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From 'Stand and Deliver' to 'Waiting for Superman': Education in Film

Dec 07, 2010

'Waiting for Superman' is a documentary examining the state of the American public educational system - and it's not a pretty picture. Fictional films about schools and education are generally uplifting, but this nonfiction depiction is sobering. Learn more about how schools and teachers are portrayed in American film.

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Education in American Cinema

A new teacher enters the classroom for the first time. Paper airplanes fly through the air. A student disses the new teacher's style or some other insufferably square aspect of his or her appearance. Jeers follow as students try to rattle the new educator on the quad. . . . But then the teacher earns students' trust and serves as a tough advocate for their education, eventually inspiring everyone to be their best.

This formula is ubiquitous in American film. In Stand and Deliver, a film from 1988, new mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante comes to Garfield High in East Los Angeles to teach mostly underprivileged and disengaged students. By the end of the term, the teacher has students doing calculus. Lean on Me, from 1989, focuses on a New Jersey high school where learning takes a backseat to drug abuse and gang violence. That is, until principal Joe Clark comes along and inspires students to work hard so they can pass state exams. And 1995's Dangerous Minds follows Carlmont High School teaching newbie LouAnne Johnson as she inspires a classroom of underprivileged minority students in East Palo Alto to excel.

Complete with soaring music and passionate speeches about the importance of learning, films about education are typically uplifting. But is Hollywood's rendition of education in America true to life? According to the recently released Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, not by a long shot. Instead, the documentary suggests American public schools are full of systemic problems and checked-out teachers who are failing students at every turn.

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A Different Kind of Film

Waiting for Superman follows the lives of several public school students in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York and other American cities. The film reveals an American education system where students who succeed do so in spite of failures by the school system and staff. Rather than a rah-rah affair for educators, the movie incisively illuminates shortcomings of the current system of education in this country.

The portrait, though, is not entirely one-sided. Rather, Waiting for Superman also highlights teachers doing good work to improve this state of affairs. Geoffrey Canada is an educator who oversees an innovative project in Harlem dedicated to getting neighborhood children into college. Michelle Rhee is chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system who isn't shy about stirring up controversy while improving teacher performance. And there are there educators shown making a difference throughout the country.

Common among the successful educators profiled in the film are passion and innovation. They demonstrate that effectively teaching America's children requires more than stirring speeches found in the movies, but systemic change in our schools and communities that put both educators and students in the best position for success.

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