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Robust Discussion at UEI's Waiting for "Superman" Panel Event

October 6, 2010

On September 21, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute hosted a prescreening of Waiting for “Superman,” the award-winning education documentary from Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth.  Max Palevsky Cinema hosted over 400 University staff, students and faculty, civic leaders, philanthropists, parents, policy makers and concerned community members.

The film elicited strong emotions and questions from audience members, who were able to interact during a post-screening panel discussion with UEI’s John Dewey Director Tim Knowles joined by Tim King, president of Urban Prep Academies, and Professor Charles Payne of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, moderated the panel. 

The panelists tipped their hats to the film for provoking discussion about the dire state of public education in America, and for weaving a compelling and emotional narrative; however the conversation went much further.

Knowles said, “To spark a national discussion, the film needed triumph and tragedy, heroes and villains. It has all that. But the reality is creating great schools depends on sustained effort on multiple fronts—effective teaching, strong leadership, parent engagement, a powerful school culture in an institution that is an interesting place for adults and children to learn and work.

Professor Payne pointed to oversights and inaccuracies, particularly with regard to the attrition rates of successful charter schools. He pointed out in some of the most heralded charter schools a disproportionate number of underperforming students exit. The film makes no mention of the high attrition rates, and mentions once that only 1/5 of charter schools perform better than their peers.

Charter schools, Knowles added were “never meant to be a silver bullet.” They were not created to replace conventional public schools, but were intended to be innovation grounds outside the mainstream restrictions and regulations. Their successful innovations are meant to serve as models of reform for public schools at large, but they only represent “a sliver of the system.”

The panelists applauded the fact that the parents in the film prioritized their children's education and sought out alternatives to underperforming  schools.  There were many such parents in the audience. Two parents with students at the University of Chicago Charter School made comments and asked questions during the rich discussion that lasted until almost 10 p.m.  One cited the school for developing her son into a scholar. The student is a member of the 98 percent of the first graduating class of the Woodlawn campus accepted to 4-year colleges and currently in his first year at Grinnell College.

“But what do you do when you don’t have parents like that?” asked Tim King.  King told the audience that he recently drove an Urban Prep graduate to college. “I’m not telling this story to say, ‘look, I’m a great guy.’ I’m saying, where are his parents? Why am I the one driving him to college? He concluded, “Where do the responsibilities of the school end?”

The importance of the role of parents sparked Robin Steans to ask the panelists what they thought the average viewer could do after watching the film.  The panelists agreed that ambiguity over future action could be the film’s missed opportunity.  However, all concurred that the answer is difficult and unclear. Payne believes viewers should be outraged, but discussed the difficulty the average person will face when making outrage actionable.

Knowles encouraged those who have seen the film to consider being a mentor. “We know the importance of social capital for children; a parent, grandparent, teacher, minister, a mentor. Supporting a child can make all the difference.” Perhaps this is the path the average Clark Kent can travel to become Superman—one child at a time.

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