By Ann-Marie Adams | @annmarieadams
It was a noble plan: screen the latest film about America’s failing schools and hope to spark meaningful dialogue in Hartford, Connecticut — home of the nation’s widest academic achievement gap.
Last Wednesday at Bow Tie Cinemas in Hartford, that plan failed.
During the almost two-hour screening of the gut-wrenching documentary, Waiting For Superman, the audience winced, sighed and cried as they watched on screen five families struggle for access to quality education for their children—only to see that the odds are against them. The structural racism was illustrated well enough to prompt nation-wide anxieties about losing the gains of the civil rights movement.
In the contemporary moment, the complexity of the fight for quality education is illustrated with the diversity of the protagonists in the film: four are working-class black and Latino. One is white and middle-class. Except for a few announcements in the theater afterward, the audience last week remained reticent about a film that had received plenty of media buzz.
Education advocates will not give up, however. In the coming months, other reform-minded individuals and groups in Connecticut will use this film as a catalyst for conversations about the lack of progress to fix Connecticut’s failing schools and to eliminate the achievement gap, a catch phrase lobbed around to describe the fact that some students’ national test scores are low and others are not; that more than 50 percent of students in some school districts drop out of high school and even fewer go on to four-year colleges.
Education advocates are also mindful that the storyline in Superman is not new. After watching the film, some parents became frustrated. It didn’t take long for them to realize the documentary was an old story repackaged as something new.
When pressed for comments about what they had seen in the film, the audience sat in awkward silence. Minutes later, one woman from Waterbury punctured that silence. And she was blunt.
“I’ve seen The Lottery. Now this,” she said referring to the other documentary, which tells the story of low-income students in the Newark, New Jersey school district entering a lottery to win spots at top performing charter schools. “I’m not going to anymore of these screenings. I’m frustrated that there is still no change. Let’s talk about the resistance out there.”
No one did.
They talked around it, though.
State Rep. Doug McCrory added:
“Let’s deal with the reality here,” he said. “We have studied the problem. And we know the solution.”
But there was no discussion about what exactly the problem is.
And although Davis Guggenheim’s documentary zeroes in on the political underpinnings of America’s public educational system, it presents an ahistorical view of contemporary poor, black and brown students fighting for quality education.
Davis’s provocative documentary presents the story as though those children’s troubled situation popped up in 2010. However, the reform-minded filmmaker concluded that the issue is complex and the powerful teacher’s union is at the crux of the problem. He might be true. But the lingering problem is that the filmmaker puts that problem in a vacuum and apparently has forgotten that past is prologue.
That’s because America has a history of not educating some of its students; that less than 50 years ago, there were vicious verbal and physical attacks on those, like the Little Rock Nine, who tried to integrate schools after the Supreme Court decided in 1954 that separate schools were unequal and therefore unconstitutional; that immediately there was white flight from city schools after some states implemented the first phase of the Brown remedies.
More than 50 years after the Brown decision, Connecticut has New England’s only ongoing school desegregation case because the state is moving with deliberate speed (translation: slow) to enforce court mandated remedies. Plaintiffs in Hartford’s 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill case will return to Court this month for a status conference about the implementation of the court-mandated remedies.
Those remedial efforts—even though it would benefit all students—are moving at glacial speed, mostly because of a strong resistance to regionalism—a true solution that would give children access and choices to quality schools, many argue.
But there’s a larger—and more insidious– issue at play. And it’s also an inconvenient truth: many people think some students cannot learn, especially students who are black and brown. This sentiment is undeniably the classic definition of racism. Embedded in this notion is that these students are intellectually inferior.
And no matter which charter school pops up and produces all college-bound students, intellectual inferiority among these children will persist when they go on to college and enter the workforce. That’s because the idea that some people are inferior is deeply ingrained in the psyche of many white people—and increasingly some black and brown people—that not all students can learn. And there’s nothing soft about this kind of bigotry.
In April 2009 after the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network ran an episode of Where We Live with host John Dankosky about the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Sheff lawsuit, an anonymous commentator posted this on the radio’s website:
“The cognitive abilities of these poor descendants of agri-workers will not increase no matter where you attempt to educate them for the greater part.”
Davis does not address the issues of the kind of race or bigotry displayed by that anonymous commentator, but he chooses instead to focus on the economic implications of this familiar American story about the ongoing struggle for quality education.
In the coming weeks, there will be more forums and debates among liberal whites, who have ideas about how to create a solution for everyone, including the majority of black and brown students in “drop out factories.” This kind of paternalistic behavior in Connecticut continues to foster the belief that only whites can be Superman. The students get that. The adults get it, too. But most of them can only silently oppose this kind of showmanship displayed by top business and civic leaders in the area.
But know this: If Connecticut is to close the achievement gap, it ought to start first with candid dialogue with racially and economically diverse stakeholders. As an education reporter and educator, I’ve been to many of those conversations about education. And I have yet to see those candid conversations in all the forums I’ve been to in the last decade. Feeble attempts at dialogue will not effect change, nor create an environment for anyone to boldly “speak truth to power.” It’s going to take many current leaders with political will to speak and act boldly.
And while we wait for individuals already in key positions to act decisively, Connecticut’s children continue to wait for Superman.
Ann-Marie Adams is a Ph.D. Candidate at Howard University and is writing her dissertation about the state's 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation lawsuit and the full arc of the African-American experience in Connecticut from colonial period to the twentieth century.