To the many parents and education reformers lamenting the inexcusable state of public schooling in the United States, the exact cause of the erosion of education in this country has started to seem less like a treatable disease and more like a simple and incontrovertible statement of fact: Kids from poor neighborhoods grow up going to substandard schools, where they become bored, listless and disaffected and drop out after their freshman year of high school. With nothing else to do, they have more kids, who stay in the same rundown neighborhoods and go to the same hopeless schools. The reason, it would seem, that the U.S. school system has fallen so drastically far amongst wealthy nations is the endless cycle of poverty, disillusionment and despair.
But not so fast. In this supremely moving doc, director Davis Guggenheim offers several substantial reasons for our country’s educational morass: the intractability of teachers’ unions, for one, who ensure tenure for nearly every member, thus making them virtually bullet proof, no matter how awful they perform their jobs; the confusing and Byzantine testing scores between state and federal officials; and the brutally unfair disparity between inner city public schools and their equivalents in the suburbs. In order to best demonstrate the tragic consequences of our utterly antiquated education system, Guggenheim focuses on several specific public school kids. Among others, there’s sweet-faced, intelligent Daisy, a young elementary student who dreams of being a surgeon or vet; Anthony, a gentle kid from a tough, parentless background, whose grandmother makes education a top priority; Bianca, a Harlem girl, whose mother has sacrificed to send to parochial school; and Francisco, a wild-haired first grader who is quickly getting bored at his school.
In expertly cutting between the stories of these kids — all of whose parents are attempting to get them into better schools via a daunting lottery system — and experts in the field, Guggenheim demonstrates just how badly even the best of intentions fails to make a dent in the issue. As controversial DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee puts it, “It all becomes about the adults.” Not that the film is without hope. Quite to the contrary, it offers up several remarkable success stories — including the KIP schools, whose mandate includes opening up shop in the poorest and most needy areas of the country and immediately offering up a vastly superior method of teaching; and Geoffrey Canada’s amazingly effective charter school in Harlem — whose methods go far beyond just having a single, charismatic educator. Those schools’ success is dictated almost entirely by having a superior teaching force, a group of professionals whose dedication to improving their kids’ lives is deeply moving. The positivity is altogether necessary, as, in the end, most of the film’s diminutive subjects are denied entry to better schools. Watching the children and their parents twist and squirm at their respective lotteries, the direction of their lives hanging in the balance, is every bit as excruciating as watching news footage of flood or hurricane victims. The difference is, this act of brutal devastation is entirely man-made.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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