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.

3. There are too many bad teachers in the system, and it’s almost impossible to get rid of them.

No one denies that teaching is a hard gig. But the point made in Superman is this: some teachers are just not meant for the job. In most fields, people who prove they’re incompetent are stripped of their credentials. But teaching, the film says, is the exception. For example, in Illinois, one in every 57 doctors and one in every 97 lawyers lose their license, but only 1 in 2,500 teachers lose their credentials. The reason? Big union contracts that give every teacher tenure after 2 years, regardless of how good they are.

Why you should care: Guggenheim makes the case that teachers unions use tenure to prevent schools from firing bad teachers, and use campaign financing programs to prevent lawmakers from making sweeping reforms to reward good teachers. It’s a scary accusation. Is it true? John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association, takes issue with the claim; he says that tenure protects good teachers. “Does tenure guarantee employment? The answer is no in all states,” Wilson says. Besides, he says, the focus shouldn’t be on how to get rid of teachers, but how to systematically support them to do their job.

4. Charter schools are a great alternative to poor public schools.

Waiting for Superman follows the heartbreaking stories of four kids who feel failed by their local public school and turn to a charter school as their last hope for a quality education. But are charter schools really the panacea the film makes them out to be? A great charter school is a thing to behold. But, only one in five charter schools is producing great results. Even if this wasn’t the case, there aren’t enough charter schools to go around. Rather than seeing charter schools themselves as the cure-all, Charles Saylors, President of the National PTA, says we need to monitor and replicate many of the great ideas and innovations taking place there.

Why you should care: As the film so dramatically illustrates, seeking the best education for your child is your right and responsibility. If your child’s school isn’t cutting the mustard, don’t just sit back. School districts get stronger because of community advocacy, neighborhood outrage, communal strategizing, and, yes, pressure to compete with charter schools. Consider all options. A school is “the best” not only because others say so, but because it works for your child. The best way to ensure that your child is getting a good education is to advocate, says Wilson. “When your child goes to the hospital, you’re immediately the health advocate, and when your child goes to school you have to be the education advocate,” he says. Ask about the key issues, such as class size, access to the arts, teacher evaluations, etc.

5. Tracking kids is unfair and it prevents many students from succeeding.

“Tracking”, or separating kids by academic ability, is common practice in the U.S. But Waiting for Superman puts forth the idea that tracking means kids in the middle and bottom of the spectrum may not be given a fair shake. Tracking began in 1950s America, when 20 percent of graduates went to college, 30 percent went into skilled professions (accountants, managers, and other jobs that didn’t require college degrees), and 50 percent were laborers.  In the 21st century, most decent paying jobs require a college degree, and the practice of tracking, Guggenheim contends, is simply not in keeping with this fact.

Why should you care: Not only is tracking outdated, but the film claims that students are “tracked” based not only on test scores, but also on arbitrary factors such as neatness, obedience, and politeness.  Once students are placed on a  track, they have virtually no chance of moving up, and tracking can begin as early as middle school, before many kids hit their academic stride.

Not everyone will agree with every point made by Waiting for Superman, but it just may be the spark America needs to get a conversation going. Every child deserves a quality education. Here are 9 ways you can help be an advocate for change:

  1. Advocate for Common Core Standards. Right now, every state in the union has its own curriculum and what kids learn in one state is totally different from what they learn in another.  The National Governor’s Association recently released a set of common core standards that would ensure that American students, regardless of their location, would be held to the same bar. “We have kids in our schools that are taking three or four tests a year,” says National PTA President Charles Saylors. “Kids need to take one test, we need to quit teaching to the test, and we need to come up with accountability mechanism that compares an apple to an apple and an orange to an orange.” You can help by demanding world-class standards. Ask your Governor to take the pledge. Check out the Waiting for Superman site, which makes sending a letter easy:  
  2. Investigate How Teachers At Your School are Evaluated, Especially Those Who’ve Had Under 2 Years in the Classroom. Advocate for teacher evaluations at your child’s school. Make sure first-year teachers are provided a mentor, Wilson suggests. And if your child has a rookie teacher, give feedback to the school principal about that teacher’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Fill in the gaps. And emphasize the building blocks. Your child’s school is just one piece of the puzzle—what you do during afterschool hours matters, too. Whether your child is struggling in school, or finding it easy, make sure she has the building blocks to succeed. Your child may be destined for calculus, but if he doesn’t know his math facts cold, he’s going to be slow when it comes to higher math. Don’t depend only on the teacher—do flash cards at home. Set aside time for daily reading. Explore your local library for free literacy coaching programs like www.projectread.org and one-on-one tutoring.
  4. Research all the schools in your area, not just your local one.  You can explore all your options—public, charter, and private with our School Finder tool, which provides test score data, demographic information, parent reviews, and other in-depth info about schools near you.
  5. Get involved at your child’s school, even if it’s not during school hours. Every time you volunteer to help a school, it lifts the burden off teachers and school staff, and shows your child how much you value education. Even if you work full time, there are things you can do to help. Offer to set up computer infrastructure or help adjust kids’ desks so they’re more ergonomic. Plan a beautification project,  plant a garden, monitor the class while a teacher eats lunch, or set up a phone tree. Whether you’re collecting supplies for the class party or visiting the classroom to talk about your job, there is a way for every parent to get involved.
  6. Help make your teacher great. Study after study has shown that the most important factor in a quality education is the person standing at the head of the classroom. Do you have confidence in your child’s teacher? Understand that communication is a two way street. “When a teacher calls home, don’t automatically think the worst,” Saylors says, “Instead, ask the teacher to give you some tips on best practices when it comes to dealing with the problem. Ask, “What have you seen other parents do that would help us in this situation?” And when you’re talking to a teacher, refer to “us”—meaning a parent and teacher working together.” Offer to help out with organizational tasks at home. Less time organizing materials means more teaching time for your child.
  7. Help teachers you’ve never met. If Waiting for Superman left you wanting to help teachers who don’t have the same materials available to those in more affluent school systems, consider going to DonorsChoose.org. You can troll through teacher wish lists from all over America and make a teacher’s dream come true—whether it’s books for a traveling library, or computers for calculus. This is nothing like sending a check into a void. Don’t be surprised if you get a personal thank you note. It happens all the time.
  8. Advocate early. Middle school is the key time for determining if, and in what direction, students get tracked, so pay close attention. Think your child is being unfairly tracked? Advocate for reevaluation…. And don’t wait until high school. If you want to get your child out of the track she’s on, “be proactive,” Saylors says, “Stay in touch with your child’s teachers, and get tutoring as early as possible.”
  9. Set high, and consistent, expectations. Help your child set a daily and weekly schedule for homework and activities and hold him to it. Monitor your child’s daily homework and set daily and weekly goals. Be sure to praise effort and independence, not just great scores.