One Wednesday afternoon this summer, 55 young men and women filed into a dark movie theater for a private screening. Sundance this was not. There was no Robert Redford, no Diesel swag. But this audience had one important qualification: sometime recently, they had all dropped out of high school. So for a movie about America's malfunctioning education system, it was an unusually qualified focus group.
Waiting for "Superman" is a new film by Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, a movie that took on another mind-numbingly complex issue and, confounding all logic, grossed $50 million worldwide and changed the way many Americans think about climate change.
In anticipation of Superman's Sept. 24 release, screenings are being held all over the country for elite audiences Bill Gates has become an evangelist for the film and for education activists, including ones who help kids who have dropped out. So it was that Crystal Rojas, 19, sat down in the stadium seating in Chicago to watch a movie that might have been loosely based on her life. She nodded when she saw footage of things she recognized, like teachers reading newspapers in class. She raised her eyebrows when she saw how much America spends per pupil far more than almost every country in the world does.
At the end, her eyes filled with tears. Rojas had long believed that her problems in school were all her fault. In fifth grade, her teacher told her that she wouldn't amount to much. "She said, 'It doesn't matter if you learn. Your future is determined.'" And for a while it seemed as if her teacher had been right. In sixth grade, Rojas tried to transfer to a charter school, but it was full. So she stayed in her neighborhood public school, where only 1 in 5 students was doing math at grade level. Then she went to a vocational high school where, she says, she spent almost three hours a day in a typing class. "I would just go there and feel like I was wasting space. So I thought, Why should I keep coming?" She dropped out two weeks into 10th grade.
Rojas has since earned her GED and is studying business administration at a community college. Her future is not certain, but nor is it lost. Watching the movie, she heard that teacher's voice in her head all over again. And she started to think that maybe there is a problem in America's schools, and that it is bigger than Crystal Rojas.
Waiting for "Superman" is a documentary that follows five kids and their parents as they try to escape their neighborhood public schools for higher-performing public charter schools. The movie serves up a lot of clarifying statistics about the problems facing education reform, explaining how it could be that the U.S. since 1971 has more than doubled the money it spends per pupil yet still trails most other rich nations in science and math scores. But the film succeeds because it also lays out the solutions, something no one could credibly attempt to do until very recently.
Today, several decades into America's long, tedious fight over how to upend the status quo in public education, three remarkable things are happening simultaneously. First, thanks partly to the blunt instruments of No Child Left Behind, we can now track how well individual students are doing from year to year and figure out which schools are working and which are not. Most Americans think testing is a spurious trend; a new TIME poll found that only 1 out of 5 people surveyed felt that testing has had a positive effect in schools. But as the tests get better, we are starting to be able to see in the dark. We can track what works and what doesn't in the classroom, something that had been for all of history a matter of conjecture and hearsay. And while the data isn't perfect, it's far better than any other yardstick we've ever had before.
Second, legions of public schools some charters, some not are succeeding while others flounder. These successful schools are altering fundamentals that were for so long untouchable, by insisting on great teachers, more class time and higher standards. We now know that it is possible to teach every kid, even poor kids with wretched home lives, to read, write and do math and science at respectable levels. In Harlem, low-income African-American students at these schools are performing on par with kids across New York City and the state. And the researchers studying their success have learned that what matters more than anything else in the school is the teacher, the one person in the building whose job has changed the least in the past half-century.