Waiting For Superman: Education "statistics" have names

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 3, 2010 12:10 pm

Waiting For Superman, Coming September 24:

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of Waiting For Superman. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.


Comments (5)

  1. Ok, so this movie looks interesting and I will definitely see it, but you have no idea how disappointed I was when I realized it wasn’t a new Superman movie . . . the nerd in me died a little

  2. GM

    Sorry, but this is horribly misleading. Yes, the school system is totally broken and what comes out of it is semi-literate dimwits. But saying that much doesn’t get you anywhere towards understanding the nature of the problem.

    First, the school isn’t some sort of abstract institution independent from society whose function is to take kids in and spit educated persons out. Schools are a reflection of society’s attitude towards knowledge and education. If the curriculum is garbage and it doesn’t contain even 2% of what a kid has to learn over the course of its education in order to be a functional citizen, that’s typically because the predominant society’s attitude is that kids shouldn’t be burdened with too much studies or they will get “damaged” somehow. If the teacher is incompetent and lacks basic integrity when it comes to enforcing the already inadequate educational standards, that’s typically a reflection of his own attitude towards the whole thing, and that teacher doesn’t come from Mars, he comes from that same society that will then blame him for the failure of their kids.

    Second, and you can hear the basics of it even in this short trailer, the vast majority of people approach education with an outright anti-intellectualist attitude. My kids need to get a good education so that they can get a good job later in life. No, your kids need to get a good education so that they learn how to use the gray matter between their ears; jobs are a secondary effect in that equation, and if you elevate them to the top of the importance list, the whole process will fail. Yet, nobody seems to realize this.

    Once knowledge and proper reasoning are valuable for the sake of knowledge and one’s ability to understand the world around him, the problem with crappy school will solve itself automatically, as proper educational standard will be passed and competent teachers will be teaching. But it isn’t going to happen if it is all framed as necessary for the economy, jobs and development.

  3. Where are the movies of public education done right?

  4. ThomasL

    Lab lemming (@3)

    Functioning public schools are rather boring and actually are not much better funded then the failing ones, so there isn’t enough “juice” to make a movie or write a book about. The reality is already known (parents educationtimeinvolvementexpectations and schools that can expel trouble makers are the foundational stones. Education started out as a “right” in the sense that everyone was seen as being capable of basic levels of structured learning, that such structured learning (counting, writing, reading) were and are important to a functioning democracy, and thus all should be “allowed” to attend. It has turned into a “right” like that of dying or thinking (complicated starting point, read the founders or period philosophers to understand the nature of “rights”) – everyone is entitled to it and no one can take it away for any reason (no matter how disruptive, no matter how pointless due to mental developmental issues for example) If the school system “comes down on you” you can hire a lawyer and sue them, which will force them to put the kid somewhere and “teach” them something (likely very expensive), but the end result will be that your kid is kept in school. Add to it the social experiment (which many in here who wine about education are actually part of), where how one thinks about things seems to be even more important than ifwhat one thinks about, and you round out the recipe for failure.

    Everyone involved on every level knows the score – I tried working in it & concluded there was absolutely no point to it…

    GM (@2)

    Not sure you really get education in this country, and why it worked so well for so many years. It was, traditionally, not a “right” but rather a “privilege” type of “right” – I.E., one you were entitled to, but one that could also be easily yanked if you peed on it… Truancy officers and other such laws as attendance and such (the child labor laws were to a very large extent economic, and forcing children to be in school rather than in the fields helped enforce said new laws…) only came about as a result of the “industrializingincorporatingbig businessing” the idea of education. Most of the issues can be traced back less than 100 years, and that is no accident, but rather a “feature” (and if you understand computing at all you will get that pun, I can’t think of a more apt way to put it).

    I went to one of the “successful” public schools. 99% of us went on to college (mostly Ivy League), and to the best of my knowledge that hasn’t changed at all over the course of my lifetime. As almost everyone’s parents had also received at least a bachelors degree, were very, VERY successful economically, were very involved & didn’t tolerate screwing up in school (how do you know who did crappy last semester? See who is off at private school this semester…) it actually isn’t very hard to figure out why so many did so well.

    You better believe higher education was “sold” to us just as any other type of “good”, one that we very dearly wanted to “own”. Yet even though it was so monetized & presented to us as the way to a great job, an awful lot of us seem to have become PhD’s and teachers (teaching at every level imaginable). If it was just about the grey matter between your ears all you need to know is how to read and do math – the rest you could very easily do on your own (and was done in such a way for centuries in fact). One could say the whole fallacy of arguing from authority should be a reminder that no “formal” education is required to use the grey matter between one’s ears…

    You are part of the business of education; unfortunately you fail to realize it and would rather pretend the business is in the way of your work when in fact without the business of it you would have no work…

    I mean really. What would we do with all those PhD’s if we hadn’t conveniently convinced ourselves that EVERYONE needs a college degree? One might ask why & for what (almost everything “requiring” a degree job wise is a farce, almost all could be done with a solid grade school education in fact…). One may also ask themselves just what all those Professors would be doing without so many bothersome students…

  5. @GM

    You two points seem to be somewhat contradictory. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe I just wholly disagree with both of them.

    In your first point, you argue that The School System is different from Education and that, as a social construction, is “a reflection of society’s attitude towards” Education. You also seem to imply that a certain amount of Education is needed to be a “functional citizen” and that the School System only covers about 2% of this minimum, therefore spitting out “semi-literate dimwits” like myself.

    And yet, in your second point, you show that your definition of Education (“using the grey stuff between one’s ears”) is not only a poor metaphor (our neurons never stop “being used”), but is also strikingly different from Society’s, as evidenced in the movie, the mission of nearly every institute of (public?) education in this country (the world?), and in my own experience as a first generation college student. Society wants “functional citizens.” During the past century, as @ThomasL noted, this has meant readiness for the workforce. As far as society’s “minimum” goes, this is it: you have to be able to work. You have to be able to get a job. A “semi-literate dimwit” is a “functional citizen” if they can hold down a job and put food on the table. Once that is accomplished, I am open to dedicating public resources to pushing the standards toward your own (vague, unmeasurable, and therefore unattainable) standard.

    But when the School System (or parts thereof) is not even meeting Society’s expectations of Education (i.e., is doing a poor job of ensuring that every kid has the knowledge resources necessary to pursue economic stability), then I see no point in raising the “importance” of knowledge-for-the-sake-of-knowledge above this.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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