in math), shocking college readiness deficiencies (66% of students in Colorado), and disheartening high school graduation and dropout rates (47% drop out in Nevada). Get your state's stats on this interactive map. It is impossible to hear these numbers and not feel like something is rotten with the state of our education system.

But it's not the numbers that will tug at your heartstrings -- it's the faces of the five children and their parents. Little Daisy, a fifth-grader with big dreams of becoming a doctor who's headed for an L.A. dropout factory school; Maria, Francisco's mother, fed up with his public school teacher's unresponsiveness to her (multiple) parent-teacher conference requests; Bianca, who couldn't attend kindergarten graduation because her single mother struggled to afford payments to a Catholic school she sends Bianca to, instead of the local public school (I swear I heard someone mutter "disgusting" at the school's refusal to let Bianca attend graduation); Anthony, raised by his grandmother after losing his father to drugs and repeating second grade; and Emily, an eighth-grader terrified of being tracked at her new high school as a low-performing student, and getting a low-grade education to match. All five parents enter their children in a lottery to win a spot at a better school. Some luck out. Some -- heartbreakingly -- don't.

There are so many factors that contribute to the plight of the students, but the one the movie chose to focus on is teachers. The movie's bottom line: Good teachers make good schools. Good teachers can teach twice as much material in a year. Bad teachers teach 50% of the material kids need to learn in a year. But it is nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. The termination process takes years, and often, instead of terminating a teachers, schools in a district will perform "the dance of the lemons" to swap one bad teacher for another -- as if they'll do any better at a new school. If a doctor or a lawyer was that bad at their job, they'd get no business. But a lot of parents are forced to send their kids to public school, with no choice on who they want for their child's teacher -- so they're stuck. Yes, there's definitely an anti-union tone to the movie, but why not single them out? That's the wall innovators like D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee run up against, and the unions are the ones fiercely protecting the crummy teachers. Firing all bad teachers won't instantly fix schools (no one fix will), but keeping them on is unconscionable.

It's not just the bad teachers that need fixing, though. Just as bad teachers can't be fired, really good teachers can't be rewarded because "it's not in the contract.” I fail to see the psychology behind that -- just look at Finland, whose school system consistently ranks as number one. Being a teacher there holds prestige and is far more culturally valued than being a teacher in the U.S. If we want our teachers to do well, we need to treat them well, too.

I would recommend any parent of a child in a public school (or bound for one) see the movie. It gives you a good idea of what you and your kid are up against, and how desperately public school needs reform — and how difficult it will be to get. “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth, did not initially believe he could get people to care about a documentary on education. The CEO of Participant Media, who backed the movie, said last night that global warming is easier to solve than reforming our schools.

In the last few minutes of the movie, a clip is shown where Superman saves a school bus that's careening off a cliff. "Don't worry," says Superman after pulling it to safety. "The children are alright." If only.

Check out the Waiting for "Superman" website on education stats for your state, volunteer and donation links and how to contact your school board and state governor.