"Waiting for Superman": What it Means for You and Your Child

"Waiting for Superman": What it Means for You and Your Child

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Updated on Apr 24, 2014

Every president, from Johnson to Obama, has made big promises when it comes to “fixing” education in America. And almost every parent, from then until now has asked themselves an essential question—“Is my child getting a good education?” Regardless of neighborhood or income, it’s a concern that keeps parents up at night, and the answer rests at the heart of a national firestorm brewing over education.

Fanning the flames is a controversial documentary, Waiting for Superman, which paints a grim picture of the education system in the United States today. Director and writer Davis Guggenheim, best known for his film An Inconvenient Truth, picks apart the issues holding American school children back; from government bureaucracy, to bad teachers who can’t be fired, to a system that is out of touch with the needs of the global economy.

Waiting for Superman has raised a lot of fear and anger. But many parents describe leaving the theater a bit unclear about the core points the film is trying to make and unsure how to take action in light of their strong emotional response. We’ll get to action at the end of the article. Let’s start by tackling five big issues raised by the film, and explain why they matter to you and your family:

1. American schools face frequent budget cuts, but it’s not all about the money.

According to Waiting for Superman, from 1971 to today, America has gone from spending an average of $4,300 per student to $9,000 per student, (adjusting for inflation). Though money doubled, reading and math scores have flat-lined. And US schools produce lower test scores than many comparable countries despite spending more on education than any other country.

Why you should care: Every American that pays taxes has a vested interest in the school system. There’s a direct link between education and crime. In Pennsylvania, for example, 68% of all prisoners are high school dropouts. The average prison sentence of 4 years costs $132,000. Now, multiply the $9,000 a year spent on a student by 13 years in education, and we’ve spent $117,000. Do the math. Where would you rather put your money?

2. America is an under-educated superpower.

On international tests, American children rank 25th in math and 21st in science, despite the push for greater accountability through No Child Left Behind. This 2002 law pledged that 100% of kids would be reading and doing math at grade level within ten years, but 8 years later the test scores look ominous: only 14% of Mississippi students, 30% of NY students, and 24% of California kids are proficient in math. Nationwide, only 20-34 percent of kids in the United States are currently reading at grade level. What’s more, although America is falling behind in math, our kids are first in confidence.  American students get terrible math scores compared to their international peers, but they think they’re great in math—in fact, they have more confidence in their math skills than students from any other country.

Why you should care: While good self-esteem is important for your child, so are key skills and high expectations. Unfortunately, the expectations being set at many schools in America are extremely low. As a nation, we’ll never compete if we don’t set the bar as high as the countries with which we’re competing globally. And as a parent, you need to be aware of the expectations your school has for its children and, if need be, set your own family goals. Low international rankings on test scores aren’t just embarrassing. They mean that your child’s generation won’t be able to meet industry demands on a global scale.  Right now, America is the world’s largest superpower. But it’s unlikely to remain as strong without an educated work force.

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