There’s a new movie coming to town. It’s about education in the United States. Some are saying the stories and ideas in the film apply to Canada too and that we should heed the warnings in it.
Having attended the screening of Waiting for Superman at the Toronto Film Festival, I can attest to the fact that the movie should be in no way a “warning to Canada.” If anything, the film is an indictment of a society without a social safety net, without a public health care system, without support for public education and one that has allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow at an astronomical rate. The film provides not so much a warning to Canada, as an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to live in a country that values social responsibility and believes in (with the usual amount of kvetching) our public institutions like health care and education.
I found the film extraordinarily naïve and simplistic. Like reality TV, which it resembles, it had a competition to provide some sense of suspense, “ordinary” people being followed by film crews who always just happened to be there at moments of high drama, and an endless stretching out of the denouement. The bad guys (the teachers’ unions) were simplistically bad, and the good guys (charter schools and corporate saviours) unimpeachably good. The movie blames schools for all of America’s ills. It makes no mention of the lack of societal supports for poor families nor does it address the fallout of years of tax cuts and the largest public debt on the planet. The film acts as if schools exist in isolation from the realities of American life.
The producer said, in the Q & A after the film, that Canada was “starting to slide.” She didn’t explain her comment, but it is important to note that when compared to 57 other OECD countries, Canadian students rank in the top ten in science, reading and math. Canada has more post secondary graduates than any other country in the world, and we have one of the narrowest gaps between our highest and our lowest performing students.
There is always work to be done to improve education. It is untenable that some students continue to struggle in our education system, and we are not doing enough to help them. But the solution is not to move to the model proposed in this film – bringing in more corporate donors and creating a system of charter schools. The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families. We must do more to ensure that our schools are full of great teachers and that all children, rich and poor, have access to all the supports they need to succeed in school and in life.
In his book, the Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul says we must beware of emotion bereft of content. He says that emotional aspect can obscure reality. Let’s make sure that our ideas about education are not driven by things like films which play to our emotions. Instead, we must scrutinize our public education system constantly and relentlessly because it is not only a key to a bright future for all of our children, but it is, as Saul says, “the key to a democracy where legitimacy lies with the citizen.”